Since this is the 4th of July weekend, I pulled a copy of “Masterpieces of American Literature,” published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1891, off my bookshelf about an hour ago. I once bought it for 50 cents at an estate sale, and have found interesting things in it from time to time. I wanted to see what insights it would offer me this evening, so I started paging through its contents.
I came upon an essay written by James Russell Lowell for The North American Review in January of 1864. For some people, anything written that long ago has nothing to say to them. A world without the internet, or even indoor plumbing, holds nothing of interest to those who think that the 20th century was a long time ago. But the historian I’ve always tried to be takes the opposite approach. As Patrick Henry once said, “I know of know way to judge the future, but by the experiences of the past.” And 1864 certainly qualifies on this front.
Lowell was an influential poet and an abolitionist, and his writings received considerable attention at the time. Something that he wrote, in the midst of a lengthy election-year defense of President Lincoln, made me realize what a horrible candidate–and person–Donald Trump truly is.
In describing Lincoln, Lowell wrote that “he has always addressed the intelligence of men, never their prejudice, their passion, or their ignorance.”
I stopped when I read this, because Donald Trump’s appeal seems rooted in a continuing appeal to all three elements. The historic stereotypes about Jews and money seem to be on full display in the image above. And if replacing the image of a six-pointed star with a circle instead is all it takes for Trump to avoid responsibility for this image, that will be the most stunning example yet of what Trump has been allowed to get away with in this campaign.
How about passion? Consistently referring to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” instead is about as low as it gets on this front. People don’t want crooked politicians, in any form or fashion, and attempting to use this term to create an automatic, unthinking association to his opponent is a manipulation of people’s passions about politicians.
The third element Lowell refers to is ignorance. Is Hillary the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever”? How would that ever be quantified or proven? The point is there’s no desire to do so. Trump says it, so it must be true. That’s about as ignorant as it gets.
For James Russell Lowell, who lived during Lincoln’s time as president, there were some appeals that simply weren’t made. And we continue to love Lincoln for exactly the reasons that Lowell described. So when Donald Trump–or any of his supporters–attempts to lay claim to Lincoln’s political party as his own, his routine appeals to prejudice, passion, and ignorance must be pointed out. He’s no Lincoln, as this affair makes perfectly clear.