“But we don’t have laws,” Trump added. “We have laws that were written by people that truly could not love our country.”
That’s not a remarkable statement from Donald Trump the highly partisan Twitter user, but it’s a remarkable statement from the president of the United States.
A central theory of the American experiment is that differences in the views of the two parties reflect disagreements over policy and not the moral corruption of the political opposition. For a president, this has certainly been the accepted approach: Political opponents may be gigantic pains, but they aren’t evil. Presidents often say things such as we may disagree, but we all love our country.
That’s not what Trump is saying.
Why? Probably because, more than any other recent president, Trump is a member of the polarized base of his party and a longtime consumer of the partisan media that bolsters such polarization. Trump was not specifically saying that Democrats do not love the United States, but he frequently blames Democrats for not enacting policies that achieve his goals on immigration. Ascribing his “love our country” comments to the Democrats is not much of a stretch.
Nor is it an exotic view. A number of recent polls have shown increased hostility from members of one party toward the opposing party and its policies. (These polls don’t generally frame questions in terms of liking or disliking Democrats as people, but as groups and group actors.)
Pew Research has found that partisans are much more likely than they used to be to view the opposing party very unfavorably. A bit over 4 in 10 Democrats and Republicans view the opposing party very unfavorably.
During the 2016 election, Pew asked a more potent question: Is the opposing party a threat to the nation itself? A similar percentage of each party described the opposition as threatening to America.
A PRRI poll asked a variant on that question. More than half of Democrats and Republicans viewed the opposing party’s policies as “so misguided they pose a serious threat to the country.”
To believe that the opposition’s policies pose a serious threat to America suggests believing that the opposition does not have the country’s best interests at heart — that the opposition doesn’t love the United States.
Clearly, some significant part of his party agrees with Trump’s assessment of the policies of their political opponents. Trump reflects that sentiment regularly, not just during his speech. It’s worth reiterating how much of a break this is from past presidents. Presidents often see their role as lessening partisan animosity, not fostering it. To put it mildly, Trump is not a typical president.
As I was trying to find the polling above, I stumbled on an article that suggests that strong partisan animosity is hardly new. In 1861, the New York Times printed a speech by Sen. Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois who had just been beaten for the presidency by Abraham Lincoln. In that speech, Douglas railed against the still-young Republican Party.
“I appeal to you, my own Democratic friends — those men that have never failed to rally under the glorious banner of the country, whenever an enemy at home or abroad has dared to assail it,” Douglas said, “to you, who I believe to be the purest patriots that ever lived — do not allow the mortification growing out of defeat in a partisan struggle, and the elevation of a party to power that we firmly believed to be dangerous to the country — do not let that convert you from patriots into traitors to your native land.”
Even 150 years ago, one party viewed the other as “dangerous to the country,” suggesting that the sentiment captured in the polls above is not new.
Of course, Douglas was speaking about a week after the start of the Civil War, so take that precedent with a grain of salt.