Trump Leaves America Most Divided In Modern History
This is part four in a series on Trump’s legacy. This one focuses on Trump’s divisiveness.
Hans-Georg Betz is an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
In less than a month, millions of Americans are going to breathe a sigh of collective relief. Millions of others are going to pretend the world has come to an end. Provided, of course, Donald Trump will vacate his post rather than hunkering down in the White House bunker. With Trump, after all, nothing is absurd enough to be entirely ruled out.
Whatever happens, four years of Trump have left a profound mark on American society and politics. It is probably not exaggerated to suggest that future generations will see in his presidency one of these turning points in American history that define an era. Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan come to mind. Trump’s legacy for the immediate future is to have reinforced and cemented existing fault lines in American politics, dividing the country to a degree not seen since the American Civil War.
Anyone who thinks this is an exaggeration might want to do a google search connecting Trump, violence, and civil war. They might come across an article from The Independent in Britain, a country known for its levelheadedness. Its headline: “Are we really going to have a civil war to protect Donald Trump’s hurt feelings?” Or an article that appeared in Time magazine two months before the election. The author seriously asked whether or not the country might “reach the point where American polarization could trigger ‘massive resistance’ to federal authority or even outright national division?”
Confrontations between pro and anti-Trump protesters in a number of cities over the past few months, some escalating into violence, suggest that things can turn ugly, and perhaps will. Dark allusions by the chairman of the Texas Republican party — following the Supreme Court’s dismissal of its frivolous lawsuit asking to invalidate the outcome of the election in several states – that this might mark the beginning of a new secession movement of “law-abiding states” (such as Texas and all the other Red states) suggest that these days, nothing is too ludicrous to be taken seriously.
They are just the most recent indicator of the extent to which the political climate in the United States has been poisoned during Donald Trump’s tenure. The fact is that over the past four years, American society has become more polarized than at any time since the 1960s. To be sure, polarization is nothing new.
A few days before the 2004 election, Thomas Friedman charged in the pages of The New York Times, that “American politics is so polarized today that there is no center, only sides.” Eight years later, a Pew Research Center report stated that ahead of the November 2012 election, American voters’ “values and basic beliefs [were] more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”
Polarization intensified during Obama’s presidency, reflected, among other things, in his approval ratings. Throughout his tenure, Obama averaged around 80 percent approval ratings among Democrats, among Republicans, less than 15 percent. This was by far the biggest gap for any president in the postwar period.
Political polarization represents a serious challenge, if not an outright threat to liberal democracy. In political science parlance, polarization “induces alignment along multiple lines of potential conflict and organizes individuals and groups around exclusive identities, thus crystallizing interests into opposite factions.” This is what political scientists call partisan sorting, a process akin to assortative mating – the fact that people of similar backgrounds, such as educational attainment or financial means, tend to associate with each other.
Apparently, this also extends to views on cultural, moral, and political questions, from affirmative action to the right to choose, from Black Lives Matter to climate change. In politics, growing polarization has made it increasingly difficult to reach compromises. The reason is simple: compromise is antithetical to the spirit of partisanship and polarization, which entails that the winner takes all; compromise stands for weakness, is just another word for defeat, a sign of a loser mentality. And as we know, Trump disdains losers.
To be sure, polarization has always been a fact of political life. In Germany, in the 1970s, for instance, the center-right Christian Democrats promoted their candidate for Chancellor with the slogans “Freedom instead of Socialism” and “Freedom or Socialism.” This was a time of profound change in West German politics toward the Soviet Blok (what came to be known as “détente), initiated by the center-left Social Democrats. It included the de facto recognition of the East German “communist” regime and an attempt of reconciliation with Poland – policies which many West Germans found hard to swallow. In the event, the proponents of détente carried the day, and the rest, as they say, is history.
And yet, despite the high level of emotional intensity, the polarization in the West German electorate was tied to a specific issue – “normalizing” relations with the East. Few would have gone so far as to deny the legitimacy of the Social Democrats as a political party that cared for the well-being of the German people. In the United States today, polarization is fundamentally different. It is no longer mainly issue-oriented but has turned into what is best characterized as “affective polarization.” It refers to the intense animosity that has evolved over the past decade or so between the partisans of both parties. “Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.”
