The Great Divider

Barack Obama offered this warning about President Trump last week, ``If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you're not going to be able to govern them.''

The polarization of American politics did not begin with Trump. It's been going on for at least fifty years. Prior to Trump, the U.S. had four presidents in a row who pledged to heal the nation's divide. They all failed. Trump never made any pretense of being a healer. He got elected by exploiting the nation's division, aided (according to U.S. intelligence reports) by Russia.

As president, Trump has continued to foment division -- not just Republicans versus Democrats and conservatives versus liberals, but also White House versus Congress, establishment conservatives versus populists, blacks versus whites, men versus women, urban versus rural, religious versus secular, immigrants versus native Americans, the well educated versus Americans without college degrees, Washington versus the rest of the country, the U.S. versus the rest of the world. Even the bitter divisions of the Civil War have re-emerged.

The difference between Trump and his predecessors is that Trump deliberately foments division. He uses every issue, every policy, every tweet, to set one group of Americans against another. He thrives on political confrontation. The result is a level of bitterness and resentment the United States has not seen since the Civil War. Just this week, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake warned, ``We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country.''

With Trump, all politics is personal. It's all about him -- not policies or principles. While President Trump is exquisitely sensitive to everything said or written about himself, he seems indifferent to political ideas. Policymaking, after all, requires working with Congress and coordinating his priorities with theirs. He was enraged when the Republican Senate failed to deliver repeal of Obamacare and treated it as a personal betrayal.

Trump is committed to one thing above all -- winning. It doesn't much matter what he wins as long as he is perceived to come out on top. He promised his supporters, ``You're going to win so much, you're going to be so sick and tired of winning.'' How do you win by dividing people? Especially if there are more people against you than for you?

The answer is, the same way he won the election -- not by convincing the majority but by outmaneuvering them. In 2016, Trump identified a key constituency -- working class white voters in major swing states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin) -- and targeted them with a culturally populist message. It was them and Trump against the political and media elite. His populist base enabled Trump to win those states with bare majorities while losing California by 4.3 million votes.

``Trump is motivated by the same concern in all situations, which is to dominate and be perceived as having won,'' Tony Schwartz, who co-authored Trump's 1987 best-seller ``The Art of the Deal,'' told the Washington Post What if he doesn't win, as was the case with the Senate vote on Obamacare? Then it's somebody else's fault. Trump said to his cabinet, ``We're not getting the job done. I'm not going to blame myself, I'll be honest. They [the lawmakers] are not getting the job done. . . . I'm not happy about it.'' But government is not business. He can't fire Congress.

Trump is betting that, through sheer force of personality, he will get things done and break the gridlock in Washington. He loses no opportunity to boast about how much he has achieved as president even though critics see no major policy victories. He declared at a cabinet meeting in June that rare is the president "who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than what we've done, between the executive orders and the job-killing regulations that have been terminated." Politifact rated his claim as ``mostly false.''

The next test will be whether a Republican tax bill -- especially one embraced by President Trump -- can get any support from Democrats. Virtually every landmark policy in U.S. history has passed Congress with at least some bipartisan support -- social security, Medicare, civil rights, military intervention in Vietnam and Iraq, the Patriot Act, the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. A purely partisan policy lacks legitimacy and becomes vulnerable to political sabotage. Like Obamacare, which was passed in 2010 without a single Republican vote. Any legislation Trump wins on a partisan vote will suffer the same vulnerability.

Instead of policymaking by compromise, our political future may be cycles of lurching political revenge. As a Democratic governor put it, ``If [Trump] had followed Lincoln, he'd have tried to reinstate slavery.''

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