Trump didn’t create the country’s division, but he stoked it: What’s next?
Why is Donald Trump different from all other presidents? It’s not just that he’s divisive. It’s that he deliberately divides the country. It’s his way of governing. Every issue is “us” versus “them.” The result is the agony the country experienced in this year’s election. An intensely divided campaign has been tearing the country apart.
It won’t stop if, as now looks likely, Joe Biden is elected president. Republicans, it appears, will still control the Senate. And they will see it as their mission to thwart everything President Biden tries to do — just as they did when President Clinton faced a Republican Senate after 1994 and when President Obama faced a Republican Senate after 2014. The U.S. system of checks and balances is supposed to force the parties to work together and come to agreement. These days, it is more likely to produce stalemate and paralysis.
President Trump didn’t create the country’s division. It goes back 50 years, to the turmoil of the late 1960s. Four presidents before Donald Trump promised to bring the country together. They all failed. That’s where Trump is different. He didn’t even try. Instead, he exploited the division for his own political benefit. No other president has done that. Not even Abraham Lincoln, who came to power in an even more bitterly divided country. Lincoln tried to reconcile the nation’s division and preserve the Union (“With malice toward none, with charity for all…”). He was murdered for his effort.
The Gallup Poll has devised a simple index of polarization for each president going back to Dwight Eisenhower. It’s the difference between the average approval rating a president gets from members of his own party and his average approval rating from members of the opposition party. For instance, President Eisenhower’s job approval rating from Republicans averaged 88 percent. Among Democrats, 49 percent. The difference? 39 percentage points. Ronald Reagan averaged 83 percent approval from Republicans and 31 percent from Democrats — a 52-point difference.
Polarization increased rapidly starting with Bill Clinton (55-point gap), then George W. Bush (61) and Barack Obama (70). Trump established a new all-time record for dividing the country: as of October, Trump was drawing 95 percent approval from Republicans and only 3 percent from Democrats. Two parties, two countries.
This year’s network exit poll asked voters which quality mattered most to them in deciding how to vote for president. The number one choice? “Strong leader,” followed by “good judgment” and “cares about people like me.” The least popular choice? “Can unite the country,” endorsed by fewer than one in five voters. Sounds like the country has given up trying to reconcile its division.
The 2020 election will go down in history as “the Waterloo of the polls.” Just about every poll predicted a “blue wave” — a sweeping triumph for Democrats, who were poised to win a landslide victory for the White House, a Democratic takeover of the Senate and big gains in the House of Representatives. None of those things happened. Why not? Very likely because of the polls.
In every election, there is a phantom candidate called “expected.” It’s not enough to win. To get a mandate, you have to do “better than expected.” Who sets expectations? The polls.
In 2016, all the polls predicted a Hillary Clinton victory. She was “expected” to win. A New York Times headline came out saying, “85 percent chance Clinton wins.” I interviewed Democrats around the country four years ago, and I kept hearing the same thing: “I would never vote for Trump, and I don’t like or trust Hillary Clinton. But you know what? She doesn’t need my vote.” So, they stayed home or voted for independents or third-party candidates. Result: a surprise Trump victory.
This year, once again the polls predicted big Democratic wins. But Democrats didn’t stay home this time. They learned their lesson. They knew what happened last time, and they weren’t going to make the same mistake again. So, they came out to vote in historic numbers — many of them before election day — to get their revenge on President Trump.
Republicans looked at the polls and the long lines of early voters and saw a blue wave coming. So they, too, turned out in record numbers — mostly on election day — to save their president and their party. And what happened? Republicans ended up doing “better than expected.”