Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat.
To understand the corruption, chaos, and general insanity that is continuing to engulf the Trump campaign and much of the Republican Party right now, it helps to understand the predicate embraced by many Trump supporters: If Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidency, America dies.
During last week’s Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker insisted that life under a Biden presidency would be dystopian. Charlie Kirk, the young Trump acolyte who opened the proceedings, declared, “I am here tonight to tell you—to warn you—that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.” President Trump, who closed the proceedings, said, “Your vote will decide
- whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide
- whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” And in between Americans were told that
- Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door” and that
- they “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.”
“They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether,” a St. Louis couple who had brandished weapons against demonstrators outside their home, told viewers. “Make no mistake, no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”One does not have to be a champion of the Democratic Party to know this chthonic portrait is absurd. But it is also essential, because it allows Trump and his followers to tolerate and justify pretty much anything in order to win. And “anything” turns out to be quite a lot.
In just the past two weeks, the president has praised supporters of the right-wing conspiracy theory
- QAnon, which contends, as The Guardian recently summarized it, that “a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children.” Trump touted a conspiracy theory that
- the national death toll from COVID-19 is about 9,000, a fraction of the official figure of nearly 185,000; promoted a program on the One America News Network accusing demonstrators of secretly plotting Trump’s downfall; encouraged his own supporters to commit voter fraud; and claimed Biden is controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” who are wearing “dark uniforms.”
- Trump believes his own government is conspiring to delay a COVID-19 vaccine until after the election. He retweeted a message from the actor James Woods saying
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “should be in jail” and another from an account
- accusing the Portland, Oregon, mayor of “committing war crimes.”
- The president is “inciting violence,” in the words of Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.
- Trump defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter who is charged with first-degree homicide; and stated that
- if he loses the election in November it would be because it was “rigged.” At the same time,
- the second-ranking House Republican, among other of the president’s supporters, has shared several manipulated videos in an effort to damage Biden.
This is just the latest installment in a four-year record of shame, indecency, incompetence, and malfeasance. And yet, for tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, none of it matters. None of it even breaks through. At this point, it appears, Donald Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.
This phenomenon has no shortage of explanations, but perhaps the most convincing is the terror the president’s backers feel. Time and again, I’ve had conversations with Trump supporters who believe the president is all that stands between them and cultural revolution. Trump and his advisers know it, which is why the through line of the RNC was portraying Joe Biden as a Jacobin.
Republicans chose that theme despite the fact that during his almost 50 years in politics, Biden hasn’t left any discernible ideological imprint on either the nation or his own party. Indeed, Biden is notable for his success over the course of his political career in forging alliances with many Republicans. I worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the early 1990s when William Bennett was its director and George H. W. Bush was president. Biden was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; he and his staff were supportive of our work, and not in the least ideological. There will be no remaking of the calendar if Joe Biden becomes president.Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror. Many of them simply have to believe that. Justifying their fealty to a man who is so obviously a moral wreck requires them to turn Joe Biden and the Democratic Party into an existential threat. The narrative is set; the actual identity of the nominee is almost incidental.
A powerful tribal identity bonds the president to his supporters. As Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has argued, the tribal instinct is not just to belong, but also to exclude and to attack. “When groups feel threatened,” Chua writes, “they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”
That works both ways. Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.
The danger of this mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious. And so in this case, Trump supporters will tolerate everything he does, from
- making hush-money payments to porn stars and
- engaging in sexually predatory behavior, to
- inviting America’s adversaries to intervene in our elections, to
- pressuring American allies to dig up dirt on the president’s opponent, to
- cozying up to some of the worst dictators in the world, to
- peddling crazed conspiracy theories, to
- mishandling a pandemic at the cost of untold lives, to
- countless other ethical and governing transgressions.
Trump is given carte blanche by his supporters because they perceive him as their protector, transforming his ruthlessness from a vice into a virtue.
