Sidney Blumenthal Interview: Acclaimed Author Talks Latest Lincoln Bio and the Real Deal About Trump
Image attributed to Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the acclaimed author of A Self-Made Man, volume one of his four-volume biography The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln. Volume two, Wrestling With His Angel, was released May 16, 2017. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post, Washington editor and staff writer for The New Yorker and senior writer for The New Republic.
Blumenthal’s books include the bestselling The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment and The Permanent Campaign. Among his films, he was the executive producer of the Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.
"My view of Trump and his views on history is that it’s worthless to even comment on his opinions because there’s nothing behind it. His ignorance is absolute. He has no knowledge of any president."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sidney, there are thousands of books written on Abraham Lincoln. How are yours different or unique from the others?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, this is the second volume in the four volume political biography of Lincoln. I think I’ve not only discovered some illuminating new material, but also provided a reinterpretation of how Lincoln thought and how his politics developed. Every period develops a new Lincoln based on changing times.
What I bring to bear especially is my own experience as somebody who has been a journalist for a long time in Washington and who has served in the White House and worked closely with the president. I have a sense of how these things work, and even though Lincoln was a long time ago, there’s a lot about American politics and about the presidency that is still relevant. So I hope I’ve brought my experience and insights to bear on this new Lincoln who is a shrewd, tough, skillful, pragmatic but principled politician and who faces a world of difficulty and despair and rises to the occasion.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In this second installment of the story of Abraham Lincoln, entitled Wrestling With His Angel, where do we pick up with his life?
Sidney Blumenthal: After the exciting conclusion of volume one, we have left Abraham Lincoln in complete obscurity. He has served one term in Congress, and he proposed a bill that was never heard on the floor of the House of Representatives for emancipation in the District of Columbia. He has failed to get a federal patronage job. He returns to his two-man law office in Springfield, Illinois. His political party is about to completely fall apart and loses in the greatest landslide of an election ever in 1852, which elects Franklin Pierce president, the Democrat, not Lincoln’s Whig Party.
Lincoln is left traveling from county courthouse to county courthouse on his horse and arguing mostly small claims cases without any political prospects, and he wonders what will become of him. So that’s where we pick up. But this is a period in which the political parties are about to completely come apart at the seams. The country is about to spin apart over the question of the extension of slavery, and Lincoln is about to be propelled into the whirlwind again.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lincoln was a member of the Whig party, and the Whigs evolved into the Republican Party of that time period?
Sidney Blumenthal: The differences between the Republican Party of that time and today are stark and often diametrically opposed. It wasn’t easy to put together the Republican Party when the Whigs fell apart. It was a new party and included Democrats, abolitionists, all sorts of people that belonged to movements, and Lincoln had to cope with all of this as a political leader in creating the Illinois Republican Party, which he did.
He belonged to the Whig Party, which was the party of Lincoln, longer than most people did hoping it could be the center of the party to resist the extension of slavery, which comes up in 1854 after his rival Stephen A. Douglas, senator from Illinois, navigates the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and repealed the Missouri Compromise. That’s what leads to the question of extension of slavery, and it’s really about the political balance of power in the country because the Southern powers, which had almost always controlled the federal government and the Congress, felt that the growth of the North was tipping the balance of power eventually against them. That’s why they sought additional slave states, to maintain that balance of power for political, economic and social dominance in the country.
So it’s on a knife’s edge, and Lincoln has to put together the Republican Party in Illinois. It’s a period of chaos. He’s not a nativist, which is a large anti-immigration movement known as the Know Nothings, and Lincoln despised what they were doing with their hatred of foreigners. Yet he believes they have to be persuaded and brought into this coalition. It’s a very delicate game he’s playing and it’s a hard thing to do.
Lincoln’s also not a radical abolitionist, but they’re the ones who originally are members of what’s called the Republican Party. It’s not really a party. It’s kind of a radical sect. They need Lincoln and they know it. They approach him. Initially he rebuffs them. Eventually he needs them. He’s got to deal with anti-slavery Democrats who are his longtime political opponents, and he’s got to convince them to come in as well. It was a lot of political work that needed to be done to create a new party.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Chapter 3 is called “The Art of the Deal.” That wasn’t a nod to the current president, but a story about Stephen A. Douglas?
Sidney Blumenthal: He who shall not be named (laughs). Yeah. It’s about the Compromise of 1850. It’s about the rise of Stephen A. Douglas. There’s no Lincoln without Douglas. Lincoln is obscure. Lincoln’s political career seems to be at an end. Douglas is the star. He’s rising higher and higher. Lincoln is envious of Douglas. Douglas has been the person who controls the Democrats in Illinois and Lincoln represents the Whigs. It’s a largely democratic state. Douglas is in the senate.
What happens in the Compromise of 1850 is that after the Mexican War, there are various ideas on what to do with this new territory. It’s called the Mexican Cession, and it’s about all this territory in the West that was seized from Mexico and whether it should be free or slave. The South wants it open to slavery, and the Northerners want it closed to slavery. So there are proposals for various compromises.
