Polman: Abe Lincoln is rolling in his grave

Dick Polman
Dick Polman

Here's the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds..."

And here's the presumptive 2016 Republican presidential nominee, discoursing on Ted Cruz's dad:

"His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous ... That was reported (in the National Enquirer), and nobody talks about it."

See, this is why Republican strategist Nicole Wallace sounded so aghast yesterday. In her immortal words, "The whole party belongs in therapy."

It is truly historic — although pathetic might be a better word — that the so-called Party of Lincoln has devolved to the point where it would actually anoint, as its choice for president, a policy ignoramus and serial liar, a hate peddler who finds truthiness in the National Enquirer. But hey, as evidenced with finality Tuesday night in Indiana, this is what Republican voters want. Donald Trump has brilliantly channeled their rage and resentments, and fed their fantasies for a white America that will never be.

Can this demagogue actually win in November and own our nuclear codes? Seems implausible, but nothing is impossible. For now, let's just assess the Trump phenomenon and try to understand how we've come to this shameful moment in our national life, how we've so swiftly convinced the rest of the civilized world that we've lost our minds.

The kindest interpretation of Trumpism is that he has given voice to the working-class voters who have lost ground economically and are freaked about free trade. That's true, as far as it goes. But when I parse the exit polls, I find that Trump is doing boffo business with upscale suburban Republicans. This was true again Tuesday night; the voters with incomes between $100,000 and $199,000 favored Trump over Cruz, 60 to 33 percent. In fact, Trump did best in that income bracket. And Trump won the Republican college grads, 51-38, even though college grads are presumably taught to delineate the difference between truth and lies.

So something besides economic anxiety is going on here. And you know darn well what it is.

Lest we forget, Trump's first popularity surge came last July after he blanket-smeared Mexicans as criminals and rapists. That's what put him in play with likely Republican voters. He signaled, right out of the gate, that hate was a great way to tap the racist nativist attitude that's endemic among angry whites. No need for code words and dog whistles anymore; visceral slander would work just as well.

He recognized early on that he could "babble inanities," that he could "peddle bigoted slurs and lies," and score big time with the "angry nativist mob."

Those quoted phrases were coined by conservative Republican columnist, Jennifer Rubin. She said it better than I can.

But now I will quote myself. Last summer, I argued that Trump had to be taken seriously. The reason I offered then is just as relevant now — perhaps more so:

"Trump appeals to the sizable share of voters who hate all politicians. He's thriving precisely because he's not politically correct, because he's not focus-grouped, because he doesn't hew to the traditional rules of discourse. Attacking Jeb Bush's Hispanic wife, calling John McCain a "dummy" because he finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy — to some listeners, that kind of talk is refreshing. Yes, he's threatening to make a mockery of the campaign process, but a lot of people already think the process is a joke. They're dining out on his mockery."

His next step — if he is allowed to do it, if the anger and cynicism and racism has reached critical mass — is to make a mockery of the autumn debates, of the general election campaign, of the presidency itself. Going forward, the fundamental question is whether we are a people willing to be governed by dangerous passions unmoored from reason. Indeed, way back in 1920, the great American commentator H. L. Mencken foresaw it happening:

"On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.