New Conservatism: Lincoln and Trump

When discussing the history of the Republican Party, the most prominent and perhaps influential figure that is brought up is the inaugural president of the party itself, Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president and the 45th president of the United States may not share many of the same political views, but the state of the country and the political climate at the time of both of their elections share a number of undeniable similarities. Because of these similarities, I believe the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump can provide us with an interesting perspective on the current state of the Republican Party.

In order to convey just how similar of a state of the Union Lincoln and Trump shared, I would like to provide two quotes from an article[1] published in the Harvard Business Review in order to detail some issues the country faced when Lincoln was ascending the political ranks.

“Except for slavery, the subject of trade and tariff levels was the most regionally divisive topic in American politics during the nineteenth century”

Sound familiar? What about this quote, highlighting the economic divide among Americans?

“Protests also arose over widening income inequality, as some sectors of the economy expanded much faster than others, and those who invested or worked in the fastest-growing areas or industries reaped large gains”

Along with the rest of the developed world, America was experiencing a time of increased economic activity, both domestically and internationally. The number of workers in factories increased as industrialization took off, leaving self-employed citizens and small businesses hindered by the mass-production of factories in the North. The completion of railroads also made it easier for factories to ship their goods across the country, changing the nature of the US economy from a fragmented, state-by-state system to a more nationally connected system. The financial panics of 1819, 1837, and 1857 also caused “sharp increases in unemployment, large numbers of bankruptcies, and farm foreclosures, and frequent runs on banks”[1], furthering the divide between the agricultural South and industrial North.

Lincoln lived in a period of economic expansion and all of the benefits and conflicts that it brought. Today, we can find many parallels to the nineteenth century within our own economic system. Like Lincoln, Donald Trump inherited the presidency at a time of globalization, meaning the world was becoming more economically integrated. However, Trump’s response to this phenomena has been much different than that of Lincoln.

In response to American worries over globalization, Lincoln and his Republicans presented a set of principles that they believed would help the country benefit from the practice. These included steps to “facilitate the upward mobility of low- and middle-income groups…by increasing their opportunity to own property and establish businesses” as well as to 'Affirm a role of government…to support the economic and technological changes that emerge from the dynamics of the free enterprise system”. Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln and the Republicans of the mid-1800s believed they should “emphasize the good of the national economy over regional interests”.[1]

The Republican party of today has a much more different approach to issues brought about by globalization than their historical counterparts. According to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, “more than two-thirds of the tax cuts” proposed by the GOP and Trump “would go to the richest Americans in 2018”[2]. Instead of working to support and increase the opportunities of middle class Americans like the Republicans of Lincoln’s presidency, today’s Republican party works to promote the interests of the wealthiest citizens. Trump has stated numerous times how great his tax plan is for middle class Americans and how the plan is “not good”[3] for wealthy americans like him, but under the framework wealthy Americans would see their incomes rise by “an average of 4.3 percent”, while middle-income Americans would only see a rise of 0.8 percent[2].

Aside from steering away from Lincoln’s original principle of supporting low- and middle-income Americans, modern day Republicans under Trump also differ from the original party by prioritising regional interests over national ones. Lincoln and his Republican contemporaries believed the best way to handle the changing economy of their time was to “Emphasize the good of the national economy over regional interests”. While globalization can be a word that incites unease in many working-class Americans, it is, overall, good for the American economy. This would lead me to believe that, if the Republican Party of Lincoln’s presidency were to be present in the modern day, they would not only disagree with the modern GOP platform, they would be diametrically opposed to it.