Exploiting America's Tribal Warfare Is Donald Trump's Survival Strategy

President Donald Trump speaks before signing trade sanctions against China on March 22, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of t
President Donald Trump speaks before signing trade sanctions against China on March 22, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. 

There is no good time for Donald Trump to be president of the United States. But 2018 is among the worst.

True, we are not at this moment engaged in all-consuming war. But what is so dangerous today is our civil war of the soul: By virtually every measure, Americans are more alienated from each other than ever before.

For someone who displays amoral, narcissist tendencies like Trump, our grave societal fissure is an irresistible opportunity ― and a tool of survival. In great measure, the president’s hope of thwarting the Russia investigation depends on igniting a cataclysmic civic rupture, turning his followers against the rule of law itself.

Here lies fertile ground. Instead of sharing a common vision, Americans are forming into opposing tribes based on culture and demographics. Under stress, their estrangement could tear us apart.

However malignant his motives, Trump is the ultimate accelerant of this potentially lethal chasm ― not its cause. Over time, we have sorted ourselves into communities separated by geography, ethnicity, education, economic status and sources of information. And so demography breeds demagoguery ― in this case, invoked by a president to govern outside the law.

The election of 2016 was an X-ray of the divisions Trump manipulates. Hillary Clinton’s 3 million-vote edge came from only 16 percent of U.S. counties. Yet those same counties generate 65 percent of our gross national product, and their median home price was 60 percent higher than it was in counties carried by Trump. 

These ascendant counties, largely urban, are geographically isolated: islands of the relatively privileged and diverse surrounded by what is, to many of them, an uncharted sea in which people they don’t know often dog paddle to survive ― in turn resentful of those who they, too, will never meet.

No longer do partisans view their political opponents as simply wrong or misguided, but as enemies of all they hold dear.

Thus our two major parties increasingly represent two very different Americas. And this divide cuts through education, race and gender.

As the demographer and researcher Paul Taylor writes in The Next America, the GOP “skews older, whiter, more religious and more conservative, with a base that is struggling to come to grips with the new racial tapestries, gender norms and family constellations,” whereas Democrats tend to be “younger, more nonwhite, more liberal, more secular, and more immigrant- and LGBT-friendly.”

These opposing groups have become hostile forces living in gated communities of the mind, ripe for exploitation by an unprincipled president. According to a Pew Research survey taken after the 2016 election, Fox News was the primary source of campaign reportage for 40 percent of Republicans ― but only 3 percent of Democrats who, though in lesser numbers, preferred CNN and MSNBC. And so mutual estrangement metastasizes unchecked. 

The result, Taylor explains, is that “90 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat in their core social, economic and political views, while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” Moreover, he adds, “two thirds of consistent conservatives and half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.”

This divide permeates our attitude toward basic institutions. More Republicans than Democrats distrust government. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans favor labor unions. Most Americans distrust the media, but Republicans distrust it more. Most Democrats, but only a minority of Republicans, believe that colleges and universities have a positive effect on our society.

Thanks to Trump, this schism inflames our most visceral issues.

Take race and ethnicity. In 2016, nearly 75 percent of Clinton supporters said our growing diversity made America better; fewer than half of Trump supporters agreed.

Or immigration. More than 80 percent of Democrats view it positively; the 42 percent of Republicans who agree are slightly outnumbered by those who feel immigrants ― legal or otherwise ― burden America.

Or feminism and gender. Recent polls inspired by the Me Too movement show that a strong majority of Democrats consider sexual harassment a serious problem, but fewer than half of Republicans agree.

Or guns. Far more Republicans than Democrats consider gun ownership to be an essential element of freedom. Of all our societal debates, none breeds more anger, fear and paranoia. 

Trump speaks to supporters in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, on March 10. 
Trump speaks to supporters in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, on March 10. 

All these fault lines fuel political trench warfare, stifling compromise and preventing us from resolving our most pressing problems. But equally pernicious is how this mass failure of empathy and imagination poisons our attitudes toward each other ― and serves Trump.

No longer do partisans view their political opponents as simply wrong or misguided, but as enemies of all they hold dear. As Taylor notes, ever more Republicans and Democrats deny each other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, deplore each other’s news sources, detest each other’s party and, indeed, despise and dehumanize who they imagine each other to be. 

Relentlessly, Trump stokes this. And so his enthusiasts feel beset by hostile forces that only Trump can repel.

This, above all, is what makes the Trump presidency such an unrelenting tragedy and, at worst, our undoing. If Vladimir Putin had designed a “Siberian candidate” to weaken and degrade us, he could have done no better than Trump. The presidency has not transformed him; he has transformed the office. His sickness worsens ours.

Now, quite obviously, Trump is preparing to subject our country to a constitutional crisis – to save himself.

Trump’s countless lies erode communal understanding. He attacks our courts and slanders any governmental body that can call him to account. He exploits the bully pulpit to sow discord and shift blame. He nourishes the racial, ethnic and religious hatreds that most divide us.

Relentlessly, he undermines respect for democracy and civil liberties. He rejects the responsibility of a president to respect our institutions and administer our laws. He discredits any source of information that threatens his alternate reality ― striving to obliterate our collective belief in the existence of objective fact.

In sum, Trump makes no distinction between his office and himself. He governs only to serve his warped psychology and infinite self-absorption.

But his ultimate damage may be yet to come.

The Russia investigation looms ever larger. Before the rise of Trump, the issue presented would have been unthinkable: whether a major-party presidential candidate, subsequently victorious, bartered America’s interests in exchange for electoral or financial assistance from our leading foreign adversary. But beneath that lies an even more fundamental ― indeed, existential ― question: whether our democracy and the rule of law can withstand assault from a president to whom they are inimical.

Trump has repeatedly attacked the credibility of the Russia investigation, and all those seeking to conduct it, inflaming his adherents. A Reuters poll in February showed that 73 percent of Republicans believe the Justice Department and FBI are “working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.” Indeed, another poll found that 77 percent of Republicans believed that senior officials “knowingly coordinated to frame the president with allegations of Russian collusion.”

Now, quite obviously, Trump is preparing to subject our country to a constitutional crisis ― to save himself.

His public bullying of Andrew McCabe, culminating in a spiteful firing timed to inflict economic damage, is yet another effort to intimidate those who would uphold the rule of law. He has attacked deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller, and conscripted Republicans in the House, to serve a single purpose ― to undermine lawful efforts to investigate the role of his campaign in Russia’s attack on our election, and persuade his fervent followers that reckoning his responsibility subverts their will.

He has every reason to hope. His party’s spineless leaders murmur their misgivings ― but take no legislative steps to protect Mueller and his investigation. Fox News and the right-wing media inflame his adamant adherents. His shabby chorus of legal and political enablers shout that conspirators within the government are victimizing Trump. All this feeds the president’s all-consuming psychic urge: to bury the truth by firing Mueller ― confident that his strategy of divide and diminish will save him from impeachment.

Should he succeed, our descent into tribalism will become authoritarianism. Our salvation lies in citizens ― and leaders ― who insist on a common commitment to what has defined America at its best: an idea of country, and ourselves, that transcends the hatred and alienation that ― as history illustrates so vividly ― enable demagogues to destroy democracy itself.

Our defining moment is at hand.

Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.