Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln shared more than whiteness, Y chromosomes, party affiliation, and above average height and incomes.
Both won the Electoral College handily despite decisively losing the popular vote. As a result, both faced the challenge of governing a deeply divided country comprised mostly of people who initially loathed them.
Lincoln and Trump each caught a lot of flak for falsehoods and flip-flops.
Notwithstanding the “Honest Abe” label, the 16th president was a fairly typical politician who kept most of his promises, but broke others as his positions evolved over time. Lincoln’s achievements — and his martyrdom— caused most to forgive or forget his earlier lapses.
By contrast, Trump is a remarkably atypical politician. Consistently inconsistent, he breaks more promises than he keeps. Less than a year in, Trump has already established himself as the most chronically untruthful man ever to occupy the Oval Office — no mean feat when your predecessors include champion liars like Tricky Dick and Slick Willie. Unfazed, Trump’s followers forgive, forget, or flatly deny his fibs and flip-flops. They remain unfailingly faithful because their chieftain affirms tribal loyalties and enmities. Perversely, Trumpsters view his political impotence as evidence of virtue, and value above all his power as a communicator—specifically, his unerring gift for offending the people they most despise.
Lincoln and Trump both broke with tradition when it came to political speech. Both startled their contemporaries by speaking plainly and concisely, driving straight to the point.
In the 19th century, oratory was high art. Audiences expected politicians to entertain for hours on end with eloquent stemwinders. Lincoln could do that when necessary, but he preferred short, clear speeches. His radical brevity at Gettysburg shocked the audience and struck some as disrespectful to the slain soldiers.
Similarly, Trump’s bluntness — at the microphone and online — is refashioning political discourse in our own day.
To illustrate the continuing evolution of presidential communication, the charts below compare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with a selection of Trump’s Tweets from the same week, more than 150 years later: