Politics & Policy

The Cost of America’s Endless Political Warfare

Protesters outside a fundraising breakfast for the Trump 2020 campaign in New York City, December 2, 2017. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
We could all benefit from cooling it on the martial metaphors.

America has a multitude of ongoing wars. There are the long-running “war on drugs,” the “war on free speech,” the “war on sovereignty,” the “war on football.” There are our all-inclusive “culture wars” and the “Resistance’s” nasty war on the ways and means of Donald J. Trump. And of course there are the daily promises of politicians to “go to war” over the so-called DREAMers, taxes, budget deficits, and immigration. Today, you name the cause, and it most likely has a “war” attached to it.

I consciously try to avoid the term. I’ve never been involved in a shooting war, but I know enough about it to suspect that those who have participated do not look kindly on such casual labeling of our nonlethal public battles. Still, war’s popularity as a political shorthand shows its emotional appeal, its galvanizing power.

How did we arrive at such a rhetorically volatile time in our politics? I’d pinpoint President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as a significant turning point. In the aftermath of 9/11, America was looking for payback, and the Iraq War was popular with the public. Success on the battlefield was swift. Saddam Hussein’s army was (again) exposed as a paper tiger. But no WMD were found, and rebuilding Iraq proved to be far more complicated and difficult than anticipated; American casualties continued to mount after our early successes. “Bush lied, people died” became the Left’s popular refrain. This is probably when the traditional notion of partisanship ending at the water’s edge was washed away forever.

The Iraq War’s failures helped lead to the election of the charismatic, anti-war Barack Obama. A peace-seeking American president would now resist engagement on the world stage; the projection of American military might would not be his cup of tea. But initial hopes for a peaceful, “post-partisan” era quickly evolved into the usual vitriol; the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream was followed by intense political rancor. Still, the country moved Left. Obama’s presumptive successor, Hillary Clinton, read the tea leaves and quickly jettisoned her husband’s triangulated moderation, recasting herself as a progressive stalwart. A vote for her would be a vote for a third Obama term, and for breaking the glass ceiling over the heads of all those Bible-thumping, gun-toting “deplorables,” to boot. An ascendant Left would finally win the war for the country’s soul.

Of course, that didn’t happen. The heartland’s working class struck back at Clinton, propelling an aggressive Manhattan real-estate developer with no political experience into the world’s most powerful office. Donald Trump had been a moderate liberal for most of his life, but he assumed the role of populist, anti-establishment “disrupter” in the campaign. Once elected, he doubled down on his newfound conservatism, presenting himself as a strong antidote to Obama’s policies. In response, a “resistance” was quickly cobbled together. The new movement immediately declared “war” on President Trump.

And so a year into the Trump era, a hyper-polarized America experiences daily political warfare. It is not a real war — nobody has been killed, save for one poor woman in Charlottesville. But it is a war for the hearts and minds of the general public — for what the combatants want America to be and look like in the coming years.

Students of history know that early American politics could get extreme at times — we should all be thankful that duels are no longer the preferred way of settling differences on Capitol Hill. But all this war still takes a toll.

Accordingly, members of Congress refuse to acknowledge even the most noncontroversial heart-tugging patriotism at the State of the Union address. Comedians actually joke about killing the president. American Olympians disassociate themselves from the White House. Hollywood awards shows denigrate anything and everything Donald Trump. Today, entire television networks daily forsake their objectivity in order to push whatever anti-Trump narrative seems to be trending at the time.

The president reacts predictably, assuming a 24/7 attack mode while questioning the patriotism of those who resist. He is a man on a warlike mission, hell-bent on reestablishing American military preeminence abroad while defeating progressivism’s Bernie Sanders–led infatuation with socialism and identity politics at home. For those of a left-leaning persuasion, Trump’s in-your-face modus operandi is additional confirmation that the man is unfit for office and worse.

Of course, the vitriol associated with so many “wars” makes it difficult to come together in times of national tragedy. The divisiveness only intensifies the rhetoric. A mass killing at a school? Simply declare war on the NRA. A high-speed train goes off the rails? Indict conservatives for failing to fund infrastructure. A poor neighborhood is devastated by a hurricane or flood? Didn’t you know Donald Trump and the Republicans had declared war on the poor?

Students of history know that early American politics could get extreme at times — we should all be thankful that duels are no longer the preferred way of settling differences on Capitol Hill. But all this war still takes a toll.

Hint for the loyal opposition: Next time a bona fide American hero is called out at the SOTU, stand and applaud. Even wars have cease-fires.

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