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Column: Trump says he is the best president for black Americans since (or maybe including) Lincoln. Really?

Donald Trump meets with African American business and civic leaders in Philadelphia in 2016.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, President Trump posted Tuesday on Twitter that he had “done more for the black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.”

Of course, Trump says untrue things on Twitter on a regular basis. But this one, at this moment in time, seemed particularly egregious.

Does Trump really believe he’s a better president for black Americans than Lyndon Johnson, who fought for and secured passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two landmark pieces of legislation that helped bring the Jim Crow era to an end? Better than Jimmy Carter, who named more blacks, Latinos and women to the federal judiciary than all previous presidents combined? Better than Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president?

Or does he just think that if he says it feverishly enough, people will believe it?

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With Americans across the country taking to the streets to protest racial injustice, Trump doubled down. On Wednesday, he posted a new tweet saying that he’d done more for black Americans than any president not just since Lincoln, but “with the possible exception of” Lincoln. In other words, now he’s saying that maybe he’s done more than Lincoln too. Wow.

Lincoln, you may remember from high school, fought a devastating four-year war that risked the very existence of the nation in order to end slavery in the United States. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing 3.2 million slaves with a single pen stroke. He fought for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery throughout the country. For his troubles, he was assassinated.

And what’s Trump done? Well, for one thing, on May 29, just as outrage was welling and protests were starting over the killing of George Floyd, he released a statement proclaiming June to be African American Music Appreciation Month. In the middle of a deadly pandemic, a worldwide economic crisis and escalating racial unrest, he offered thanks to Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Ray Charles and others for their “classic guitar riffs, memorable hymns and uplifting beats,” including at “major sporting events.”

OK, score one for Trump. I’m pretty sure that the man Trump calls “the late, great Abraham Lincoln” never did anything for African American Music Appreciation Month.

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(Trump also, by the way, recently proclaimed May to be “Jewish American Heritage Month.” So there’s a case to be made that he’s done more than anyone for the Jews too, with the possible exception of Moses.)

In his tweets, the president tried lamely to defend his “I’ve done more for black Americans” assertion by pointing to the opportunity zone tax break he signed into law (which the New York Times says was designed to help poor neighborhoods but has “fueled a wave of developments financed by and built for the wealthiest Americans”). Trump also said he has presided over the lowest black unemployment rate in history, although those numbers are hopelessly out of date. Today, thanks to the coronavirus shutdowns, fewer than half of black adults are now employed.

Trump’s claim is particularly brazen given his history of racist dog whistles, his call for the death penalty for the unjustly convicted Central Park Five, the accusations of racial discrimination in his real estate dealings, his praise of marchers at the white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville and his recent threats to call in the military to subdue the protests over George Floyd’s killing. Instead of speaking up in favor of racial justice during this week’s demonstrations, Trump has been railing at “killers, terrorists, arsonists, anarchists, thugs, hoodlums, looters, ANTIFA & others.”

Just for a sanity check, I called Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, an expert on the Civil War. Foner finds it “ludicrous” for the president to compare himself to Lincoln. “Of all the ignorant things Trump has said over the years, this is possibly the most absurd,” he said. Foner added that Lincoln was “intellectually inquisitive, modest, didn’t mind criticism and was always rethinking his positions, which is what you want in a crisis.” Trump, by contrast, is “stubborn, blind to the flaws in his own ideas” and “incapable of seeing where he falls short.”

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Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton, noted Trump’s “abiding, almost morbid obsession with Lincoln,” which he said “has nothing to do with American history, about which Trump knows exactly nothing.” But because Lincoln is widely considered the greatest of presidents, Wilentz said, Trump feels he has to be better. “It’s his deep psychic wound talking again.”

Trump is simply not in the same league with “the late, great Abraham Lincoln,” or for that matter with Johnson, Carter or Obama. But stay tuned to his Twitter feed for more bloviating, ahistorical, self-aggrandizement. What’s next — that he’s done more for the citizens of Gotham City than anyone with the possible exception of Batman?

@Nick_Goldberg


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