Politics & Policy

Can America’s Divides Be Healed?

Trump waves to the crowd during inauguration ceremonies in Washington. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Polarization is too big a problem for one man to fix.

The word of the day is “polarized.” The New York Times declared that Donald Trump “will take command of a country unsettled after one of the most polarizing periods in modern times.” ABC’s chief political analyst went even further, arguing that the level of division was so bad that our political culture was “much more akin to where we were in 1861.” Writing in the Washington Post, Philip Bump rightly noted that Trump “didn’t create the country’s divisions” before wondering: “Will he heal them?”

The answer: No, he will not. He couldn’t heal them if he tried.

American political polarization has been building for decades, not for one or two political cycles. It has more to do with starkly opposed attitudes than with conflicting ideas. Political ideas are remarkably malleable. Trump and Hillary Clinton were, in one sense, two of the least ideological nominees in modern times. Both had spent their public lives arguing virtually every side of every major American political issue.

While Hillary had been steadfast on abortion, she’d been for and against the Iraq war, for and against gay marriage, tough and soft on crime, for and against free trade. She was a political weathervane, always yielding to her party’s prevailing winds.

Trump was perhaps even less consistent. During the campaign he was certainly steadfast on a few, defined issues, but at various points before and after he decided to run for president he’s been tough and soft on immigration, for and against the Iraq war, for and against abortion, for and against government-run health care, and so on.

Trump and Clinton may have been ideologically flexible, but they were fiercely, relentlessly partisan. They fought. They both brought a “just win, baby” mentality to the public arena — Clinton’s honed in the vicious battles of the 1990s and Trump’s honed through a lifetime of deal-making and tabloid conflict. You can’t speak to a loyal Trump voter without hearing a deep appreciation for Trump’s fighting spirit. At long last, they say, the GOP nominated someone who fights as hard as a Democrat.

This polarization has been a long time coming; anyone with eyes could have predicted it. I’m 47 years old, at the age when my law-school peers have grown up to sit in the halls of corporate, academic, and governmental power. And what were those peers like? Twenty-five years ago, some of them were in Harvard Law School, literally shouting down conservatives, booing them and jeering them when they dared open their mouths. They had no regard for civility or debate. They only wanted to win.

And Harvard wasn’t alone. A generation of liberal elites has grown up steeped in a culture that believes that millions of fellow Americans aren’t just wrong, but evil — racist, sexist, homophobic, and drawn to religious faith as a vehicle for their bigotry.

If you don’t think the Obama administration was infected with that mindset, you’re naïve. It relentlessly attacked religious institutions, even trying to inject federal oversight into the pastor-hiring process. In the absence of any compelling justification, it tried to enlist religious organizations into the sexual revolution — going so far as attempting to force nuns to facilitate access to abortifacients.

It attacked the Tea Party root and branch, singling out small activist groups from coast to coast and subjecting them to intrusive federal inquiries. Most of the media shrugged. After all, journalists hated the Tea Party just as much as the IRS did. In Wisconsin, politics was so weaponized that conservatives were subject to terrifying dawn and pre-dawn raids, as police barged into homes to investigate political speech. There, the mainstream media sometimes seemed to take the side of the censors, excusing and rationalizing a grotesque and terrifying abuse of official power.

As for politics? The Democrats took a gentleman like Mitt Romney and transformed him into a heartless, greedy plutocrat — a man indifferent to the suffering of others. They took George W. Bush, another gentleman, and transformed him into a bigot, equating his refusal to sign hate-crime legislation with a horrific lynching.

The message was clear: The Left really, really hates you. And over time, a response emerged: The Right really, really hates the Left back.

The numbers don’t lie. The Pew Research Center’s polling on polarization is sobering. Republicans overwhelmingly think Democrats are close-minded, immoral, lazy, dishonest, and unintelligent (in that order). Conversely, Democrats think Republicans are close-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, and lazy (in that order.)

No one can reasonably argue that Trump was anything other than a polarizing force in the 2016 election. He relentlessly insulted his opponents, accused them of all manner of monstrous acts, and never, ever backed down. But was he creating the market for political polarization, or was he merely meeting its existing demands?

There is a kind of principled political opposition that says, “I disagree with your ideas and will oppose them, but as I oppose them I will deal with you honestly and fairly and encourage others to do the same.” Then there’s an opposition that says, “You are bad and dangerous, and I will use any legal (or borderline legal) means to defeat you, including lying, sowing chaos, and encouraging others to do the same.” Yes, there are those who yearn for the first sort of political discourse, but there may well be more who seek (and perpetuate) the second.

Donald Trump could forsake his campaigning style and govern with decency, good manners, and graciousness — and the response from many millions of his fans would be crushing disappointment. That’s not the man they want in the White House. Similarly, if Trump stopped tweeting, spoke only in the most measured tones, and relentlessly reached out to black and Latino voters while also governing as a conservative, many millions of leftists and their media supporters would still howl in fury at his political program. You would relentlessly hear that Trump was somehow worse now than when he insulted his opponents, because that was only talk, while his policies represent actions. Trump may win reelection. He may govern successfully, accomplishing his most worthwhile goals while forsaking his worst ideas. I hope and pray that he does. He might even change his tone, becoming more “presidential.” He could make things a bit better or he could make them worse. But he’ll never unite the nation — the gap is simply too wide for any one man to bridge

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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