The catechism of core beliefs that leads to support of Donald Trump is pretty simple. It goes, I think, like this: This country is going in the wrong direction and needs to change course. Trump is going in a different direction from everyone else and has possibly chosen a sound course. I will vote for him.
If this is right, it explains why the voluminous evidence of Trump’s character defects, falsehoods and con jobs are so irrelevant to his supporters. Those details do not touch the logic of this position. All that matters is that Trump be credible in his claim to be headed in a different direction from the herd. With regard to that claim, he is very, very credible indeed. He may be an ass, as Post columnist Kathleen Parker has written, but he is not a sheep.
If this is right, the catechism also brings more clearly into focus the shape of the political battlefield on which we find ourselves. In all the raucous name-calling, mockery, mudslinging and jujitsu position-taking, only two questions are ultimately at issue. Is this country on fundamentally the right or the wrong track? What would count as our being headed in a sound direction?
I think the fundamental question is whether we, the people, as a single people, are holding together.
Current levels of polarization in Congress equal those in the aftermath of the Civil War. At the height of the tea party mobilization, tea partyers wrote numerous declarations of independence, often from “progressives.” Over the course of the past seven years, Texas has seen the spread of grass-roots “secessionist” activism. As of 2010, 49 percent of Republicans said they would be upset if their child married someone from the other party. Antagonism aimed in the other direction has taken less formal shape, but the ugliness of much anti-Trump protesting makes clear how vehement it is. A third of Democrats said they would be upset if their child married someone from the other party.
Abraham Lincoln, who faced even greater division, proposed that the most important question was whether government of, by and for the people could endure. This is in fact a trick question, because it’s not about government. It’s about we, the people. Government of, by and for the people can endure only if “the people” can hold together as a people. This is the necessary precondition to ensuring that government responds to the people, is run by the people and serves the people.
The first question, then, in determining whether we are headed in the right or wrong direction is whether “the people” are holding, as a solid basis for a government. Do we 320 million or so Americans form an internally competitive but nonetheless connected body? The answer is a clear no. There is plenty of blame to go around, but we can leave the question of responsibility to the side for a moment in favor of considering how to respond.
What does it take for “the people” to endure? A democratic politician charts a sound course only if it includes proposals for the good of all citizens. Does a politician seek a common good? Only attempts to ensure that everyone’s good is incorporated in collective goals deserves that name.
Trump inspires broad antipathy because he makes it very clear that he has no aspiration to propose a common good that includes every American. He is pushing aggressively forward with dividing Americans, largely along racial lines. There are his wide-ranging slurs, of course, and his wildly irresponsible retweets, for instance, of plainly anti-Semitic images and massively inflated statistics about crime committed by African Americans. But more important, he routinely gives aid and comfort to sowers of division, and they acknowledge this.
A Twitter personality and avid Trump supporter who goes by the handle Ricky Vaughn is explicitly pursuing resegregation: “I would like to introduce ideas of racial consciousness into the mix so that patriotic American conservatives don’t feel bad about creating all-White communities and shunning mixed-marriages and that sort of thing, because we need racial separatism in order to maintain our unique culture and racial heritage.” The work of neo-segregationists like this is more thorough, more theorized, more coordinated and more influential than we have seen in some time. From Vaughn’s perspective, Trump is on his side. Vaughn affirmed in an interview in January that he sees Trump as “a beginning of a White identity politics.”
When have we heard Trump explicitly disavow the kinds of ideas espoused by the likes of Vaughn? I can’t find it. Trump may disavow the representative person here or there; for instance, David Duke. But when have we heard him disavow the actual ideas? As Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times reports, Trump frequently uses “I disavow” without any direct object.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton has come by fits and starts to articulate a vision whose aspiration is to include all Americans. We will be “Stronger Together,” her podiums now declare. Emphasis on the word “together.” Hers is the project of connecting all the members of our population into a whole and healthy people. She herself has begun to argue that by working together we can achieve “a better, fairer, stronger America.” “Fairness” is a strong word. Since antiquity, fairness has been recognized as the most important glue of social bonds.
Clinton is a far from perfect candidate. She, too, has character defects. She, too, is divisive. Whether she can make progress against polarization, as she aspires to in her first 100 days, by sitting down with Republicans over drinks, is a genuinely open question. But she has put bridge-building on the table as a top priority. Only she has done so.