Team of Rivals versus Team of Toadies Skip to content

Team of Rivals versus Team of Toadies

The contrast between Lincoln and Trump could not be more clear.

7 min read

That recent survey in which scholars ranked Abraham Lincoln our greatest president caused me to start rereading Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2005, the book is about the way the Kentucky-born 16th president chose political foes for his cabinet and molded them into “truly a team of rivals” that “helped him steer the country through its darkest days.”

The Great Emancipator was the first Republican president, though these days the party of “Lincoln and Liberty” looks more like the party of native Kentuckian Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s only president.

The scholars rated Donald Trump, the last Republican president, the worst of all. Trump, who wants a second term, also finished in last place in the 2018 version of the survey, Miles Klee wrote in Rolling Stone.

The 2024 survey, released on President’s Day, was based on the opinions of 154 scholars “from self-described Republicans and conservatives in addition to Democrats and liberals,” he explained. “These participants ranked each president on a 0-100 scale, with 0 indicating ‘failure,’ 50 equaling ‘average,’ and 100 meaning ‘great.’” They scored Lincoln at 93.87 and Trump at 10.92. “President Biden occupied the 14th spot with the more middling score of 62.66,” Klee added.

Murray State University historian Brian Clardy agreed with the results.

“Abraham Lincoln brought together people who actually opposed him politically in order to forge consensus at a time when the country was facing its greatest crisis,” he said, echoing Goodwin.

Clardy didn’t pull punches about Trump, “He assembled a team of sycophants, and I’ll outright say it: Donald Trump wanted people who would bow down to him and kiss his ass. He didn’t want contrasting views.”

After he was elected in 1860, Lincoln “made the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family, the cabinet,” Goodwin wrote. The grouping “was evidence of a profound self-confidence and a first indication of what would prove to be a most unexpected greatness.”

The cabinet included two of his strongest competitors for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination: Sen. William H. Seward of New York, whom Lincoln tapped for secretary of state, and Gov. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, the president’s pick for treasury secretary. Both served ably; after the 1864 death of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — who delivered the notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision — Lincoln named Chase to the high court.

Lincoln ran on a platform opposing the spread of slavery into the federal territories. Yet he named as his second secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, an Ohio Democrat who supported Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the pro-slavery Southern Democratic candidate for president in 1860.

During the campaign, Stanton called Lincoln “the original gorilla.” After Confederates forces routed the Union army at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861, Stanton sent a letter to ex-president James Buchanan, his friend and fellow Democrat. (Buchanan ranked 44th, one notch above Trump in the survey.)

Stanton, attorney general under Buchanan, groused that "The dreadful disaster ... can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this administration has culminated in that catastrophe, and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”

When Simon Cameron, Lincoln's first secretary of war, was accused of corruption and cronyism, Lincoln sacked him in January, 1862, and sent him off as U.S. ambassador to Russia. Stanton replaced him and excelled at the job. “Edwin Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt at their initial acquaintance, developed a great respect for the commander in chief and was unable to control his tears for weeks after the president’s death,” Goodwin wrote. “... The bluntness and single-minded intensity behind Stanton’s brusque dismissal of Lincoln at that first acquaintance were the qualities the president valued in his secretary of war – whom he would affectionately call his ‘Mars.’”

In contrast, Trump demanded obsequiousness from his cabinet and inner circle. Arguably, the best example was the first full cabinet meeting after his inauguration.

Trump, wrote Vanity Fair's Tina Nguyen, gathered “the heads of every major government agency for a press gaggle around the elliptical mahogany table that occupies a prominent place in the West Wing. Traditionally, the media is present only at the beginning of such meetings, during which the president makes a brief statement and a few photos are snapped before a review of the administration’s progress continues behind closed doors. Trump tried something a little different.”

He invited the media to stick around.

Trump bragged, “‘Never has there been a president, with few exceptions . . . who has passed more legislation, done more things,’ he began, hailing his purported accomplishments, even though Congress has yet to pass any major legislative bills. ‘We’ve achieved tremendous success. I think we’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace.’”

Afterwards, Nguyen wrote, “each member of the Cabinet attempted to outdo the president’s praise for himself, thanking him profusely and occasionally genuflecting before the press as they described what a humbling, life-changing privilege it was to be a part of Trump’s efforts to Make America Great Again. It was, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush tweeted, ‘the most exquisitely awkward public event I’ve ever seen.’”

Lincoln’s choices for his cabinet revealed his profound strength of character and confidence in himself. Trump called himself “a very stable genius.” But that fateful introduction of his team of toadies exposed his vanity, narcissism, and cringing insecurity, which he tried to mask with bullying, bluster, and bravado.

Lincoln preferred the kinder, gentler approach. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” he said.

Lincoln was “Honest Abe.” Trump is “Don the Con.”

“Trump is a uniquely divisive figure, his legislative record slim, his refusal to accept defeat by Biden leading to a deadly attack on Congress, and his post-presidential career dogged by 91 criminal charges arising from actions in office or on the campaign trail,” wrote The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly after the survey.

