If you are ever visiting Washington, then a friend who lives there has a recommendation. Visit the Lincoln Memorial. It’s my favourite too – the place where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, and the site of many wonderful rallies, celebrations and solemn occasions. I remember my first visit, standing under the feet of the enormous statue to this great Republican president, the man who fought a Civil War to keep the United States united.
I marvelled at Lincoln’s words from his finest speeches on the wall, then laughed out loud at something quite banal. The sculpture has Abraham Lincoln wearing enormous square toed cowboy-style boots, which seemed to me a sign of his magnificent taste in footwear.
Beyond the presidential fashion statement, on one side of the memorial there are the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address at the end of the Civil War in March 1865. He spoke of acting “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right… to bind up the nation’s wounds” in the cause of a “just and lasting peace”.
The spirit of Abraham Lincoln is much needed now in the US. By November 2024 the world will know whether the 45th president, Donald J Trump, is securely back in Washington to spend the next few years in the White House. Alternatively, the world may find out that Mr Trump will be in even more secure accommodation, in a high security prison as the world’s most famous felon.
It is a truly extraordinary pair of divergent outcomes for Mr Trump, for America and for the world. Right now, he faces courtroom battles in Florida, Washington, New York and Georgia. That list may grow. These court cases – to put it simply – range from allegations concerning the payment of hush money to an adult film actor, the discovery of a large amount of top secret documents in Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, trying to steal the 2020 presidential election, and being involved in a conspiracy, which led ultimately to the horrific violence at the US Capitol in Washington in January 2021.
But what is most interesting is how little these shocking charges have damaged Mr Trump politically, at least so far. Within the Republican party he is by far the most likely candidate to face US President Joe Biden in the November 2024 presidential election. Polls this far ahead are not a reliable guide to the outcome, but they do show Mr Trump and Mr Biden neck and neck. That in itself – given the allegations against him – is an extraordinary testament to the hold that Mr Trump has on the Republican party and sections of the US public.
America has always been a 50-50 country and here Mr Trump may have an advantage. As we saw in 2016, the peculiar US political system by which each of the 50 states decides how its Electoral College votes will be awarded means that even if Mr Trump fails to gain a majority of voters, he could still win the Electoral College and therefore the presidency.
And so, as we await the next stage of the judicial and constitutional proceedings, perhaps we should consider two immediate concerns. First, what is going on inside the Republican party, the party of Lincoln? Why do so many Republicans continue to support a politician whose known behaviour (never mind his alleged crimes) would have disqualified any politician in any previous era from ever holding high office?
Second, how far is America’s 50-50 nation still failing to “bind up” its wounds, continually refighting the old battles from the past? It’s a simplification but broadly those states which joined the Confederacy and that rebellion against Washington in the 1860s are the same states which most enthusiastically support Mr Trump in the 2020s.
Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, a month after his conciliatory inauguration speech. From its origins a century before Lincoln the US settled on a Latin motto to bring the nation together – “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. That motto often appears on US currency. But while such unity is a noble ideal, it has more rarely been an American reality.
A diverse nation straddling a great continent will always have disagreements within. That’s healthy. But the disagreements over Mr Trump have a much more unpleasant quality.
Mr Trump described the charges against him as “a sad day for America,” a politically motivated witch-hunt. It is certainly a sad day when American democracy is so divided. But perhaps – as always – there is an American solution to an American problem.
Why not televise every moment of every legal encounter involving Mr Trump? The McCarthy hearings in the 1950s eventually did for Senator Joe McCarthy’s virulent right-wing campaign. The Oliver North hearings in the 1980s and the impeachment proceeding against former US President Bill Clinton allowed fresh air into various scandals. The reality TV star from The Apprentice may well relish his moment of fame. It would certainly be the most viewed programme worldwide. E pluribus unum – one big audience worldwide. I think it’s an idea that Abraham Lincoln would enjoy.