As 2019 drew to a close, Chief Justice John Roberts issued his annual report on the federal judiciary, which opened with a paean to civics education, the pedagogical function of judicial opinions, and the importance of an independent judiciary in the face of mob rule. This is not ordinarily the stuff of manic headlines. But then, we live in the Age of Trump, when every event must be traced to the person of the president.
The report “seemed to be addressed, at least in part, to the president himself,” Adam Liptak of the New York Times explained. “The nominal focus of the report was the importance of civics education, but even a casual reader could detect a timely subtext, one concerned with the foundational importance of the rule of law.” CNN helpfully connected dots, too: “Although the report does not specifically cite Donald Trump’s past attacks on the judiciary, [Roberts’s] statement is a clear attempt to bolster federal judges across the country and shore up the reputation of the judicial branch as the other branches of government have dissolved into a bitter morass.”
Is it possible the chief justice of the United States was bolstering his branch of government because that is what branches of government should do? Of course, Roberts might have been sending coded signals to the American public by means of journalistic interpreters. But the far likelier explanation is that the cigar was just a cigar. What is striking about the dustup around the report is the failure to contemplate the latter scenario. These days, it is always about Donald Trump — and that is exactly the problem.
The insistence on interpreting every event through a presidential lens illustrates why Trump has become so polarizing: For Democrats and Republicans alike, he symbolizes too much. In the terms of classical rhetoric, he is the ultimate synecdoche.
Synecdoche, a device by which a part of something stands for the whole or the whole of something stands for a part, is often used to simplify. In political campaigns, it solves a problem of prediction: Voters rarely know what will actually arise during a candidate’s term in office. Synecdoches provide them with identifiable stances from which a candidate’s probable reaction to future circumstances can be inferred.
A presidential candidate’s position on gun issues, for example, is relevant to barely a fraction of a president’s actual work. But to voters on either side, it symbolizes a range of cultural and political views. Similarly, abortion policy is not a daily concern in any White House. But for Democratic and Republican voters alike, a candidate’s stance on the issue represents a broader set of beliefs. That is why Trump has rhetorically prioritized both issues.
Yet the most important synecdoche in American politics today is not one of Trump’s beliefs but rather Trump himself. Candidates at all levels of government — from city councils to state legislatures — orient their campaigns either for or against him, regardless of whether the offices they seek bear any relationship to the presidency. The reason is that one’s attitude toward Trump is shorthand for one’s attitudes toward everything else.
This is the key to understanding the polarizing dimension of the Trump presidency. It is not simply that people feel strongly for and against Trump, although they do. Nor is it just that his outsize personality inflates those perspectives. It is that his supporters and his opponents fear the totality of their worldviews is at risk in every battle concerning him.
A politics of synecdoche tends in that direction. It heightens the stakes of the symbols under dispute because they are parts representing a much larger whole. A legislature left to itself could almost certainly compromise on discrete issues such as guns or abortion. But when these issues represent broader worldviews, compromise is more perilous. Positions harden and gravitate toward extremes.
Often, the symbols are inconsequential. In presidential politics, for example, a candidate’s stance on the death penalty should be irrelevant. The overwhelming majority of capital offenses are matters of state law and have no bearing on the presidency. But when the death penalty signals whether one prioritizes law and order or civil rights, compromise raises questions about a more universal array of controversies that is — precisely because it is universal — much less amenable to legislative bargaining. In this sense, synecdoche is a likelier explanation than malice or intransigence for the failure of compromise on hot-button issues. Too much is on the line in each single controversy because each one symbolizes so much.
But if the synecdoche becomes not merely a politician’s positions but rather a politician himself, the result polarizes the electorate and its representatives more completely. That is especially true when the politician in question is the president, because the office has long had such a swollen importance in American politics. And it is difficult to recall a president who has symbolized more to his supporters and opponents than Donald Trump has.
This applies as much to opponents who label themselves “the resistance” as to supporters who wear Trump’s signature red caps. For each side, those symbols denote not just discrete issues but rather a total perspective on culture and politics. Disagreements mutate from matters of what people believe to matters of who they are.
For Trump’s supporters, the president represents everything from rebellion against “political correctness” — itself a synecdoche for a range of issues including elite condescension, identity politics, and race — to concerns about moral, economic, and cultural alienation. For his critics, “resistance” signifies a slate of positions on immigration — a synecdoche for compassion — as well as capitalism, civility, and other issues.
Synecdoche of such an acutely personalized sort encourages a politics of winners and losers rather than give and take. If everything — one’s entire disposition toward social and political concerns — is at stake in every controversy surrounding Trump, the battle will be fought to the end rather than bargained away.
Both parties’ intractable positions on impeachment illustrate the point. For Republicans, following the evidence on impeachment wherever it leads risks not just Trump’s occupancy of the Oval Office but also everything else he represents. For Democrats, considering the possibility that impeachment and removal is justified but imprudent hazards accession to an entire cultural and political outlook they oppose. One result is that each side’s concern becomes “owning” the other rather than resolving disagreements.
Symbolic politics can be useful. Synecdoche can simplify complex issues and help voters predict how an aspiring leader will react to unforeseeable eventualities. But when the president is himself the symbol, polarization will inevitably intensify. That is among the lamentable consequences of the cult of personality surrounding the modern White House generally and its current occupant in particular. One long-term solution is to shrink the presidency. The more immediate answer may be for voters and pundits to disenthrall themselves from support of or opposition to Donald Trump. Though that is difficult to do in no small part because Trump insists on making everything about himself, the rest of us are not required to play along. We shouldn’t, because not everything is about him. Want a healthier politics? Start there.