It’s now exactly a year before Election Day 2020, and the nation is as divided as it’s been since the 1960s. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, exist in their own little worlds — their own corners of reality. Many no longer see political opponents when they look across this chasm separating them—they see “the enemy.”
“It seems like Republicans and Democrats are intractable,” said Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and chairman of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. “They are both adhering to their own versions of reality, whether they’re based in truth or not.”
The political divisions today reflect societal and economic schisms between more rural, largely white communities where the economy depends on industries being depleted by outsourcing and automation, and more urban, racially diverse areas dominated by a service economy and where technology booms are increasing wealth.
Many of those divisions existed before Trump, but his presidency has exacerbated them. Trump has panned his political opponents as “human scum,” while Democrats view his vision for America’s future as anathema to the country’s founding values.
Trump is both victimized and empowered by the divisions. He is constantly looking to exacerbate tensions between the races, religions, native-born and immigrants, and even the sexes. Any point of vulnerability is exploited for political gain, energizing his base and reminding them why they elected him: to stick it to the “elites” and their leftist ideological enemies.
But what ye sow, ye also reap. Trump didn’t create the conditions under which the presidential race of 2020 is being run. Democrats are using the president’s attack-dog rhetoric to gin up fear and outrage among their primary constituents: minorities, the young, single women, and the far-left radicals who are using all of them to fundamentally transform the nation.
Whoever wins will face the same partisan warfare that Obama and Trump faced, forcing the 2020 winner — regardless of who it is — to govern by decree.
To win, Trump’s campaign needs to recreate the enthusiasm among his core supporters, a task that isn’t always easy for an incumbent burdened with a four-year record in office. But Trump is already leaning hard into the strict immigration policies that enlivened his supporters in 2016, while trying to convince more skeptical Republicans that Democrats are moving so far left as to be outside of the mainstream.
Rather than trying to persuade independents and moderate Democrats to switch their allegiances, the Trump campaign also believes it has better prospects in identifying Trump fans who didn’t show up in 2016 and mobilizing them to vote.
Trump’s biggest advantage is a booming economy, which has led to unemployment numbers that haven’t been seen in the lifetimes of many economists. Growth slowed a bit in the last quarter, but despite hopeful rhetoric from Democrats about a looming recession, the signs just aren’t there.
The Democrats’ biggest advantage is that Trump is president. He is an inviting and open target as liberals are able to define him as, if not the devil incarnate, then as a perfect stand-in for the “white oppressor” they have been taught to hate. Fear him. Loathe him. He is a racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted, anti-immigrant, misogynistic, anti-Muslim sexual assaulter. Joe Biden, speaking on Friday night in Des Moines:
“We have got to beat this man. It’s not enough that we just beat him — we’ve got to beat him soundly so everyone knows we are not going back to a time when another president like him can hold that office,” Biden said. “And I will beat him like a drum if I’m your nominee, and he knows it.”
Indeed, Trump supporters devoutly wish the same. It’s not enough just to win for either side. Victory pales in comparison to humiliating and destroying the enemy. How far is it from there to wanting to throw your opponent in jail? Or execute them?
The United States is headed for some kind of smash-up, and both sides are running at top speed toward a gasoline dump with a lit match.