In my experience, if Trump supporters are asked to turn their gaze away from their perceived opponents, and instead to focus and reflect on him and on his failures, they respond in a couple of consistent ways. Many shift the topic immediately back to Democrats, because offering a vigorous moral defense of Donald Trump isn’t an easy task. It’s like asking people to stare directly into the sun; they might do it for an instant, but then they look away. But if you do succeed in keeping the topic on Trump, they often twist themselves into knots in order to defend him, and in some cases they simply deny reality.
“Motivation conditions cognition,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wisely told me. Very few Trump supporters I know are able to offer an honest appraisal of the man. To do so creates too much cognitive dissonance.That they are defending a person who is fundamentally malicious, even if he makes judicial appointments of which they approve, is too painful for them to admit. They are similarly unable to admit they are defending an ethic that is at odds with what they have long championed. They have accepted, excused, and applauded Trump’s behavior and tactics, allowing his ends to justify his means. In important respects, this is antithetical to a virtue ethic. So once again, it’s easier for them to look away or engage in self-deception; to convince themselves that Donald Trump is not who he so clearly is.
These reactions aren’t confined to Trump supporters; people across the political spectrum struggle with confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, in giving too much benefit of the doubt to those with whom we agree and judging too harshly and unfairly those with whom we disagree. That is part of the human condition. The degree to which Democrats, including feminists, overlooked or accepted Bill Clinton’s sexually predatory behavior—including his campaign’s effort to smear his accusers and its use of a private investigator to destroy Gennifer Flowers’s reputation “beyond all recognition”—is an illustration of this. So Flowers was branded a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar,” even though Clinton later, under oath, admitted to having an affair with her.
“If you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” James Carville said in response to Paula Jones’s claim that Clinton sexually harassed her. In defending President Clinton against the charges of sexual harassment made by Kathleen Willey, who accused Clinton of groping her without her consent, Gloria Steinem wrote, “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” And Nina Burleigh, who covered the White House for Time magazine, said, “I’d be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” So Democrats should be careful about looking down at others for accommodating themselves to unsavory and even repulsive characters for the sake of partisanship.
But what’s different in this case is that Trump, because of the corruption that seems to pervade every area of his life and his damaged psychological and emotional state, has shown us just how much people will accept in their leaders as a result of “negative partisanship,” the force that binds parties together less in common purpose than in opposition to a shared opponent. As the conservative writer David French has put it, with Donald Trump and his supporters we are seeing “negative partisanship in its near-pure form, and it’s the best way to explain Trump’s current appeal to the Republican party.” His ideology is almost entirely beside the point, according to French: “His identity matters more, and his identity is clear—the Republican champion against the hated Democratic foe.”
I know plenty of Trump supporters, and I know many of them to be people of integrity in important areas of their lives. Indeed, some are friends I cherish. But if there is a line Donald Trump could cross that would forfeit the loyalty of his core supporters—including, and in some respects especially, white evangelical Christians—I can’t imagine what it would be. And that is a rather depressing thing to admit.
Polarization and political tribalism are not new to America; fear and hatred for our fellow citizens have been increasing for decades. We’ve had plenty of presidents who have failed us, in ways large and small. But this moment is different because Donald Trump is different, and because Donald Trump is president. His relentless assault on truth and the institutions of democracy—his provocations and abuse of power, his psychological instability and his emotional volatility, his delusions and his incompetence—are unlike anything we’ve seen before. He needs to be stopped. And his supporters can’t say, as they did in 2016, that they just didn’t know. Now we know. It’s not too late—it’s never too late—to do the right thing.
The Agenda welcomes Eric Kaufmann, an immigration expert, politics professor at London’s Birkbeck College, and author of the controversial new book, “Whiteshift,” which explores how demographical change has given rise to populism. In an age marked by cultural wars and ethnic divisions, Kaufmann says, “We need to talk about white identity.” He writes that societies need to shift their thinking and analyze how Western populations – immigrants, non-whites, whites and mixed populations – can co-exist.
We can re-engineer the system to create a new political centre, says Charles Wheelan of Dartmouth College and a former candidate for Congress
Strikingly, data from Beyond Conflict, an NGO that promotes reconciliation in conflict areas, show that Americans feel “dehumanised” by the opposing party—a sentiment often associated with political violence—at roughly the same level as Israelis and Palestinians viewed each other during the Gaza War in 2014.