Originally Henry Clay, who’s known as the "Great Compromiser" because he helped create the Compromise of 1820 (the Missouri Compromise) proposes the Compromise of 1850. But he’s older, he becomes infirmed, he loses control of the political situation, and the great Henry Clay has a physical and political collapse. Into that vacuum steps 37-year-old Stephen A. Douglas, the little giant who is a dynamo of energy.
Douglas puts together the most amazing deal for the Compromise of 1850, which tries to relegate slavery to the fringe so it doesn’t disrupt the party system while leaving to the Democrats control and maintaining their dominance. The way he does it is that he basically organizes all the lobbies and the financial interests in the country to bribe people. That’s the “art of the deal,” and he also divides up the bill into different pieces and they relate to bond holders in the states. For example, he gets the whole Texas bond lobby behind part of it which relates to Texas being brought in as a slave state. Then he gets the Illinois bond holders who had suffered since the Panic of 1837 to support other parts of it and so on. That’s how he passes this bill.
He has another agenda also underlying it, which is to him a bigger agenda, the Illinois Central Railroad Act, the first federally chartered railroad that goes from Chicago all the way down through Alabama and to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a kind of a Mississippi River on rails. It is a dynamic corporation. It leads to the boom of the city of Chicago and to the explosion of railroads. It’s an accelerator of the Industrial Revolution and Douglas is behind it. He’s a huge figure in the country. He’s Lincoln’s rival and Lincoln’s getting smaller and smaller. So that’s the scene at that point.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Many presidents have said they admire Lincoln more than other past presidents. What do you think of Trump’s fascination with Andrew Jackson?
Sidney Blumenthal: My view of Trump and his views on history is that it’s worthless to even comment on his opinions because there’s nothing behind it. His ignorance is absolute. He has no knowledge of any president. He has been told by Steve Bannon that he should adopt Andrew Jackson as a kind of pet. Andrew Jackson would have despised Donald Trump as a person of inherited wealth and privilege. There are many things to say about Andrew Jackson, but his hatred of entrenched wealth as a form of political power was irreducible.
Many of the Jacksonians, those who were very close to Andrew Jackson after the Jackson Democratic Party broke up because of changing circumstances, wound up being creators of the Republican Party and allies of Abraham Lincoln. They believed they were acting on Jacksonian principles of democracy, the idea of the Federal Union against special interests, i.e., slavery justified by states’ rights. They were opposed to that and they became Republicans, people like Francis P. Blair who ran the Washington Globe and was the voice of Andrew Jackson in his day. There’s the interesting history of what happened to the Jacksonian persuasion, as it has been called. But Donald Trump is the least interesting part of it because there’s no basis in anything he says about history.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you write an essay called A Short History of the Trump Family for the London Review?
Sidney Blumenthal: I started out writing that as a very brief paper for a conference that took place in Amsterdam for a foundation called the Nexus Foundation. There was an interesting conference on the future of democracy in November of 2016, after the election, and I just kept writing (laughs). I wrote this very long piece called A Short History of the Trump Family for the London Review which people can read.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote that Trump didn’t make it in the real estate world in New York and that’s at the bottom of his compulsion to “wreak humiliation on those he fears will belittle him.” Is that why he gets so angry watching Alec Baldwin and doesn’t like to be criticized?
Sidney Blumenthal: He was a failure in New York. He was a failure in New York real estate and hardly anyone in New York would deal with him in the business world. This is little understood by his fabled base, who think of him as this golden figure in the intro of The Apprentice. Actually he is a pariah in New York business circles. His word is not to be trusted. He doesn’t understand how to conduct business. He stiffs his contractors, and he has worked hand-in-glove with the mafia throughout the years.
When he went into his various bankruptcies, he went to foreign sources for money. That is the very origins of the crisis that’s beginning to play out now in his presidency. But he does feel deeply aggrieved and victimized because he is a narcissist who demands complete acceptance of all of his bombastic boastings. He was rejected by Manhattan especially and ridiculed. He was a figure of fun. People in Manhattan understood him, and the rest of the country that supports him do not see him the same way as people in Manhattan have seen him for decades. They’re getting a compressed education (laughs). He is always getting even for perceived humiliations and wants to humiliate others. That’s one of his syndromes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a former bureau chief, would you like to be in the White House press corps during this administration?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, you know, Trump has declared that the members of the press corps are the enemies of the people, so he sees them as his political opponents, his chief political rivals, even more than the Democrats because they are competing, in his mind, for the narrative. He learned a lot in New York, and he’s using it in Washington in ways that are not at all the way in which Washington thinks about things.
He is a product in part of the New York tabloid culture, which he manipulated to keep himself in the public eye even when he was failing. He’s somebody who believes there’s no such thing as bad publicity because he can always use it to further his own ambition and make another deal. That’s very different than how people in Washington think about press relations. That’s why Twitter is his cocaine. It’s his very own, personal transposition of New York tabloid culture from his fingertips through his Smartphone that allows him to evade the entire national press corps. He loves doing that because part of the thrill is humiliating them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sidney, are these books on Lincoln taking up all of your time?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, I’m principally doing this. I’m devoting myself to working on volume three and going out and speaking about Lincoln. Also, like the rest of the country, I’m just watching King Kong climb to the top of the Empire State Building.
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