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Commentary: Trump is no Jefferson, Lincoln

In a recent “letter to the editor” Trump supporter Stephen Mark Bernstein asks “what if in two years or so we found that political scientists, academia, pollsters and pundits decided that President Trump was ranked right up there just behind Abe Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson? What would Trump haters do? Would you go to Washington, D.C. and drown yourselves in the Potomac River, dive off the top of the Washington Monument?”

I was initially tempted to dismiss this letter as just one more example of Trump-style “sore winner” rhetoric but I like American history and the sheer audacity of comparing Donald Trump to Jefferson and Lincoln galls me.

Assuming Bernstein supports Trump for reasons more substantive than to taunt liberals, there must be something in Trump’s character and/or accomplishments he believes would predict success as President. Perhaps a brief comparison is in order.

Since Trump hasn’t yet been inaugurated we can’t compare his prospective presidency to Jefferson’s or Lincoln’s but we can fairly compare his life accomplishments and record to date to accomplishments of these two giants before and after they were president.

The inscription on Jefferson’s gravestone at Monticello reads:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Author of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia”

So, as a young man Jefferson – who served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809 — penned one of the most important and eloquent documents of our country. In contrast Trump takes credit for writing “The Art of the Deal” as a young man and even said it was one of his proudest achievements. The book was actually written by Tony Schwartz who has said in interviews he now regrets writing it and has said he believes Trump is dangerously unfit for office.

In 1819, after his Presidency, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia at Charlottesville which is still one of our most prestigious public universities. In contrast Trump peddled a phony real estate seminar that he called “Trump University” to rip off unsuspecting participants and agreed to a $20 million settlement to compensate his victims.

Finally, in 1877 Jefferson wrote the pioneering “Statute of Virginia for religious freedom” which was adopted by the Virginia Legislature in 1887. This Statute became the basis for the first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which firmly establishes religious freedom as one of our founding principles. In contrast Trump has called for a total ban on immigrants and visitors based on religion and had throughout his campaign stoked religious bigotry

Then there’s Lincoln. The Illinois Republican Party nominated him for the office of the Senate after his milestone “house divided” speech against slavery. During that 1858 senate campaign Lincoln’s debate performances with opponent Steven Douglas became a model for American political debates. These debates are widely admired for how Lincoln used reason and logic, civility and respect, grace and humor and a detailed command of facts to score points. In contrast the debates in which Trump participated during the 2016 campaign season quickly deteriorated to petty name calling, mudslinging, and grand-standing. During the general election debates he stalked his opponent, called Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.” Trump later threatened if elected to abuse his presidential powers to put Clinton in jail.

Lincoln was an ambitious and effective politician who still managed to courageously adhere to strong convictions. At great political cost he successfully defended an indigent accused of murder because he believed it was his duty as an attorney. In contrast Trump shamefully exploited the fact that Clinton was appointed by the court to serve in a similar capacity.

Lincoln started his ascent to the presidency by opposing slavery. Trump started his political career by stoking racial hatred by promoting a bogus theory that our first African American President wasn’t a natural born American citizen.

So Mr. Bernstein, if past performance is a good predictor of future performance perhaps you need to lower your expectations. Your visions of Trump on Mt. Rushmore and suicidal liberals jumping off bridges may be premature. Based on Trump’s performance to date, it’s more realistic to hope that the Trump Administration ends without a nuclear holocaust and our international credibility doesn’t fall below North Korea’s.

Stoll is a retired city planner who lives in Austin.

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