A well-meaning misunderstanding underlies the horrified hand-wringing over President Trump’s refusal to reach for national unity in the face of terrorist threats against his opponents.
It’s assumed that those who hold the presidential office automatically push aside partisanship during moments of crisis.
But this wishful thinking overlooks the central fact about Donald Trump’s approach to politics: His grip on power depends entirely on splitting the nation in two. Angry division — rooted in race, gender, immigration-status, religion and ideology — allowed Trump to become president. Absent a politics of us-versus-them, Trumpism makes no sense at all.
This explains why Trump, after a rote declaration Wednesday that “we have to unify,” quickly resumed his patented attacks on the media.
At 3:14 am on Friday — yes, he was again tweeting in the middle of the night — Trump declared: “Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of bombs and ridiculously comparing this to Sept. 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them, they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’ ”
Conservatives have long criticized the idea of “moral equivalence.” Where are they now?
It got worse. Seven hours later, Trump tweeted: “Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows.” Suddenly, threats against, among others, two former presidents are reduced to “this ‘Bomb’ stuff,” and the only thing that matters is ... politics.
The tweet came shortly before authorities made an arrest in connection with the suspected mail bombs. They apprehended Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man whose van was plastered with pro-Trump and anti-liberal messages. Trump, at least temporarily, retreated back into consensual language. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America.”
Trump’s attacks on the media are of a piece with his hyping an immigrant “caravan” from Central America (dutifully given extensive coverage by the very same media Trump is attacking) and the administration’s threat to close our southern border just days before the election. A White House official unapologetically put a partisan spin on what is supposed to be a serious policy, describing Trump’s border move as a way “to address the Democrat-created crisis of mass illegal immigration.”
The failure of Republican leaders to denounce a president who is devoting himself to ripping us apart reflects a ground-level truth about Republicanism in 2018: The party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has been consumed by a narrow and exclusionary form of identity politics.
The importance of the backlash around race and immigration inside the GOP is a central theme of a timely, careful and data-rich new book on the 2016 election by political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck. In “Identity Crisis,” they argue that Trump understood what was happening inside the party in a way his rivals did not.
“Trump ignored the many Republicans who criticized him for emboldening fringe white nationalists — and then became the champion of white voters with racially inflected grievances,” they write. “Trump tapped into beliefs, ideas and anxieties that were already present and even well established within the party. His support was hiding in plain sight.”
As a result, Republican politicians now have an “incentive to run on issues connected to identity as opposed to a traditional platform of limited government.” And the authors offer what turns out to be a dead-on description of the campaign we are watching now: “Trump’s positions on immigration, Confederate monuments and national anthem protests have proved more popular with Republican voters than have the GOP tax bill or Republican alternatives to the Affordable Care Act.”
The truth of that sentence is brought home in the systematic lying by Republican candidates about what their goal of repealing Obamacare would mean in practice.
Normally, calls to end polarization speak of the need to “bring the two parties together” to find “compromises.” But these benign bromides are useless when one party thrives on aggravating mistrust, hatred and fear.
How can “compromise” be possible with a president who could not restrain himself even in the face of the threatened murder of fellow Americans? More specifically, how can we find broadly acceptable solutions on immigration when one side repeatedly misrepresents the other as favoring “open borders”?
We have been reduced to this: The first step toward bringing the country together must be the defeat of those for whom national unity is not a noble goal but a dire threat to their political well-being.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.