Lincoln and trapo politics American style


SAN FRANCISCO—Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the leading contender for top honors at this year’s Academy Awards.
It’s an engrossing film and I encourage everyone to see it.

The movie offers a compelling way of viewing history, politics and social change that’s relevant to Filipinos.

Take the scenes in which members of the U.S. House of Representatives were debating the proposed constitutional amendment that would finally make slavery illegal in the United States. Leading the fight was Thaddeus Stevens, a maverick Republican congressman, who was both an ally and a critic of Lincoln.

He was branded a radical. Why? Because he believed all men and women of all races should be considered equal. In 19th century America, that was a radical idea! In fact, to some defenders of slavery who think whites were meant by God to rule over blacks and other races, it’s even blasphemous.

That reality forced Lincoln and his allies to be more creative in their political tactics. In their bid to win the votes needed to eradicate slavery, they urged Stevens, who is totally disgusted with the advocates of slavery, to tone it down a bit.

How? By backing off his argument that blacks were, in fact, equal to whites. Instead, they wanted him to embrace a vaguer, lamer position: that everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law.

Reluctantly, Stevens, played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones, gave in.  But even as he compromised on his position, he managed to hit back with a vengeance at the extremist opponents of the anti-slavery movement who were eager to pounce on Stevens, Lincoln or anyone who would even suggest that blacks were equal to whites.

“How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman?” Stevens snapped. “Proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man… so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”

That was a great scene and I found myself chuckling as I watched it. For it underscored a fact many Americans tend to forget — that there was a time when freedom and equality were limited to a privileged few in a society that prides itself on being the beacon of freedom and equality for all.

But then the movie also drives home an equally important point: that throughout U.S. history there have been people like Stevens, who truly really believed in all the talk about freedom and equality, who simply could not stand those who saw themselves as being superior to others and were willing to fight powerful forces of intolerance.

And these mavericks, who endured isolation, ridicule, condemnation, often made a difference.

Lincoln has been portrayed as a brilliant, but also complex politician, and I was glad to see him not glorified in the movie. In fact, politics itself is not glorified in “Lincoln,” the movie.

Lincoln prevailed in his bid to end slavery partly by bribing some of his opponents, including politicians who couldn’t care less if slavery remained part of the fabric of American society. As Stevens said, “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

To win, Lincoln and Stevens had to get dirty. They had to play games with dirty politicians, to engage in what Filipinos would call trapo politics.

The conflict was underscored in a scene in which Lincoln, confronted by Stevens’s push for a more hard-line approach, explained his own strategy for achieving victory.

“A compass… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and dessert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way,” he says. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”

The journey depicted in “Lincoln” turned out to be longer than the people who succeeded in getting rid of slavery in the U.S. expected.

Lincoln eventually paid for that victory with his life. And while his triumph meant blacks could no longer be owned as slaves, it took another hundred years for African Americans to win their right to vote and be treated with dignity at least according to the law.

But watching ‘Lincoln’ reminds you of how far the United States has traveled.

On Twitter @BoyingPimentel. Visit (and like) the Kuwento page on Facebook at

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  • tagahuron

    Mr. Pimentel, the idea that “ALL MEN are created equal” is not a radical idea in the 19th century America. It is enshrined in the US Founding document called the “Declaration of Independence” which is a pillar of the US Constitution. It is the only document that also recognizes “God” to quote; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happines.” Lincoln understood the essence of that document. It’s ironic that majority of Black Americans today have forgotten that the Democrat Party they are now worshipping were the ones opposed to the abolition of slavery. The US doesn’t have perfect government, but their Constitution had showed them the right way all these 200 years since their founding.

  • kinutil

    Different person different idea.
    Sometimes we thought that we are right but in the eyes of others we are wrong,But remember
    Pointing out the wrong of others is the nature of human being.
    In the whole world no even one country have a perfect government.

  • LMD

    That’s why it’s called politics from the root word poly ‘many’ and ticks ‘blood sucking insects’. It’s all about pushing an action to pass a noble law or policy by making it half @ssed just to win ‘them’ by kissing their @sses.

  • tra6Gpeche

    President Abraham Lincoln had the most significant,
    meaningful and incredible accomplishment of any President anywhere in the world,
    even more than President John F. Kennedy’s sending man to the moon. President
    Obama’s problem with the opposition of the Republican Congress is nothing
    compare to the dilemma and obstacle of Mr. Lincoln during his time.

  • riza888

    Lincoln may be a Republican. But it’s the Republican’s traditions of Goldwater, Reagan, and, particularly, Bush, that is being practiced today – a party that needs less preaching and libertarian manifestos that essentially defend plutocracy. 

    It’s time for Republicans to shift to something more akin to the party’s roots in the mid-19th century. Time to embrace class warfare on today’s gentry, and embrace the aspirations of today’s middle-class. Honest Abe in 2016?

  • aristeosj

    The US has traveled far the last 100 years.
    The Phil is stuck in this muck for the last
    100 years.

  • Randy

    Why not? He used to hunt vampires before his ascension to the presidency.

  • dacuycoy

    Me thinks self-educated Abraham Lincoln  qualifies as a Saint though he needs not be canonised by any Pope because he isn’t a Catholic. Others like Jackson, McKinley,TR, Nixon and Bush are plain imperialists.

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