The Slatest

What Was Trump Trying to Say About Abraham Lincoln?

A wide shot of President Donald Trump seated, doing a Fox News town hall in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
It seems pretty likely that Trump didn’t mean to say that ending slavery was “questionable.” Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty Images

On Friday, President Donald Trump said some things.

Specifically, during an interview with Fox News, Trump said some words to Harris Faulkner about himself and Abraham Lincoln. It’s best for you to read and watch for yourself.

A lot of people saw the transcript of those words—and perhaps watched the clip—and interpreted Trump as having said that “the end result” of Lincoln’s presidency—i.e., winning the Civil War, preserving the union, and ending the atrocity of chattel slavery—was “always questionable.”

Multiple prominent media figures came away with this interpretation, including MSNBC’s Joy Reid and Sam Stein.

I would never definitively state that I believed Trump didn’t mean the most racist possible interpretation of one of his often hard-to-grasp word salads. Indeed, he has in the past questioned the fact that the Civil War needed to occur, stating in 2017 that had Andrew Jackson been president at the time he would have stopped the Civil War from happening because he would have realized “there’s no reason for this.”

“The Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask the question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump said back then.

As my former colleague, Jamelle Bouie, wrote at the time, that statement—apparently that Jackson could have come up with a perfect “deal” to prevent the Civil War—was as dangerous as it was ahistorical.

Given that past remark, it’s certainly plausible that Trump’s brain is so rotted from his own racism that he would say that the end results of Lincoln’s presidency were “questionable.” Based on the context of the question, though, and more recent comments from Trump, I think that is unlikely.

I interpret this particular word salad to be an attempt by Trump to validate his recent tweet that his administration “has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln.”

Trump was likely attempting to say that while “I think I’ve done more for the black community than any other president,” he would ask that in such a ranking “let’s take a pass” on including Lincoln, because it’s an unfair comparison, but—even if he were to go head-to-head with Lincoln for the title of “best president for black people ever”—despite the fact that Lincoln “did good,” it would still be “always questionable” whether Trump was better, because you have to consider “the end result” of each man’s presidency.

This statement would be downright noxious in its own right. But at least he wouldn’t be saying that the heroic accomplishments of Lincoln’s presidency were, in fact, bad. And given his recent tweeting about Lincoln, his own self-obsession, and his own liability to self-referencing (particularly within the confines of the greater Fox News universe), the more generous interpretation feels warranted. Particularly since the question from Harris seems to be about the economy being “the great unifier,” it seems fair to understand Trump to be referencing his boast from earlier in his presidency that the country had seen the lowest unemployment rate for black people in its history, and so his “end result” could stand up to any other president’s including Lincoln’s. It seems further worth noting that Trump has become increasingly obsessed in recent years with comparing himself to Lincoln, including during a Fox News town hall last month in which he said he is “treated worse” than Lincoln was.

Under my interpretation, Trump is essentially saying that the unemployment rate for black people dropping from 7.5 percent at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to a low of 5.4 percent last year—before rocketing back to 16.8 percent this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic—is a greater “result” for black people than what Lincoln achieved by leading the United States to win the Civil War and, again, end the atrocity of chattel slavery. It’s contemptuous of historical fact and of black people’s lives, but it’s not quite as bad as saying that slavery should still exist.

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