This piece ran in newspapers in my very red congressional District (VA-06) in September, 2018.
When I was running for Congress in 2012, a very nice couple who lived among the rolling hills of Augusta County offered to hold an event for me to meet-and-greet their friends and neighbors. They excitedly told me that their group would include some of their Republican friends from their church. I found that prospect especially appealing because, from the start of my campaign, it had been my hope that I would be able to talk to the kind of good, decent conservatives I’d gotten to know from my call-in talk-radio program.
When the day for the Meet-&-Greet arrived, the couple informed me, with great regret, that they’d been mistaken in assuming they’d be able to persuade their friends from church to come to meet me. The reaction of those Republican friends had shocked my hosts. “It was as if — at the very idea of coming to hear any Democrat –,” my hosts said, “they were making the sign of the cross and saying, ‘Satan get thee hence.’”
As we consider how deeply divided the American people are now, in this age of Trump, it seems important to recognize how far along that same path of political division we already were six years ago. The process of dividing the American people has been ongoing for years. And the divisions have only continued to deepen.
Recently, at the Shenandoah County Fair, that intensified spirit of division and antagonism was on full display. The Shenandoah County Republicans – reportedly at the behest of the Chairman of the county’s Republican Committee – bedecked their booth with a banner delivering the stunning message that people should reject the Democratic Party because it stands for “killing babies and raping children.”
(Fortunately, this vicious demonization offended enough people – both Democrats and Republicans – that the banner was ultimately taken down.)
History tells of an earlier time in America when such divisions grew and grew. After the election of 1860, a Georgia newspaper wrote: “The differences between North and South have been growing more marked for years, and the mutual repulsion more radical, until not a single sympathy is left between the dominant influences in each section.”
In 1860, it was a single profoundly important issue that fostered the deepening division in the nation. The dominant class in one of the nation’s major regions derived its wealth from the practice of slavery, and the nation broke up over the issue of whether slavery would be allowed to expand beyond the areas where it was already established.
In 2018, there is no such overriding issue that is generating our political conflict. The most intense divisions of this moment, rather, concern one particular individual—but he’s the one who occupies the most important office in our system of government, the President of the United States.
On the one side, there are tens of millions of Americans who support that President with great fervor. There is intensity also on the other side, where a remarkable 53% of the American people tell pollsters that they not only disapprove, but they “strongly disapprove” of that President.
It is hardly coincidence that the focus of America’s current divisions is a leader who has made it a consistent part of his political modus operandi to be divisive: one who plays always to his own base, and only to his base; one who, indeed, cements his bond with his supporters primarily by attacking the kinds of people and institutions they regard as their enemies.
Hatred opens the door to more hatred. When people think of “the other side” in “Satan get thee hence” terms, a leader who inflames divisions can be appealing.
As the experience of my hosts back in 2012 shows, Donald Trump did not create this mentality. He only exploited it.
If anyone wanted to wreak destruction on any society, there is probably no single strategy that would achieve that purpose better than to divide the people against each other.
Certainly that proved true as the “mutual repulsion” intensified after the election of 1860. At that time, the deepening divisions of the passions of two opposing groups of American citizens unleashed a bloodbath. It led to destruction greater than anything in our national history, inflicting wounds on the nation that remain far from fully healed.
How about now? How much of value in America will be destroyed by the divisions among the people this time around? Time will tell, as the drama over this unprecedented President unfolds.
But we should recognize that, over the course of the past generation, even apart from the current sharp divide over this President, the American people have already paid a huge price for the deepening divisions.
Here’s one important way we all lose:
In our democratic political system, when the people are so filled with hostility and fear toward each other that they cannot work together politically to achieve those goals they share, the two hostile sides cancel each other out in the political system. The “voice of the people” is rendered impotent to determine the nation’s course, and the people’s needs go unmet.
We get government of the people, but neither for nor by them. Indeed, as the antagonistic sides nullify each other, the power to determine the nation’s course can readily fall into the hands of the very powers that have deliberately inflamed those divisions.
Divide and conquer.