(Note: I was hoping to run this piece as a Quick Hit Friday last week, but I figured a three–post week was all you could stomach from me. I gave you the weekend to recuperate.)
The Economist and YouGov recently conducted an in depth poll of the usual things — Trump approval, impeachment, Democratic candidates, et cetera. Tucked away deep in the survey, interestingly, were some questions about how President Trump measures up against past Republican presidents. A response to one of these questions raised some eyebrows:
When asked whether Donald Trump or Abraham Lincoln was the better president, 53% of Republicans picked Trump. Gender, age, and family income didn’t matter much. Party ID meant everything.
Cable news, liberal websites, and Twitter reacted apoplectically, but you know what? I wasn’t surprised. If I had known of the question in advance, my guess for the share of Republican respondents picking Lincoln would have been “about half.”
Still, I think a response breakdown like that is worth discussing. It’s actually paradigmatic of modern politics, which is to say it’s the latest example of a self-evidence truth that we’re seeing play out every day, from the campaign trail to the impeachment inquiry: American partisans have gone absolutely bonkers.
Yes, PPFA has some thoughts. Several.
1. Lincoln is generally considered the greatest president in our country’s history. PPFA thinks so. So do most presidential scholars across the years:
A late 20th century survey of historians that divided respondents into liberals and conservatives found that they sung in concert, an aria called, “Lincoln Is Best”:
Admittedly, some surveys of experts and the public don’t have Lincoln in the top spot — George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt sometimes displace him — but Honest Abe always ranks in the top three. Therefore, the implication from most Republican voters in this new poll is that Trump is among the greatest few presidents, if not the greatest, in all of American history.
That’s preposterous. Let’s leave aside the information that has filled hundreds of Lincoln biographies and other Civil War works. Let’s leave aside the sobering analyses of the man who preserved the union during its darkest hour. Let’s leave aside the peerless wisdom and words of the part-commander-part-philosopher president, one of the Oval Office’s greatest writers, thinkers, and introspectors, a man who could not contrast more deeply to the frequently incoherent, vainglorious, and pathologically incurious person who leads our government today. I couldn’t possibly get into all that.
Let’s instead consider the following: whether or not Trump is at least a “good” President — a debate that can have genuine, fact-based, good faith arguments on both sides — is it more likely that he’s better than our greatest President, or is it more likely the people who say so are being caught up with recency bias and tribalism?
2. It’s the latter, of course. I’ve discussed before how deeply divisive our politics have become. “Negative partisanship” — that is, supporting one’s party largely because the other is too intolerable — is a driving motivation in modern partisanship. Partisans’ preferred media has so effectively convinced them of the opposing party’s evils and/or stupidity and/or insanity that they’re convinced that the opposing party must be denied power. Indeed, politics have perhaps not been this partisan since Lincoln’s Civil War.
A byproduct of this paradigm is that partisans swarm to protect their political leader like worker bees to their queen. What do those worker bees (and, appropriately, the drones) think of their queen? She’s the best queen ever! Nay — the best queen possible. Do they buzz about earlier queens? No. They’re yesterday’s news. These worker bees aren’t using their six bee legs to crack open tiny bee history books! This new queen is surely the best, and she must be defended and supported by the entire hive mind, no matter what. At the very least, our queen bee is better than that one in the other branch who dresses in those white pantsuits.
That’s what we’re seeing today. American politics has actually devolved from tribalist to hive-ist. Soon we’ll see tribalism as the good ‘ole days.
3. To be clear, this is not a uniquely Republican affliction. President Obama regularly approaches 90 percent approval among Democrats, right around where Trump hovers with Republicans. A July 2018 Pew poll found that a majority of Democrats saw Obama as the best president of their lifetime.
Meanwhile, both men have huge disapproval numbers with members of the opposite party. For example, a 2018 Quinnipiac poll asked respondents to pick out the best and worst president since World War II. President Obama received the second most votes for “best”… and the second most votes for “worst.” It’s become impossible to effectively evaluate presidents in today’s political climate. (That’s why I didn’t even bother ranking presidents from the last 50 years in this year’s Presidents’ Day Presidents Ranking.)
Presumably, Obama or Trump could be seen as great for advancing their own side’s agenda and therefore be seen as awful for their ideological opponents. That being the case, it’s reasonable that there could be such a divided response to their presidencies.
However, I’d like to think we could more objectively consider our presidents’ non-partisan qualities.
4. I once wrote that the closest I could come to summing up my insecure political ideology was to say:
“that one’s intelligence or morality is not measured by the extent to which they agree with you on politics. We live different lives with different experiences while trusting different media sources of varying accuracy. There is virtual certainty someone out there is smarter and more informed than you and yet disagrees with your politics.”
This approach to ideology is akin to my approach when evaluating presidents. Whether one agrees or disagrees with my political positions is not a dominant factor when evaluating someone’s intelligence, morality, patriotism, or capacity as a candidate or leader. There’s more to leadership and character than ideology.
5. So, to be clear, many Republicans like President Trump because he’s been tremendous effective advancing the conservative cause. Many are still reaping the benefits of the tax bill he signed into law. Many Republicans applaud his tough position on China. He’s appointed hundreds of judges that will rule conservatively for a generation after Trump leaves the Oval Office. And he’s done all that during an economic expansion, relative peace, and while never backing down against hostile Democrats and media. Of course he’ll be rated favorably by Republicans.
But considering his many non-ideological qualities that even some of his political supporters lament, he’s still rated above Lincoln? The Great Emancipator?
That really sticks in my craw. Let’s pour out some honey for the queen bees of years gone by.
8 thoughts on “Most Republicans Think Trump Is a Better President Than Lincoln. Yes, PPFA Has Some Thoughts.”
It’s probably due to recentism more than anything else. Of course the average person on the street will say that the president with policies that he favors is better.
You do realize though that there is a lot of people that think Lincoln was awful. Read Recarving Rushmore by Eland.
Thanks for the commend, sdu. Indeed, recency bias is a leading culprit here for sure.
Of course there will be people across the spectrum when evaluating all presidents. The comprehensive ranking you’re working on is a good example. We both happen to rank Tyler fairly high compared to most lists, and we both rank Jackson much lower than most lists. At the same time, however, I think you drastically devalue TR and overvalue Madison, while you would say I dramatically underestimate Grant and overrate Adams.
What I considered in this brief post was more of an amalgam of subjective opinions, which I think produces a sort of wisdom of the scholarly crowd, rather than isolating any single person’s biased assessment, like Ivan Eland’s. I even noted how liberals and conservatives both rated Lincoln #1 a few decades ago.
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