North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the killing of members of his own family. He has tortured his citizens for speaking their minds, and overseen forced labor camps that enslave tens of thousands. He is reported to have executed rivals with antiaircraft guns. And he has threatened to unleash nuclear weapons on the United States.
Surely Democrats and Republicans can agree that North Korea’s dictator is far worse than any American elected official. Right?
Yet, in an Ipsos poll of 1,000 people conducted June 14-15, more Republicans have a favorable view of Kim than of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In total, 19 percent of Republican respondents indicated that they viewed him favorably, compared to 17 percent who said the same about Pelosi.
This is the ultimate statistic of the Trump era – one in which partisan tribalism and polarization have become absolutes while truth and morality have become relative.
Kim Jong Un may starve millions, sure, but – prepare yourself for the collective gasp of horror – Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat.
A growing number of Republicans now see politics purely through the lens of Trump’s cult of personality. Pelosi stands up to Trump; Kim just shook his hand. Trump says Kim is a “strong” leader who can “run it tough” but says that Pelosi is “weak.” That’s enough for many Trump followers to conclude that Pelosi is bad and Kim is good. Sure, Pyongyang doesn’t look great – but have you seen San Francisco?
This is, to a large extent, Trump’s fault. His constant lies, gaslighting, whataboutism and moral debasement have caused many of his supporters to lose their moral bearings. Indeed, shortly before Trump took office, a poll showed that 35 percent of Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin favorably, compared to just 9 percent who felt the same way about President Barack Obama. Those numbers were surely affected by Trump attacking Obama with lies while consistently acting as a moral apologist for Putin, a man who murders journalists, assassinates rivals, and has helped commit war crimes in Syria.
But before we blame Trump exclusively, it is historically inaccurate to claim that he is the exclusive cause of our partisan tribalism or moral relativism toward abusive dictators. There was a brief period in which polls showed Democrats with more favorable views of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez than President George W. Bush (though it’s worth pointing out that, while Chavez was a murderous autocrat, he didn’t rise to Kim’s level of depravity).
The gulf between Democrats and Republicans has been steadily growing for many years before Trump entered office. In 1994, 16 percent of Democrats had a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party; 17 percent of Republicans thought the reverse about the Democrats.
By 2014, those numbers had spiked: 43 percent of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, with 36 percent – more than one in three – saying that the Democrats are “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” For Democrats’ views of Republicans, the animosity was less intense, but still had grown considerably. In many ways, Trump’s victory was the result of tribalism rather than the cause of it.
But since taking office, Trump has departed from all previous administrations by pursuing a “base-only” political strategy aimed at solidifying support among Republicans rather than winning over Democrats. As a result, he has absurdly depicted Democrats as evil incarnate – people who want gangs of illegal immigrants to come to your house and abduct and murder your child. (In truth, not a single congressional Democrat condones illegal immigration and all of them find gangs like MS-13 despicable).
On the other hand, Kim Jong Un recently detained a young American, Otto Warmbier, and left him to die. There is some serious Houdini-level moral contortionism going on within the ranks of the Republican Party for some people to view him favorably while simultaneously demonizing Pelosi.
Americans of all political stripes used to be able to agree that, even if the rival political party wasn’t great, it was certainly better than a foreign dictator. That is no longer the case.
American democracy is under threat from such unhinged tribalism. After all, if you think that Pelosi is worse than a dictator who runs prison camps with forced labor, then how could you possibly condone a politician in your political tribe compromising with her?
For too many Americans, a clear sense of moral right and wrong has been sacrificed on the relativistic Trumpian altar of intensifying polarization.