It has become fashionable to talk about political polarization in the United States as if this was a new thing. There has always been heavy competition, and one side typically thinks of the other side as rather unpalatable. Has it gotten worse? Maybe. What should we do about it? Don’t feed the beast, don’t make it worse, don’t trump it up. We need kindness, sanity, and bipartisanship, especially from the sitting President. And then, Biden felt the need of throwing all this away in his Philadelphia Speech right before Labor Day.
Certainly, there is some merit to complaining about those who still believe (against a mountain of evidence) that Trump was cheated out of a second term. Nobody likes to lose elections. Donald Trump still has to accept his defeat, that is clear, and those who share his illusion should see the light. Yet there are still plenty of Democrats out there who for quite a time called George W. Bush an illegitimate President, or believed that Stacey Abrams was the real governor of Georgia (at least she could play the Federation President on Star Trek: Discovery…). Gerhard Schröder in Germany famously tried to deny Angela Merkel her victory. Denying the legitimacy of a rightful election is wrong and dangerous, but occurs not just in one political camp. Admittedly, and aside from other “what-abouts,” Trump’s case is the most outrageous so far, of course, because of what happened in January 6, 2021; there is no denying this, and even if you agreed with some of his policies (or attempts at policies) before, after his petulant behavior, another Trump presidency would be a vindictive one – we don’t need this.
Yet to call all his supporters (or those who pretend to rally behind him) “MAGA Republicans,” and to call them dangerous to democracy is not something which a sitting President should have said. Biden should know better. This is basically “basket of deplorables” 2.0 – a remark that arguable sunk Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. It also betrays a misunderstanding what the Trump movement has been about.
What Trump is best at is to “troll” people – and he is doing it to Democrats and Republicans and Independents alike. He is the contrarian in chief, the instigator, the pot-stirrer, the fly in the ointment. There is some value in it, after all, was it not chic to have sympathy for the devil? Is not the heart of the left precisely this anti-establishment, contrarian, question-asking, no-holds-barred style? It probably is not a good look for a president though. Rule number one with regards to such behavior: don’t feed the troll. Don’t get down to this level. As the saying goes: “Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll both get dirty, and the pig will love it.”
All people are your people. Don’t insult them. Be kind. Give them a choice. Win them over. Make an argument. Govern well. Be a uniter, not a divider. This is how you win back those who feel disaffection with politics – for this is what the “MAGA” crowd largely stands for.
You may not agree with those still supporting Trump or Trumpism, you may not be part of them (I certainly am not), but you need to understand what motivates them. Trump understood that there is a part of the population that is disgusted with both Republicans and Democrats. Some of them may have even voted for Obama before. What unites them is the frustration with the status quo that sees them as current or potential losers in a game they consider to be rigged against them, with all politicians, major corporations, and institutions allegedly benefiting from their misery. Trumpism is truest populism, neither left nor right, playing into resentment and magnifying it for political capital. Ironically, while pretending to have the solution for his people’s problems, Trump has done little to help them. Here is where a solution might be presented: politics needs to be practical and actually solve people’s real problems: physical and financial security, better life for their kids than their own, etc. Then, and only then, can we start talking about pronouns. Trumpism does not exist because of Trump; it exists because establishment politics has not been doing the job that voters have been demanding it to do.
Additionally – which makes this more complicated – the “moderate Republicans” just praised by Biden are frequently those who supported George W. Bush’s war against terror, including two utterly catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The scoreboard of who was the worst President in recent memory still, in my view, has “W” tower over anyone else. Biden reaching out to the Bush and Cheney crowd is just confirming the Trump narrative even more – which could be summarized via Mercutio by wishing “a pox on both their houses.”
Biden won the election because people believed he could unite us again and defeat populism by making it unnecessary. His recent speech may well have counteracted all his recent policy achievements, and it certainly triggered Trump into a response and solidified what may have to be understood as “wrestling-style” politics in which “enemies” “diss” each other back and forth.
In a democracy though, the “other side” is not the enemy – they are the competition. The path of demonization is a dangerous one; beware what you wish for. Most Republicans certainly are not in Trump’s camp, but should Trump be the candidate, of course they will have to unite behind him. That is the nature of democracy. Will all Republicans then be “MAGA”? Could you really expect them to side with the Democrats? You may not agree with your political opponent, but you have to acknowledge their right to disagree, even vehemently, even if you would consider it unreasonable.
Alas, here is the problem: With this speech, claiming to be a uniter working to overcome the political divide, but singling out “MAGA Republicans” as the enemy, Biden played Trump right into his hands, proving that he is not the uniter he claims to be. You simply cannot pretend to want to be speaking for all Americans – and then single out those you don’t agree with.