Sitting inside the cavernous Lincoln Memorial on Sunday for Fox News’s virtual town hall, President Donald Trump appeared to draw inspiration from his surroundings when asked about why he uses divisive language and dodges questions during White House coronavirus briefings.
“I am greeted with a hostile press, the likes of which no president has ever seen. The closest would be that gentleman right up there,” Trump said from his perch on a high-backed stool, pointing at the imposing marble statue of martyred president Abraham Lincoln in the background. Lincoln was assassinated in April, 1865.
“They always said, ‘Lincoln, nobody got treated worse than Lincoln,'” Trump continued. “I believe I am treated worse.”
Trump’s invocation of Lincoln was prompted by a pointed question from a retired nurse and elementary school guidance counselor who began her comments by praising Trump for his “great dedication to our country.”
“The question I have is about your manner of presentation,” the woman said in a video clip broadcast during the town hall. “Why do you use descriptive words that could be classified as bullying and why do you not directly answer the questions asked by the press, but instead speak of past successes and generally ramble?”
She went on to urge Trump to “let go of those behaviors that are turning people away from you.”
“The USA needs you,” she said. “Please hold on to your wonderful attributes that make you our great leader and let go other characteristics that do not serve you.”
When the camera cut back to Trump, a hint of a smile played on his lips. He did not dispute the premise of the question, about bullying and boasting.
“I’m not sure, but I think I like that question,” he said, his grin widening. “I appreciate it.”
Then Trump’s mood seemed to shift. His gaze turned steely and the smile vanished as he name-dropped Lincoln and launched into a familiar script: criticizing journalists for asking him “disgraceful” questions at the briefings and suggesting that a majority of the media “might as well be in the Democrat party.”
“I feel that if I was kind to them, I’d be walked off the stage,” Trump said. “They come at you with the most horrible, horrendous, biased questions.”
Though the town hall lasted for more than an hour, with Trump fielding a wide range of questions about his administration’s coronavirus response, his comment about Lincoln emerged as one of the most talked about moments of the night. By early Monday, “Lincoln” and “Lincoln Memorial” were still trending on Twitter. Some critics of Trump interpreted him to be likening his situation to the martyrdom of one of the nation’s most revered leaders and rushed to ridicule him.
As one of the few leaders admired by both parties, Lincoln’s name has been used and/or abused by every president and presidential candidate since. Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who once cited the 16th president known as “Honest Abe” to justify politicians being “two-faced.”
Sunday also wasn’t the first time Trump has compared himself to Lincoln and specifically to the treatment of Lincoln by the media of the era.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump and his base have turned to Lincoln for superlatives about the Trump presidency, ranging from general likability to the support of African Americans. The comparison, as The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten wrote, is largely expected given that Trump once said, “Nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president.”
In 2018, for example, Trump tweeted that he had the “highest Poll Numbers in the history of the Republican Party,” adding, “That includes Honest Abe Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.” Trump did not name the poll he was citing and many pointed out that presidential polling did not begin until decades after Lincoln’s death.
A survey conducted in November 2019 by the Economist magazine and the polling firm YouGov.com, found that 53 percent of Republican respondents that Trump was a better president than Lincoln.
A recent poll of historians, on the other hand, ranked Lincoln in the top five of all U.S. presidents with Trump coming in at 42nd, according to findings from the Siena College Research Institute.
Trump has almost nothing in common with Lincoln, apart from Lincoln having his own struggles with the media.
“No president ever cracked down on the press more than Abraham Lincoln did,” Harold Holzer, author of “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion,” told the Springfield, Ill., State Journal-Register in 2017. Lincoln shut down several newspapers during the Civil War, accusing them of publishing treasonous statements.
Trump has called the news media “the enemy of the people” and has come under fire for banning reporters from events and suspending press passes following contentious exchanges.
Holzer, a prominent Lincoln scholar, noted that the 16th president “followed the Republican press with the same intensity with which Donald Trump watches Fox News and Breitbart,” and would manipulate news coverage with leaked stories while currying favor with editors and releasing private letters to the media.
“Not that I like Donald Trump’s tweets particularly, but his tweets are similarly revolutionary in that they bypass traditional media, and then traditional media is obliged to cover the tweets just like they had to cover Lincoln’s public letters,” Holzer said, according to the Journal-Register. “You have to give both of these people credit where credit is due, and that is in mastering the art of communication.”
On the subject of Lincoln, Trump appears to have been influenced by, among others, Newt Gingrich.
In one tweet from January 2019, Trump quoted Gingrich, noting that the former Republican House speaker “just stated that there has been no president since Abraham Lincoln who has been treated worse or more unfairly by the media than your favorite President, me!”
A few days later, Gingrich published a column in Newsweek drawing the same comparison between Trump and Lincoln and included several quotes from prominent newspapers disparaging the 16th president.
“I called President Trump and told him no president since Abraham Lincoln had faced the kind of unending bias and hostility that he is living through,” Gingrich wrote.
Trump has since seemed to adopt that talking point, but with a slight adjustment.
“Abraham Lincoln was treated supposedly very badly,” Trump told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June last year. “But nobody’s been treated badly like me.”
On Sunday, with Lincoln’s likeness looming over his head, Trump repeated that assertion while defending his approach to handling reporters at the coronavirus briefings.
“Nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” he said. “I really appreciate the question and I very much appreciate the sentiment behind the question, but I’m standing up there and instead of asking me a normal question, the level of anger and hatred, I’ll look at them, I’ll say, ‘What’s your problem?'”