Lincoln guided the Union to victory in the Civil War, our most lethal conflict. He advanced the cause of racial equality farther than all previous presidents combined.

His Emancipation Proclamation put slavery on the road to extinction. He championed the 13th Amendment to the constitution which, ratified after he was assassinated in 1865, outlawed slavery.

During the post-war Reconstruction era, his Republican majority in Congress proposed and pushed to passage the 14th Amendment, which made Blacks citizens, and the 15th Amendment, which extended the vote to Black men.

Trump shifted into warp drive the GOP's headlong retreat from the party’s historic civil rights activism that started with President Richard Nixon’s cynical “Southern Strategy” in the 1960s and 70s. The scheme was calculated to make Republicans of white Southern Democrats furious over their national party’s embrace of landmark federal civil rights legislation.

The GOP began to tout “states’ rights,” the term  the white Southern powers-that-be trotted out to justify slavery before the Civil War, and Jim Crow segregation and Black voter suppression afterwards.

Trump ran the most overtly racist presidential campaigns since segregationist former Alabama Gov. George Wallace sought the presidency as the white backlash candidate in the 1960s and 70s. (The “Southern Strategy” was also designed to get Wallace backers to vote for Nixon in 1968.)

Trump, the Yankee George Wallace, also exploited white anger and resentment toward the “other,” meaning persons of color and immigrants. “Grievance politics is taking over the Republican Party,” Bill Schneider wrote in The Hill last year when Trump was battling Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the nomination. DeSantis is Trump’s equal in shameless pandering to the worst in the body politic. 

In his third try for the White House, Trump is ginning up the bigotry – not only racism, but also sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, nativism, xenophobia, and religious prejudice.

No doubt the white folks in the red MAGA hats don’t believe the survey. Kayleigh McEnany, the Fox News star and ex-White House press secretary, “was among the conservatives to blast the list as meaningless (which perhaps raises the question of why she mentioned it on TV at all),” Klee wrote. 

Evidently, McEnany, like so many Trumpers, is suffering from the MAGA variant of Stockholm Syndrome because, as Klee pointed out, she “has been viciously attacked by Trump himself since pivoting to her pundit role.” No matter – she “expressed disbelief that Barack Obama was ranked in the top 10. She also fumed that Biden had placed above Ronald Reagan.”

Still faithfully flacking for her old boss, she dismissed the scholars as “the Ivory Tower elites who in no way represent the view of the American people.” She meant, of course, the fervid MAGA masses clinging like grim death to their Great White Hope.

When he was president, Trump weirdly compared himself to Lincoln, Sidney Blumenthal wrote in The New Yorker in 2019.

“Great leaders, to Trump, aren’t measured by what they believe: they are great because they win and are adored. His portrayal of Lincoln’s greatness is unmoored from anything that Lincoln thought of as politics or political leadership, chiefly, the self-discipline, patience, and probity required to bring about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Union victory – events that remade the nation.

“By contrast, in Dallas, Trump told his supporters, ‘I’ve always said I can be more Presidential than any President in history except for Honest Abe Lincoln, when he’s wearing the hat. That’s tough, that’s tough. That’s a tough one to beat. Being Presidential is easy. All you have to do is act like a stiff – look.’ At that point, he moved robotically around the stage, mocking both Lincoln wearing his hat and the dignity of the office that he now holds. Getting away with bad behavior, without regard for the consequences for the nation, seems to prove to Trump that he is superior – and that he is invulnerable, whether coercing the President of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden or abandoning Kurdish allies in Syria. As if, by doing whatever he wants, Trump would raise himself to Lincoln’s monumental level.

“A few minutes after Trump mocked Lincoln’s sincerity, he changed direction again. ‘Honest Abe. I liked Honest Abe,’ he said. A voice shouted out, ‘Honest Donald!’ Trump smiled. ‘We’ve confirmed,’ he said, pocketing the comparison.”

Trump thanked the fan for the “Honest Donald” handle.


Print Friendly and PDF

Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY



Voting rights at risk after Supreme Court makes it harder to challenge racial gerrymandering

Voting rights at risk after Supreme Court makes it harder to challenge racial gerrymandering

Two recent Supreme Court rulings on congressional redistricting will have starkly different consequences for Black voters in the 2024 election. One ruling boosted Black voting power in Louisiana, while another decision upheld a South Carolina congressional map that the lower court had declared “illegal racial gerrymandering.” Despite these seemingly contradictory

Members Public
Kentucky’s GOP is NOT the party of “fiscal responsibility”

Kentucky’s GOP is NOT the party of “fiscal responsibility”

Kimberly and Dr. Clardy share the breaking Kentucky political news of the weak, including a couple of stories that expose the Kentucky GOP as having zero fiscal responsibility, then we have a great interview for you: Molly Gene Crain, the democratic candidate for Kentucky’s 27th Senate District.

Members Public