Abraham Lincoln Would Have Recognized the Con Man Trump

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The statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 2009. Sidney Blumenthal writes that Lincoln knew the difference between the motives of the promoter’s “humbug” and the demagogue’s “false accusations.” Joshua Roberts/reuters

Donald J. Trump may understand little about the founder of the party of Lincoln, but Abraham Lincoln, who contended with the most picturesque range of con men, speculators and demagogues, would have understood Trump.

As a lawyer, Lincoln was intimately involved in litigation involving many of Trump’s woes—bankruptcy, real estate disputes, debt collection and divorce. He also represented counterfeiters and burglars.

Lincoln would even have known of them as “con men.” The phrase was current. Herman Melville published his novel The Confidence-Man, about a cheat working his craft on suckers on a Mississippi River steamboat, in 1857.

As a politician, Lincoln refuted the spurious arguments of the most cunning and ruthless men of his time, down to the notion that slavery was “liberty.” While Lincoln was familiar with every species of charlatan, he drew a distinction between mere frauds, who sometimes bemused him, and dangerous demagogues.

Trump’s most comprehensive statement on Lincoln during the campaign was his remark that he could be “more presidential than anybody except the great Abe Lincoln.”

Trump’s running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, uniquely cited Lincoln in defense of Trump’s encouragement to Russian President Vladimir Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. “You know,” Pence told conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, “Abraham Lincoln said, give the people the facts, and the republic will be saved.”

Pence apparently paraphrased an entirely apocryphal Lincoln quotation that ends: “The great point is to bring them [the people] the real facts, and beer.”

The first con man Lincoln knew was the wheeler-dealer Denton Offutt, owner of the general store in New Salem, Illinois, who hired Lincoln as his clerk. “A wild, harum-scarum kind of man,” recalled one of Lincoln’s friends.

Offutt had big plans to strike it rich, but his enterprises collapsed and he skipped town, leaving his creditors high and dry. Curiously, Offutt was also America’s first acknowledged horse whisperer, author of The Educated Horse.

When Lincoln was elected president, the long-missing Offutt turned up at the White House seeking a patronage job in Louisiana, but there is no record of his appointment.

In 1838, in his first formal speech, at the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum, Lincoln, a member of the state Legislature, used the occasion to warn not only against “mob law” but also figures who might exploit “celebrity and fame,” “some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch,” seeking “distinction” as “his paramount object.”

Lincoln concluded, “And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”

Lincoln’s caution was intended to alert voters to the wiles of Stephen A. Douglas, then register of the Land Office of Illinois, but already Lincoln’s great rival. Long before their famous debates in the 1858 race for the Senate, Lincoln tried to counter Douglas’s demagogic appeals, especially racial ones.

“It was a great trick among some public speakers,” Lincoln said about Douglas in 1854, “to hurl a naked absurdity at his audience, with such confidence that they should be puzzled to know if the speaker didn’t see some point of great magnitude in it which entirely escaped their observation. A neatly varnished sophism would be readily penetrated, but a great, rough non sequitur was sometimes twice as dangerous as a well polished fallacy.”

When President-elect Lincoln traveled to Washington for his inauguration, he stopped in New York City, near the world-famous Barnum’s American Museum, which housed five floors of amazing oddities. P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman of his day, the modern inventor of branding, mass marketing and self-promotion, failed to entice Lincoln to tour his museum, but Lincoln did send his wife, Mary, and son Robert, who were escorted through the exhibits by Barnum himself.

Two years later, in 1862, Barnum brought his newest sensation to Washington, a midget whom he dubbed Commodore George Washington Nutt. Lincoln invited both Barnum and Nutt to a Cabinet meeting at the White House.

After Nutt cracked a joke about “Uncle Sam’s money,” according to Barnum’s account, “Mr. Lincoln then bent down his long, lank body, and taking Nutt by the hand, he said: ‘Commodore, permit me to give you a parting word of advice. When you are in command of your fleet, if you find yourself in danger of being taken prisoner, I advise you to wade ashore.’”

Nutt, “gradually raising his eyes up the whole length of Mr. Lincoln’s very long legs,” replied: “I guess, Mr. President, you could do that better than I could.”

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln read aloud to his Cabinet a short story about a con man written by his favorite satirist, Artemus Ward, later a mentor to Mark Twain. The piece was titled “High-Handed Outrage at Utica,” about a traveling barker with a sideshow featuring “Beests and Snaiks” and “wax figgers of the Lord’s Supper.”

A “big burly feller” attacks the figure of Judas Iscariot, and the con man wins a lawsuit “in a verdick of Arson in the 3rd degree.” Then, after testing the Cabinet’s patience and humor, Lincoln read something else that startled them: his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

From the beginning of his political career, Lincoln believed, as he said in his lyceum address, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.”

Lincoln knew the difference between schemers who fled their creditors and fire-eaters who divided the country, between the motives of the promoter’s “humbug” and the demagogue’s “false accusations.”

In Trump, he would recognize the types merged.

Sidney Blumenthal, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, is the author of A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1849, published by Simon & Schuster.