The master practitioner will be nominated by Republicans next week for a second term as president of the United States. Donald Trump is the most purely negative politician of our time — a category, not necessarily a value judgment. People are for him because of what he’s against: Mexican rapists, unfair trade deals, nasty women, fake news, American carnage. What sounded on its surface like a positive message — “Make America Great Again” — was revealed at Trump’s signature rallies to be a catchall of negative feelings: against open borders, against foreign alliances, against the Swamp, against political correctness and, ultimately, against Hillary Clinton. He opposes low-flow shower heads, patterned neckties and restaurants he hasn’t eaten in before. “What have you got to lose?” he asked, in one of his most memorable sales pitches. Here was the utter absence of an affirmative case.
Remarkably, Clinton’s 2016 campaign was almost as empty of positive messaging. Rather than present a vigorous case for herself, she hammered on the notion that Trump was unacceptable. Both campaigns were highly effective, judging from the record-low approval ratings the two candidates carried into Election Day. Theirs was the most negative campaign of modern times, certainly the only one to feature lusty chants demanding the imprisonment of one of the candidates.
Negative partisanship explains the striking fact that Trump has become the defining figure of today’s Republican Party without ever being a Republican in any meaningful sense. He identified as a Democrat for much of his adult life and flirted with an earlier run for the White House as an independent. The GOP embraced him not for his beliefs, but because he was lethal in political combat.
This also explains his durable base of roughly 40 percent. My exasperated Eastern associates sometimes ask me, as their One Red State Friend, how people in my neck of the woods can still be for Trump, given double-digit unemployment, roughly the equivalent of the population of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., dead from covid-19, his self-proclaimed love affair with the murderous dictator of North Korea, etc., etc., etc. They’re not for Trump, I explain. They’re against people like you. They support him because he drives you crazy, I say, and the angrier you get, the more they like him.
By derailing the economy, the coronavirus pandemic spoiled Trump’s hopes of putting a positive spin on his reelection. It also exposed the flaw in negative polarization: It leaves a leader paralyzed in times of crisis that call for teamwork and trust. Effectively handling the pandemic would have taken an affirmative plan: Do A, B, C and D — and keep doing them until the virus is under control. Instead, for nearly six months, Trump has zigzagged between ignoring the disease and trying to find an enemy to blame for it. Democrats were hyping it, he charged. President Barack Obama did not prepare properly. Health-care workers, he hinted darkly, might be stealing face masks. Governors were infringing on liberty, he tweeted. The World Health Organization was botching matters. Scientists from the Swamp were thwarting promising cures. The media was exaggerating the whole thing.
Now, it’s convention time, and Trump seems to have settled on China as his prime coronavirus villain. Pay no attention to his earlier declaration that dictator Xi Jinping was “doing a very good job” fighting the disease. That will be forgotten as easily as his campaign donations and wedding invitation to Clinton once were. Nameless looters, disrespecters of statuary and defunders of police are sure to be mentioned frequently, too — and don’t forget socialists. Democratic nominee Joe Biden will be linked to them all, the Zelig of enemies: pawn of China, protector of the lawless, puppet of leftists.
There will always be elbows thrown in American politics. But Biden, who delivered an entire acceptance speech without a single mention of Trump’s name, seems to understand that you can’t out-elbow this president. There is a quiet party in the electorate, composed of voters who want someone to vote for, not against; someone to drive progress, not wedges; someone who understands the precious and endangered value of social cohesion and public trust, and will take personal responsibility for nurturing them.
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