Why is Donald Trump different from all other presidents? Because he deliberately divides the country for political gain. It’s his strategy for governing. He’s “The Great Divider.”
President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE did not create the nation’s political division. It’s been growing for over 50 years. His predecessors — George H.W. Bush, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE, George W. Bush, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE — all promised to heal the division. They all failed. Trump never pretended to be a healer. He saw the country’s division as a political opportunity he could exploit.
It worked for him in 2016. He expects it to work for him again in 2020. “I’m going to do it the same way I did it the first time,” Trump told ABC News. Not by broadening his support the way most incumbents do when they run for a second term. By hardening it.
That’s a risky strategy considering the fact that he got elected with only 46 percent of the vote (Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE got 48 percent). What Trump did was game the system. Here’s an example.
Clinton carried California by over 4 million votes. Trump carried Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes. What explains the difference? Look at the exit polls.
In California, 19 percent of the voters were whites without a college degree. In Wisconsin, 47 percent of the voters were whites without a college degree. Those voters are Trump’s base. His base is strategically concentrated in Midwestern industrial states that can deliver the electoral college. Trump expects to mobilize them next year with an “us versus them” campaign. That was clearly the message of his blatantly racist North Carolina rally (“Send her back!”).
Appealing to white racial resentment is nothing new for Republicans. It’s perfectly captured by what happened in Mississippi when Richard Nixon ran for president. In 1968, Nixon’s worst state was Mississippi. He got 14 percent of the vote. George Wallace got 63 percent. In 1972, Mississippi was Nixon’s best state. He got 78 percent of the vote. See what happened? 14 plus 63 equals 77 (nearly 78 percent). Republicans used their “southern strategy” — an appeal to white racial resentment — to fold the Wallace vote into the Republican vote.
The Gallup poll uses a simple index of polarization: the gap between the president’s job approval ratings in his own party and in the opposing party. Lyndon Johnson, for example, averaged 71 percent approval among his fellow Democrats. He averaged 44 percent approval among Republicans. The gap was 27 percent, a modest level of polarization.
With Richard Nixon, the gap widened to 41 percent. It began to take off with Ronald Reagan, when conservatives took over the Republican Party. Under Reagan, the polarization index rose to 52 percent. The gap continued to climb under Bill Clinton (55 percent), George W. Bush (61 percent) and Barack Obama (70 percent). With each successive president, Republicans and Democrats were moving farther and farther apart.
Gallup reports that President Trump has set a new record. In the second quarter of 2019, Trump’s approval averaged a whopping 90 percent among Republicans. And among Democrats? A pitiful 8 percent. That’s a lower job rating than Democrats gave Ronald Reagan (31 percent) or George W. Bush (23 percent). It’s a lower rating than Obama got from Republicans (13 percent). This is the first time polarization has reached over 80 percent (90 minus 8 equals 82 percent, to be precise).
The country is approaching the point of total political polarization, where 100 percent of the president’s party supports the president and 100 percent of the opposition party opposes the president.
Political polarization has been increasing for decades. What’s different about Trump is that he follows a script that amplifies the division. No other president has done that. Not even Abraham Lincoln, who led the Union cause in the Civil War. Lincoln sought to reconcile the country and bind its wounds. He said in his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .” Can you imagine Donald Trump saying that?
The president, along with the vice president, are the only two public officials elected by the entire country. The president bears a unique responsibility to represent the unity of the country. Trump does not accept that responsibility. He treats his political opponents as illegitimate and even disloyal. He declared at the North Carolina rally, “A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream — frankly, the destruction of our country.”
Joe Biden accused the president of “tearing at the social fabric of this country.” Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who quit the Republican Party in protest, called the “Send her back” chant “the inevitable consequence of President Trump’s demagoguery.” He added, ominously, “This is how history’s worst episodes begin.”
President Trump’s strategy for 2020 is clear: a “slash-and-burn” campaign to make the four left-wing Democratic congresswomen of color the face of the Democratic Party. At the North Carolina rally, Trump depicted himself as the country’s protector against a “dangerous militant hard left” led by “hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down.”
Democrats are tempted to nominate a Democratic Trump — an angry, divisive progressive who can match Trump blow for blow. But Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE continues to lead the Democratic polls, and his age (76) may have something to do with it. Biden represents an older, less confrontational style of politics. A return to normalcy after the disruption and brutality of the Trump era.
Trump’s strategy of division is driven by the thing he prizes most — ratings. He rose out of the world of reality television, and he knows what every television executive knows: Controversy drives up ratings. In a radio interview, Trump once proposed pitting an all-black team of contestants on “The Apprentice” against an all-white team.
He asked the African-American co-host, “Do you like it?”
“Well,” she responded, “I think you’re going to have a riot.”
Trump’s response: “It would be the highest rated show on television.”