The result has been a new “tribalism” dividing Americans into self-contained communities of like-minded people. As George Packer put it in the pages of The New Yorker, “Tribes demand loyalty, and in return, they confer the security of belonging. They’re badges of identity, not of thought. In a way, they make thinking unnecessary, because they do it for you, and may punish you if you try to do it for yourself.”
Partisanship is a vehicle for the creation and constant reaffirmation of a common tribal identity is also one of the central points in Ezra Klein’s bestselling Why We’re Polarized. “When you vote for a candidate,” Klein writes, “you’re not just voting for him or her. You are voting for, well, everything.” You’re voting “for your side to beat the other side. You’re voting to express your identity.” You’re voting “to say your group is right and worthy and the other group is wrong and unworthy. That’s bigger than any one candidate for president. It’s true even if the personal characteristics of the other party’s nominee leave your standard-bearer looking like a decadent sleazebag.” As Klein notes, in 2016, “partisan identity was far stronger than candidate choice.”
Trump’s Impact On Polarization
With Trump tribalism has turned into hyperpartisanship, which like a black hole sucks every issue into its vortex. In his situation, Rachel Lynn Bitecofer from the Niskanen Center notes, “voters assess everything via a partisan lens, keeping the effect on one’s own tribe foremost in mind.” This phenomenon has been made worse with Trump’s ferocious use of disinformation. With more often than not rather absurd results.
For instance, in a representative poll from August, more than 55 percent of Republicans agreed that 170,000 Covid-19 related deaths were “acceptable.” Among Democrats, 90 percent said the number of fatalities was unacceptable. One plausible explanation is that Republicans did not want to go against Trump’s assertions that he was doing a splendid job in confronting the pandemic. In fact, in the same poll, roughly three out of four Republicans said the way the US was dealing with the pandemic was “going well.” Among the general public, less than 40 percent held that view. Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats had fundamentally different views on the seriousness of the pandemic.
Between April and June, the number of Republicans worried that they might unknowingly spread the virus to others declined from 58 to 45 percent; among Democrats, it rose from 74 to 77 percent. Commenting on these numbers, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux on Nat Silver’s FiveThirtyEight wrote it was “hard to find a more extreme test of our tribal political attachments than the current pandemic, where Trump continues to downplay the risks of the virus in the face of near-universal opposition from medical experts.” This raised a “thorny issue: In the midst of a pandemic, partisanship appears to be shaping people’s perceptions of their risk and personal behaviors — to the point that our divided politics actually affects our health.” Recent academic studies discussed below largely confirm her assessment.
With Trump, affective polarization has pervaded virtually all aspects of public life in the United States. Nothing is too outrageous or outright ludicrous not to find wide-open ears, as long as it reconfirms tribalist sentiments. In October, for instance, in a survey on the Qanon conspiracy “theory” roughly half of Trump supporters agreed with the statement that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.” A further third said they were not sure. Again, there is a plausible explanation: The poll was conducted in the wake of a town hall meeting where Trump praised the work of Qanon supporters for their work against pedophilia while refusing to dismiss the conspiracy as false.
To make things worse, in recent years, affective polarization is increasingly geographically defined, resulting in a kind of “spacial polarization” in what Bill Bishop famously labeled America’s “Big Sort” – the clustering of like-minded citizens into relatively homogeneous communities. In a review of an updated study of this phenomenon, Richard Florida has summed up the consequences: “On the one hand, like-minded people cluster together or with other like-minded people, and on the other, such clustering together makes people more like-minded.” These “clusters” have their own rules and sanctions; in these clusters “contempt for one another has become a bonfire” that threatens to consume the republic.
A telling example: In late 2018, a third of Americans said they would be disappointed “if a close family member married someone whose partisanship didn’t match their own.” Anecdotal evidence points in the same direction. A recent New York Times article, for example, tells the story of a twin who no longer feels close to her brother because of his views on Trump, which she finds “unfathomable.” This is only one instance of close relatives no longer on speaking terms with each other because they happen to belong to different political tribes.
