In 1860, tensions within the United States were elevated to their highest levels in history when an anti-slavery lawyer from Illinois won the Republican nomination for presidency. Southerners were outraged at the nerve of Republicans to nominate this “Black Republican,” and many states even refused to include him on their ballots. This Republican won only a 40% plurality of the vote, but nevertheless collected an electoral majority to win the election.
Fearing further encroachments on slavery and states’ rights, the South Carolina legislature planned a meeting to discuss secession as soon as election results were published. About a month after the election, the South Carolina legislature unanimously voted to secede. Before this Republican was even inaugurated, seven southern states had seceded from the Union, pre-empting any policy decisions this new president might enact. The unnamed Republican was, of course, Abraham Lincoln.
You may be wondering why I am recounting history that most Americans are taught in elementary school. The answer is that this election most closely mirrors the current tension and division following the nomination and election of President Trump, especially in terms of the wide swaths of people who wholeheartedly rejected every political aspect of the president before he was even inaugurated. Prior to this election cycle, I never would have imagined seeing so many people use the hashtag #notmypresident and vow to resist the incoming president on every issue before he had any power.
For all the differences between 1860 and today, the attitudes of Southern Democrats and Trump detractors are really not much different. By seceding, Southern Democrats chose the nuclear option, rejecting Lincoln politically and personally on every issue before even knowing how he would act on any issues. Vowing to “do everything we can to stop Trump and his extreme agenda” before any elements of his “extreme agenda” have been officially presented from the White House is equally nonsensical.
I can already hear the cries of outrage to my analogy. “How can you say that? Lincoln ended the moral abomination of slavery, while Trump is a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, etc.?” Many would contend that Lincoln was on the right side of history, while Trump is not.
There are two points that I would like to highlight in response to this claim.
First, Trump has done very little politically to warrant the vast amounts of hate. He has only issued a half dozen executive orders, and he has not signed or vetoed any bills or altered our relations with other nations to this point. Of course, Trump has nominated his cabinet appointees, but the protests and rejection of him as “not my president” began the day he was elected.
Does this not sound familiar? Just as the southerners refused to wait and see what Lincoln actually proposed, many Trump detractors have jumped down the same path of rejecting logic and reason. No one knows whether Trump will actually build a wall or ban Muslim immigration to the US; in fact, given more recent comments, it is highly unlikely that he will. Lincoln, for example, did not endeavor to take action against slavery in the existing southern states, yet these southerners still chose the “nuclear option” without even knowing their situation under Lincoln.
If Trump takes action which you oppose, then by all means the criticisms are fair, but to do so before he even has the opportunity denigrates our nation’s highest office.
Second, the President is different from the person. The obvious response to my first point is that Trump has made several distasteful remarks about various groups and individuals, and thus should be rejected. I don’t disagree with the analysis of the remarks, but I do think that focusing on these comments holds little value.
I propose that all Americans, whether Trump’s most ardent supporters or hardened detractors, give him a chance before rendering a final judgment.
Ultimately, every president should be judged based on how well they protect and promote the well-being of the United States. This goal supersedes all others for the president, and is accomplished through action, not off-handed or campaign remarks. Being a “good person” is a nice addition but is far from a prerequisite for accomplishing the presidential mission I’ve described. Trump’s past comments do not limit his future policy options, especially as he has displayed a tendency to reverse course on his word.
Again in 1860, the Southerners read excerpts about Lincoln’s opinion of slavery, and automatically assumed that he would impose these views on the states. However, it’s quite possible, even likely, that Lincoln would have done much less to end or even limit slavery without the secession of the states before he even took office. Reducing Lincoln down to his quotes in the highly publicized debates with Stephen Douglas, for example, would have been unfair to Lincoln and how he would have acted in certain situations.
Instead, I propose that all Americans, whether Trump’s most ardent supporters or hardened detractors, give him a chance before rendering a final judgment. Of course, we are all welcome to and should form opinions on various policies and issues as they come to light. But to automatically deem Trump a horrible president, or a step back to the 1950s, is unwarranted, as he has been in office all of one week in a four year term. Even if you disagree with everything he has done since winning the election, there is no reason that you will disagree with Trump on every single future issue.
It is important, even beneficial, that those opposed to Trump approach his presidency with an open mind for two reasons. First, presidents often take different actions from what they “promised,” sometimes ignoring campaign issues or focusing on issues on which they did not campaign. For example, President Obama made immigration reform his signature issue after winning re-election in 2012, despite portraying it as a minor issue in his campaign. Even during the primaries, Trump may have privately backed away from his commitment to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Similarly, Trump’s UN nominee, Nikki Haley, stated that the administration would not pursue a Muslim registry or a ban on Muslim immigration, which Trump had initially proposed.
Especially on contentious issues, we really have no idea how the Trump administration will proceed. Even if campaign rhetoric were an accurate predictor of presidential action on every issue, Trump has contradicted himself numerous times on several issues. Even Trump supporters know what they would like him to do, but are uncertain to what extent he will uphold his campaign promises. Until such policies are actually proposed and implemented, it makes so little sense to form definitive judgment of Trump.
Secondly, Democrats in particular should have an open mind about Trump because he is extremely moderate, if not liberal, on several important issues. Already, Trump has withdrawn from the TPP and scheduled meetings to renegotiate NAFTA, which was a key campaign issue for Bernie Sanders. Trump has also attacked defense spending, particularly the F-35 program, and his administration is close to renegotiating the contract with Lockheed Martin. Further, Trump is the only Republican President or nominee to ever publically express support for LGBT groups, and the Log Cabin Republicans referred to Trump as the “most pro-LGBT presidential nominee” when endorsing his candidacy. These issues are far from an exhaustive list of the common positions that President Trump shares with many Democrats.
Is it not logical for Democrats to open a dialogue with Trump in order to work together on these issues? To oppose Trump on one or several issues does not necessitate fighting him on all issues. There is far more to be gained for both sides by keeping an open mind and finding a common ground than digging in the battlements.
Giving Trump a chance is not equivalent to blindly throwing support behind our new president. One should be very critical of various aspects of Trump’s past, both from a policy and ideological perspective. As with all presidents, Republicans must hold the president to account in terms of whether his policies and actions align with the conservative ideology. When Americans disapprove of something the president says or does, they should not be too shy to express it.
Returning to the initial analogy to the election of 1860, the southern states literally tore the country apart by rashly rejecting the president-elect without any concrete basis. The stakes may not be on the level of a civil war today, but repeating this rejection will only serve to inflame tensions and reduce productivity on all issues, regardless of ideology. Blindly vowing to reject Trump, or planning secession from the day of Lincoln’s election, is the easy way out. Solving problems requires us to engage across party and ideological lines, not crawl behind battlements and hurl insults.
Before anyone draws any conclusions, let’s engage in the political process, make our views known, and see how Trump and his administration respond to challenges.