(Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on ‘Politics in the Trump Era’)
During his campaign, Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’, which was a way of saying he would be a radically different President. After defying almost all the polls and conventional wisdom by being elected, I think all would agree that he has fulfilled that promise. As President, he has totally gone against conventional wisdom and has set his own course, whether for good or bad.
In doing so, both his Presidency and his campaign have had an impact on US politics probably far more than anyone else in the last century, at least. As mid-term elections approach, it seems a somehow timely and appropriate to reflect on those changes.
Donald Trump has change electoral politics in the US and has dramatically changed both the Democratic and Republican parties for at least a generation.
Donald Trump has changed his political beliefs over the last decade significantly. However, it’s his ‘style’ that is what generates more reaction than his beliefs and policies. He makes no apology for being ‘in your face’ and regularly lashes out at opponents, not only attacking their position but usually often attacking them personally. Those who dislike Trump see that as childish and ‘un-Presidential’, while fans of Trump tend to see that as ‘telling it like it is’ without the politically correct spin. Love him or hate him, there is a very small percentage of people that don’t have a strong opinion one way or another.
For Democrats, the reaction has been almost a visceral dislike or maybe even would go so far as to say hatred. Trump, in part, was a reaction to his predecessor, President Obama. Obama was probably the most liberal President since FDR. As such, he set a liberal agenda that was very different than his predecessors, much of which angered a segment of the population. Trump played on that. And, right or wrong, his ‘in your face’ style has resonated with a segment that felt under attack. The flip side to Trump’s style and over the top, shoot from the hip statements is that he angers a whole segment of the population, as well,, just a different segment. Not only do Democrats disagree with most of his politics, they are the target of most of his personal attacks. As such, the opposition is often personal. And passionate. And absolute.
For those who oppose Trump, the opposition is deep-seated and, as a result, there is little appetite for compromise. Everything must be opposed, and because the opposition is so personal and passionate the opposition must be at every step and at all costs. Moderates, who may be willing to find common ground in some cases, are criticized at every step.. Any common ground is viewed as ‘giving in’ and so only the most extreme are left. And because of this, the Democratic Party has moved significantly farther to the left, especially when combined with the strength of Bernie Sanders campaign in the last presidential primary season.
The Democratic Party, at least as reflected in those running for office, is significantly different even from two years ago. A self-avowed socialist with little experience defeated a member of the House Democratic leadership in the primary in New York. A socialist is running for governor in Florida. And though there were always House districts and places such as California that were decidedly more liberal than most, that fact is more widespread now indicating that either that constituency has grown or become more passionate or that it has grown because of the passion.
On the Republican side we see a similar push, just the other direction. Donald Trump defeated a large field of candidates to win the nomination for President, and most of those differed very little in the traditionally conservative positions that they held. Trump ran a campaign that was much more personal in his attacks on his opponents. On taking office, he also went against many traditionally Republican positions. For example, he has approached the government like he runs his businesses and is willing to take on extreme amounts of debt, including pushing for a large spending on infrastructure similar to what President Obama had proposed. He has changed many aspects of US foreign policy. But probably most significantly, he has continued the personal nature in which he disagrees with opponents and more than probably any politician before him he uses social media and often ‘shoots from the hip’ despite his staff’s attempts to rein in his more outlandish statements.
Several prominent conservative and Republican figures have left the party or retired. George Will, the widely syndicated, long time conservative columnist has formally left the Republican Party. William Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard has been an ardent opponent of Trump, as has Ohio Governor John Kasich, and several other prominent office holders. Some have lessened their opposition because Trump has remained popular among a large segment of Republican voters. Others have decided to leave politics, because they disagree with the direction the President is taking the party or are tired of having to answer for his routinely controversial statements. Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker-both prominent conservatives who have been outspoken at times in their opposition to Trump, are retiring. Also not running for re-election are House Speaker Paul Ryan, probably the second most powerful person in government, as well as seven chairmen of committees in the House of Representatives. It’s unusual for such powerful members of Congress to retire while their party holds the majority in Congress.
The result has had a similar effect on politics in the GOP as it has in the Democratic Party. People who disagree are often verbally attacked personally. Those who may be more inclined to compromise in order to get things done are criticized for ‘giving in’. The result is that it’s an ‘all or nothing’ battle over almost every issue. And those who may disagree have found themselves the object of those personal attacks from a President of their own party.
Donald Trump has pushed politics in both the Democratic and Republican parties away from the center. The standard set by many, in both parties, is that you are either with President Trump totally or you are against him totally. Of course, depending on your political leaning that is either wonderful or hateful. Those in the middle are cast aside by large segments of both parties. And that is the biggest reason that we see the polarization of US politics today.
The elections on Tuesday, in many cases, offer those polar choices-either very radically liberal or very lock-step Trump. Is there any hope for restoring a willingness to work together, or even a level of civility by those who either hate or love President Trump? One often wonders, but hope is a wonderful thing.