You can always count on it in the United States. Political fervor and dispute reach a fever pitch. The rancor, though rarely quite as now, seems it will split the nation apart. And some in the journalistic wisdom pool and among the collected sages of the commentariat will gather themselves up in waves of sameness to decry the ever increasing “partisan divide.” Politicians will attempt to burnish, yet one more time, an oft tarnished reputation by singing the same doleful song, imploring, Can’t we all get along? Can’t we all work together? Both sides do it.
This pat mediocrity of thought, with its facile moralizing, misses almost everything. It is the empty dress of virtue with a Church bonnet on it, mind masquerading as intellect by the prop of a pince-nez.
The question occurs — what exactly is a partisan divide?
A “partisan” is a “firm adherent of a party, faction, cause, or person,” especially, “one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance.” It isn’t hard to recognize such people. In the U.S., prominently, they spin, on payroll, for political candidates and office holders. In the media, their heads talk for the modern-day political Roman circus of unyielding dispute. No matter the unsupportable act or position, they will support it. Catch their candidate with a hand in the till, and they will what about you all day long about some other candidate on the other side who also has hands.
Sure, there are partisans. Sure, they demean our politics. But that isn’t what people mean when they invoke the partisan divide as two-bit sociological analysis. At the links above, Fareed Zakaria, at the Washington Post, and Ted Koppel, for CBS News, are bemoaning — and pretending to explain — a social affliction, a disease of the polis, and they are claiming that the disease is partisanship itself. They claim it regarding divisions over the presidency of Donald Trump, and they claim it because of the intensity of the division.
Does that make sense?
Most outstanding in American history, the Civil War presented the country at a period of deadly division. In more modern times, the Vietnam War era, amid Civil Rights activism and racial unrest, and the Sixties counterculture, showed the nation deeply socially, culturally, and politically divided. No doubt, sometimes, something is seriously wrong amidst us, with dangers present. However, the cataclysm of the American Civil War was not, simply, that a nation was divided against itself, but, rather, why it was divided against itself. The sad song of the partisan divide — the bogus wisdom of its invocation, and decrial of its destructive effects — is like telling a man with a fever that he’s burning up and needs to cool down. It was typical Trumpian know-nothingism when he suggested that the Civil War was a consequence of inadequate negotiating skill, as if maybe a proposal of slavery only on Saturdays and the granting of Southern States’ right to secede, in their dreams, might have sealed the deal. To declare that we are all too divided and need to come together is nothing more than to confuse the symptoms for the disease.
Is it a “both sides” partisan balance between the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, who carried out their Nazi-style torchlit march with chants of “blood and soil” and the Americans who reject them? Is it more than merely ironic that Trump, making his roundly criticized public statement on the violence and death that followed the march, offered almost precisely that characterization of events?
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” Trump stated, and repeated, “On many sides.” The web cesspool that is the neo-Nazi The Daily Stormer got the message:
One thing that a “party, faction, cause, or person” is not is an idea. What comes closest is the cause, which is in service to some kind of idea, but is distinct from it. The cause is a mission, but not the idea itself. When one commits to a mission, one aims for its completion. To commit, in contrast, to an idea is to commit, in principle, to its integrity. That is the whole purpose of entering the world of ideas. Of course, ideas become attached to parties, and causes, and all the rest. Ideas also attach to other ideas, and are developed at times into ideologies. Ideologies evolve into intellectual causes, then into political ones; the instinct to prevail — to withstand and win out over competing ideologies — arises, and the conditions for “blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance” are created. But it is the person who is partisan, not the idea, which may still be judged independent of the blind defense or unreasoning allegiance.
In the age of Trump, we are a long way from W.B. Yeats’s fearful “Second Coming,” in which “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” How quaint and easy compared to today to live in a world in which the polarities are so neatly reversed. In the age of Trump, passionate intensity flows like the tweetstorm — at as little cost — and conviction, in the form of endless expressions of personal opinion, is the mark of a self.
