Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognise the Republican Party today, write Fergus Finlay
One of my two greatest political heroes outside Ireland is Abraham Lincoln (the other is Willi Brandt, but that’s a different story). Lincoln is a hero because of what he did, but much more because of who he was. I have a bookshelf at home of Lincoln biographies, and the essence of the man shines out from all of them.
Humble, honest, endearing, modest, he was a man who endured great pain throughout his life. He was president less than a year, and in the middle of a great war, when his son Willie died. Willie was only 11, and his death broke Lincoln’s heart. But mourning was impossible for him. A day or two after Willie’s death, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederacy. Even as Willie lay dying, news of a great battle came through to Washington – Ulysses S Grant’s first victory as Lincoln’s general.
Lincoln’s greatness, of course, rests on the preservation of the Union, and above all on the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that declared every single one of the three million slaves in America would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free”.
Lincoln was of course the first effective leader of the US Republican Party, its second presidential candidate and its first and greatest president. The party that chose him had as its founding motto, ‘free labour, free land, free men’.
Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognise the Republican Party today. The party he inspired to preserve the Union and end slavery is still, in its own eyes, the party of freedom. But it defines freedom in a completely different way, and for generations now it has celebrated and embodied the freedom of capital and wealth above all else.
In July this year, in Cleveland Ohio, the Republican Party will complete the most extraordinary transition in political history, when it chooses Donald Trump as its effective leader, and as the direct successor to Abraham Lincoln. It is hard to imagine anyone less like Lincoln in every conceivable respect.
The party that freed the slaves has now chosen someone who wants to brand every foreigner – especially those with a different skin colour or religion – as a threat to America. President Lincoln ended his first inaugural address, at a time when civil war was imminent, by talking about the mystic chords of memory that would swell the chorus of the Union when they were once again touched by the better angels of our nature. At the end of that war he set himself the primary task of binding up the nation’s wounds, “with malice toward none, with charity for all” … He has now been replaced by a man who has promised, again and again, to build a giant wall between his country and Mexico. He has been replaced by a man who has sneered at people with disabilities, who has demeaned and belittled women, who has glorified in wealth and ostentation, who has encouraged his supporters to beat up anyone who disagrees with them.
There is nothing comic about Donald Trump, despite the fact that he’s a clown. He’s dangerous and he has the potential to do immense damage to the entire world.
Because of my lifelong fascination with American politics, I’ve followed Donald Trump for years. Like everyone else, it never dawned on me that he could get to where he is now, with a foot inside the gate of the White House. But he’s there.
The only good news is that, unless something goes terribly wrong, he is up against a formidable candidate in the person of Hilary Clinton. And the demographics of this election are entirely against Donald Trump. When national opinion polls gave Mitt Romney a better than even chance in the last US election – and even after Barack Obama heavily lost the first televised debate with Romney, the key Democratic strategists knew that the campaign they had run would ensure that their votes would come out in all the critical states.
In the end, what looked from the outside like a close race was in fact a landslide. The margin in the popular vote was only 4% in Obama’s favour, but because of the work done in key states, and the demographic differences, President Obama, whose place in history as an outstanding president is surely secure, won nearly 50% more of the electoral college than Romney did.
Right now, there isn’t a single reason to believe that the result won’t be exactly the same this time. But more than any previous election in American history (and that’s saying something) this election will be fuelled by hate.
America is more divided now than it has ever been. It’s divided by colour, by class, by inequality, even by faith. That division has been fomented by politics since the day Barack Obama was elected — there is a substantial number of people of influence in America that will not allow themselves to be governed by a black man. And there is a large, struggling class of people in the States who blame Washington for every aspect of their struggle.
Donald Trump has fed on all that. More than that, he has fanned the flames of hatred and bigotry at every opportunity, and hopes to ride a sea of hate into the White House. By the time he gets there, if he gets there, he will have made so many wild commitments, attacked so many people, that he will be utterly unable to control the forces he has unleashed, even if he wants to. The dangers of a Trump presidency, for all those reasons, are immense. They ought to make the whole world shudder.
And now, apparently, Donald Trump is coming to Ireland (again). What are we supposed to do?
Every bone in my body says we should protest, that we should do whatever is possible within the law to tell him that his views, his fomenting of hatred, aren’t welcome here.
But that’s exactly what Donald Trump thrives on. You only have to watch any of the countless videos featuring Trump’s reaction to protestors to know that not only does he love the notoriety that protest brings, he uses it constantly to whip up his own supporters to an even more visceral passion.
Don’t give him that. If he does come, ignore him.
Of course there are all sorts of groups already planning to get as much notice as they can for themselves by trying to ensure that they’re in the vanguard of protest against Trump. We’ll probably have to spend hundreds of thousands of euros, and a million Garda hours, to mount some massive security operation to get him safely off the island. What a waste of time and effort that will be.
If you do have to protest, remember this. The one thing Donald Trump can’t understand is dignity. The most effective form of protest, the only thing that would really wound him, is to stand with your back to him on whatever route he chooses to travel.
Tell him that he and his ideas aren’t wanted, by all means, but do it silently, peacefully, and in the most dignified way possible. Show him the contempt he deserves – don’t give him the attention he craves.
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