Unfortunately, this is not the worst fallout from the hyperpartisanship that has marked four years of Trump. Take, for instance, the case of David French, a senior editor at the conservative The Dispatch (co-founded by Jonah Goldberg, formerly editor at the National Review and author of the bestselling Liberal Fascism), with impeccable conservative credentials. David French knows what it means to get “decamped” – i.e., expelled from the tribe – a result of his daring to criticize Trump and his loyal supporters. It did not end there. Once excommunicated, he became a target of pro-Trump trolls, sending tweets mainly aimed at the seven-year-old daughter he had adopted from Ethiopia: “her face was photoshopped onto gas chamber images with Donald Trump’s face in an SS Nazi uniform, with him pushing the gas button to kill her.”
A similar, if not always as violent, fate awaited other major conservative figures once they outed themselves as anti-Trump. Deviation from the right course in contemporary neo-Puritanical America (the Puritans formed tightly-controlled homogeneous communities under what one observer has called “totalitarianism of true believers”) carries heavy penalties. Heresy usually comes with a price. Traitors to the cause are ruthlessly haunted and expelled from paradise.
Cynical readers might rejoice. After all, many conservative intellectuals did their part to pave the way for the likes of Donald Trump and his coterie in today’s Republican party, only to be disgraced, once they no longer towed the party line. Unfortunately, hyperpartisanship and polarization have fairly disastrous consequences, particularly these days. The disruption, perhaps even permanent breakup of close family ties is bad enough; character assassination and online stalking and threats even worse. But these days, hyperpartisanship and its associates, such as conspiracy thinking, can be harmful to people’s health, if not outright lethal.
A recent study has shown that “rampant partisanship” has been one of the most significant obstacles to reduced social mobility, largely seen as a major mechanism to limit the spread of Covid-19. Republicans were considerably less willing not to engage in social activities than Democrats and independents, particularly after Trump expressed his opposition to state-imposed lockdowns. Or take the question of wearing masks, which quickly became “the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.” In late July, more than 80 percent of Democrats claimed they were wearing a mask when in public, among Republicans, less than 50 percent.
In red states, such as the Dakotas, wearing a mask was largely seen as an attack on personal freedom. A couple of months later, the Dakotas were among the states most severely hit by the second wave of the pandemic. This corroborates the results of a recent study that found that partisan differences in physical distancing have led to higher instances of Covid-19 infection and fatality rates in pro-Trump counties. The authors summed up their findings charging that “US citizens’ responses to COVID-19 are subject to a deep – and consequential – partisan divide.”
This does not bode well for the immediate future. Preliminary data suggest that polarization and partisanship have already affected the question of vaccination. In December, more than 85 percent of Democrats said they would definitely or at least probably get vaccinated; among Republicans, a bit more than 55 percent. Vaccination skepticism was particularly pronounced among Republican women and, who would have doubted, Trump supporters. This is bad news, given the fact that to reach herd immunity might require a vaccination rate as high as 90 percent. It stands to reason that women who refuse to get vaccinated will also do so for their children.
By now, anti-vaccine activists have already started to inundate social media claiming, among other things, that “the government is using COVID-19 vaccines to secretly implant microchip identifiers in people, or that ingredients in vaccines will turn people into 5G antennas.” Given the large percentage of Trump supporters who believe in the veracity of Qanon and similar conspiracies, this hardly bodes well for efforts to eradicate Covid-19 in the foreseeable future.
The intensification of partisan polarization in the United States is perhaps the most important and, quite likely, most lasting legacy of the Trump era. Trump bears a great deal of responsibility for the toxic partisan climate that has pervaded American politics for the past several years. The most egregious example, of course, is his unfounded claims that he has been the victim of a vast election and voter fraud. In early December, more than 70 percent of Republicans followed Trump’s line, refusing the accept the result of the election; more than 60 percent agreed that Trump should not concede.
This kind of polarization does not emerge out of nowhere. It is to a significant extent the result of a “polarizing leadership style” strongly “reinforced by conservative media outlets” such as Fox News. It has not only been toxic, poisoning America’s political culture, it has had disastrous consequences for thousands of Americans who unnecessarily died from complications resulting from Covid-19. Under the circumstances, it will take a massive effort to bridge the huge chasms that have opened up during the past four years. Given the state of today’s Republican Party serious doubts are in order.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.