Moreover democracy is being asked to deal with policy challenges that have longer time horizons and more complexity than in the past. So the urgency to fix problems can seem less apparent: it is more like termites in the basement than a collapsing roof. Complexity also opens up a space for demagoguery. Beating back Hitler was no easy feat—but the need to do so was easier to explain than why universal health care requires a health insurance mandate.
Many voters are convinced that politicians are selling them out. They have a point. When I ran for Congress in 2009 as a Democratic candidate in Illinois, I went hat-in-hand to rich donors, as all candidates must. After one meeting with a group of private-equity types, one of them pulled me aside and asked how I felt about the “taxation of carried interest”—an arcane policy that lets major investors pay less tax on their earnings.
I told the fellow that income was income, and that “carried interest” ought to be taxed the same way as everyone else’s paycheck, and not as capital gains.
“That’s too bad,” he said, and walked away. He did not write me a cheque. I lost the race.
.. It did not matter that I was taught by economists at the University of Chicago and took classes from three Nobel Prize winners. Political issues devolve into protecting one’s niche perks. In this case, some of the wealthiest people in the country cared about one issue: whether they could pay a lower tax rate than the people who make their lattes and mow their lawns. More cunning candidates tolerate this to get into office.
The constant need for fundraising also drives partisanship. Emails with subject-lines like “Help me strike a compromise to bring down the deficit” are certain to remain unopened. But drop into an inbox “The Republicans will end Medicare” or “The Democrats are killing babies” and the contributions will flow, helping to make the partisanship ever more toxic.
In this environment, the biggest threat to a candidate is not from an opposition party with a different set of policies but from the extremist end of his or her own party. Hence the rise of the word “primary” as a verb, as in “The Democrats may primary him.” The optimal strategy is ideological purity, even if it means getting nothing done as a legislator.
Now for the really dangerous part: changing demographics have made the electoral college and the Senate increasingly out of sync, as population grows in blue states and wanes in red ones. By 2040 it is possible that roughly 70% of Senate seats will be controlled by 30% of the population. If we are looking for something that can ignite the current partisan tinder, this is it: a prolonged period in which the political will of the majority is thwarted by a minority opposition.
There are lots of ways to do this but the two boldest ideas are to create an independent group of centrist legislators to act as the “king makers” to pass legislation, and to implement something called “ranked-choice” voting that would make it harder for candidates on the political extremes to win election. Consider both in turn.
First, the legislators. It is easy to imagine that a bipartisan group of prominent politicians could step aside from their parties, band together, and create a new movement of the centre. I called this the “fulcrum strategy” in my book “The Centrist Manifesto” in 2013, and it is similar to the recent moves by Labour MPs in Britain, now joined by a few Conservatives.
Just a small handful of defections would go a long way to changing America’s political dynamic. It could provide a pragmatic center of gravity, restore a shared political narrative, rebuild the connective tissue between the parties, and place a healthy check on the Trump administration and whoever comes after, in a way that is less partisan than the Democrats today.
Could it happen? Absolutely. Here is what Jeff Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona said at a conference this month at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “With three or four Rs and three or four Dems, if they come together now, or just about any time—the Senate rarely has more than a three-, four-, five- or six-person majority on either side—you could really change that place. You could create a completely different power structure. And that would be very healthy right now.”
Joel Searby, a political consultant working to rebuild the centre ground of American politics, says there is “high interest” in doing something like this. Mr Searby has met with chiefs of staff for a handful of senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to pitch the fulcrum idea. “They’re taking meetings with me in their Senate offices, and they know exactly what I’m there to talk about,” he says.
Moreover the Senate just got a new member who is less beholden to the political establishment than most: Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 who is also a former governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country. He has been a critic of the president from his own party. Will Mr Romney be the guy to change American politics forever? Or could it be the senator for Maine, Susan Collins? Or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat in a red state? It will only take a few.