During the presidential campaign, it was regularly and witlessly observed in the media that Trump’s appeal among his supporters was that he was a straight shooter, blunt and direct. This was said about a man who is measurably the greatest liar ever to occupy public political space in the history of the country. He is crude, bombastic, and foul, with a New York accent, and this appearance was taken, in surprising homage to New Yorkers from the rest of the country, for the straight-talk of genuine conviction. He is relentlessly insulting in his own egocentric defense, and this is taken for passionate intensity. But in the twenty-first century, who outstrips the Islamist fanatic for passionate intensity and demonstrated conviction? In the age of Trump, one can judge nothing of a person or cause by those attributes.
Ideas, including political views, are not reasonably judged by the passionate conviction behind the grievances they express. As “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is an empty, uncritical exercise in relativism, so too is the characterization of “partisanship” applied to strongly held and contending views. Critical judgments must be made. Deeply examined virtues and verities should guide us.
However aggressively Trump now pursues what appears a conservative-Republican political agenda, it is not only contrary to so many of his former attitudes, but also manifestly an agenda of opportunity and personal animus, pointedly for and against supporters and opponents. Even many supporters recognize that Trump has no real politics, which are for him only the dynamics of ego and dominance. He is, like all demagogues, himself a divider by nature. As the charlatan salesman that is his most talented self, he divides people from their own best interests, and, dividing them from each other, from their own best selves. As he achieved his shocking successes, he divided the Republican Party and conservative movement between the opportunists and the craven and between the weak minded and the principled dissenters. Now he divides the nation.
Divisions in the United States over Trump are not like disagreements over the reach of government, federalism vs states’ rights, the role of the free market, or any other of the philosophical differences about the regulation of a social order found in a democracy. Donald Trump is a fundamental challenge to American democracy. Were he to be impeached and removed from office tomorrow, it would remain to be seen how destructive and lasting an effect he had had on the U.S. already by his successful flouting of every established standard of political and presidential conduct, and by his corruption of national institutions. The fact that tens of millions of Americans voted for him, that among his supporters may be found people of education and experience, and that an entire political party that did not want him weakly succumbed to him — these are not, as superficial weights on a scale of pro and con, arguments for the equivalent features of a partisan divide. They are reasons for historic anguish, as always before. The numbers of Erdogan’s minions do not justify him. Neither did those of Chavez him, nor the heaving, cheering masses for any of history’s great demagogues and tyrants.
I recently came across a video I found especially engaging at this present time. It is of the trial of conspirators in the 20 July plot of 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Its drama is to be found in the faces of the conspirators and the typical Nazi barking of the judge. But my greater interest, now, was in the courtroom audience of military personnel and civilians. I do not know who anyone is. I simply observed, and attempted to enter into the space of that time and occasion.
Very early, there is the officer, up front, who turns and smiles at someone, the civilian just across the aisle from him. The smaller faces that are people now dead, in the background.
What was going through each of their minds, there in the courtroom, I wonder? What did each of them, eleven years into the Third Reich, think and believe? Some had spent those years getting along however possible. Nazism had happened. They weren’t going to be able to do anything about that. They were no heroes. (Look at what happened to the conspirators! von Stauffenberg!) They were doing the best they could. Others, next to them, were calculators: you believe this, you believe that — the point is to succeed in life. The Nazis were the wave. They swam with it. Did pretty well, too. Look where it had taken them, to that courtroom. And how great Germany had become — great again after the humiliation, and the carnage, of the First World War. Still others, scattered about the room — others believed. They sat in that courtroom, after all the years of growling incivility, of the racist dehumanization and the violence, even a war, and still they believed. They believed. For every charge against, they had a counter charge. For every complaint about … they had a “what about.” How they hated the communists, the decadent liberals. How the strength of der Fuhrer made them feel strong.
Passionate intensity, conviction, the righteousness of one’s grievances — they are the markers of evil as much as good. Few but the homicidal psychopath conceive themselves as intending wrong, and even Milton’s Satan had a grievance. Evil, to revise Graham Greene in The Quiet American, on innocence, “is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” How many of Marx’s twentieth century adherents intended, at the start, to do wrong?