The same fulcrum strategy could work at the state level. For all the talk of “red” and “blue” states, the fact is that many state legislatures are as narrowly divided as the Senate, meaning that a mere handful of centrists could band together to restore sanity.
In fact, in Alaska this just happened. After the mid-term election in 2018, a single Republican lawmaker refused to be the 21st vote that would give his party control of the 40-person legislature. Instead, he negotiated a governing coalition of eight Republicans, 15 Democrats and two independents. Committee chairs will be shared across parties and there is an independent speaker of the house.
The public seems receptive to this. After all, the two most popular governors are Republicans in blue states: Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. This suggests that there are politicians able to cross the partisan divide and that voters will embrace them.
Politics needs to evolve with the times like everything else. The Republican Party emerged to deal with the thorny issue of slavery. Emmanuel Macron built a new party in France and captured a parliamentary majority. If economists can count almost 5,000 breakfast cereals in America, why should its citizens settle for just two political parties?
Precedents exist, such as Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party that emerged in 2012. There are also examples of tiny factions that exert outsized influence, such as small, religious parties in Israel and Japan. A centrist faction can play the same role in America.
Then there is the issue of voting. There is a powerful change that would be a force for moderation: replace the primary system with a “top four, ranked choice” voting system. Yes, it needs a better name. But it’s the best way to hold elections with multiple candidates.
It works like this: In the first round of voting, the four top vote-getters advance. In the second round, voters rank those four candidates.
If no candidate wins an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Those who voted for that candidate get their second choice instead. And this process of counting the next-best-candidate continues until one person gets a majority.
This system has three huge advantages. First, it minimises partisanship. Candidates would no longer compete to attract support from the most ideological members of their party but from all voters, which would have a moderating influence.
Second, this would create space for new political competition since independents and third parties would no longer present a “spoiler problem”. For example, Ralph Nader would have been eliminated in 2000 after the first round; most of his votes would probably have gone to Al Gore, who then would have become president.
Third, ranked-choice voting also creates an incentive for candidates to behave more civilly because it is important to be many voters’ “second choice”. Maligning other candidates—and all the other nasty tactics of modern elections—would carry a higher price.
.. The political landscape could change quickly. Reforms like the “fulcrum strategy” and “ranked voting” will make it easier for independents and members of new parties to get elected. Public support for both parties is in secular decline. And much of the partisanship is negative partisanship, meaning that party identification is driven mostly by loathing for the other side. A solid majority of Americans say that the country needs a third major political party.
.. Indeed, the data from Beyond Conflict found that voters believe that members of the other party think worse of them than they actually do. It turns out that we have not dehumanised each other to the same degree as the Palestinians and the Israelis; it only feels that way.
.. There are four faces on America’s Mount Rushmore monument: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. With democracy under siege, it is worth thinking about each of them.
George Washington was an independent and warned about political “factions” in his farewell address. Thomas Jefferson said the greatest evil was “a Division of the Republic into two great Parties.” Abraham Lincoln was part of the new Republican Party that arose when the two extant parties could not manage the issue of slavery. Teddy Roosevelt made a third run for president with his own “Bull Moose Party.”
What the four leaders carved in stone share is an unease with partisanship, a willingness to challenge political orthodoxy, and an unwavering belief in democracy. Those are the right principles to bear in mind as we look to strengthen the foundations of our system.
The president is running hard on a strategy of riling up his base. But by doing that, he riles up the Democratic base, too, and that one is bigger.
Yet a key aspect of polarization has been somewhat overlooked: negative partisanship. Voters with this attitude are mobilized not by love of their own party so much as by hatred of the opposition party. Negative partisanship especially benefits the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, because out-party voters find themselves living in a world where their political preferences are under constant assault, or at least appear to be so.
.. Although Mr. Trump may well win Ohio and perhaps even Florida again, it is not likely he will carry Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2020.
.. Look at the midterm performance of statewide Democrats in those states. And his troubles with swing voters, whom he won in 2016, will put Arizona, North Carolina and perhaps even Georgia in play for Democrats and effectively remove Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire from the list of swing states.