Among the arrogances of the modern American nation has been to mistake its exceptional conception with something inherently extraordinary in its people. Even now, with such bold dishonesty and brute, ignorant egoism catapulted into the office of its presidency, members of the conventional pundit class often cannot conceive that the American people, and much of the country’s leadership, have committed the same errors of judgment and betrayed the same weaknesses of character as have before led other nations into authoritarianism. It cannot happen here is an arrogant faith too ingrained in their psyches: Americans (that motley citizenry) are in some mystical way too good a people to fail as others have failed. And with the American polity so conceived, too much opposition to Trump must therefore be an excess, and the friendship-ending division among neighbors is itself the “partisan” wrong, rather than the consequence of a grave error committed only by some part of the nation. After Trump’s degenerate speech to the Boy Scouts of America, Mark Salter, former speech writer for John McCain, offered the essential observation:
I was a Boy Scout for five or six years. The whole point of the experience was to teach kids not to grow up to be like Donald Trump.
— Mark Salter (@MarkSalter55) July 25, 2017
Truths, unlike election results, are almost always clearer in retrospect, but they are not in the meantime determined by popular or electoral vote. Still, wide swaths of the American journalistic ranks continue to clutch at the crutch of neutrality as the prime support for their professional charge of objectivity. They will, in that confused sociological framing of their mission, posit, beyond the electoral legitimacy, some political cum moral legitimacy to the Trump phenomenon, if not Trump himself, because of the millions who voted for him. That is exactly what Naomi Klein, no pretender to neutral journalism, does from the far left, here, early in the clip, advocating for Bernie Sanders because he won thirteen million votes in 20 states. Dismissing so many Americans as extremists she says, “is a huge mistake.” One suspects Trumpists, with his near sixty-three million votes and 30 states, will accept the form of that argument. At the time of his resignation from the presidency, 24%, nearly a quarter of the nation, still approved of the job Richard Nixon was doing; no more than 57%, not an overwhelming majority, thought he should resign. There are those still who believe Nixon was wronged. Unsurprisingly, they are among those who now laud Trump. There is always someone to support any position, and as always, to feel strongly about it.
Klein, from the left, makes the argument of her new book, that No Is Not Enough. Like others, she argues that Democrats, as a party seeking to win the competition for minds and votes, need, clearly, to stand for more than just opposition to Trump. But Klein, as a partisan, is only too happy to subsume Trumpism within the bounds of conservatism — which is the worst way to identify the truth of what Trump is, or to save the country from him. The profound significance of the conservative Never-Trumper is precisely to cast Trump out of bounds of all reasoned and ethically defensible political behavior. Never-Trumpers argue by their very dissent that there remains a range of divergent political beliefs that still reside, in their difference, within the tradition of liberal democracy, moral probity, and human decency — that Trump, rather than conservative, is illiberal in spirit, corrupt of character, and an authoritarian in proto-form.
It is no accident of history that it was the Republican Party in which Trump found his opportunity and his home, though he was often a Democrat. While base partisanship can always be found wherever one looks for it, historical analysis requires, ultimately, making critical judgments, not playing family counselor. Among left-leaning media, there has never been the like of Fox News. On talk radio and TV, there has never been the equal of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and a score of lesser lights. For more than two decades, these political actors were not simply partisan, but purposeful promoters of discord and carvers of the divide. Write Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,
“The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Even before Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes at Fox, it was Newt Gingrich, through the Conservative Opportunity Society, who began to seek the division we see today. Write Ornstein and Mann of Gingrich, who believed that Republicans, to their electoral detriment, worked too collegially with Democrats,
“Gingrich deployed a strategy to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in the House by moving to polarize the parties, to use the ethics process to taint both the majority and the entire political process, and to get Americans so disgusted with politics and politicians that at the right moment, they would rise up and throw out the incumbent party.”
These political enterprises all worked, perhaps beyond their originators’ earliest ambitions. And none were aimed foremost at advancing conservative political ideas, but rather at fracturing the American polity in order to destroy the liberal state. No surprise, then, that when the conditions had been laid for a demagogue to rise to power, amid all the wild-eyed dissension and disbelief in government, he had no greater advocate than Gingrich. No surprise, either, that Hillary Clinton was only one of many in 2016 with minds sufficiently unclouded by a slew of public and private ills to warn of the dark forces, visible this week in Charlottesville, that Trump was already unleashing.
Now the United States has given Donald Trump the presidency, with national government as an unending reality TV spectacle of world-dangerous dysfunction, and with thirty-six percent of Americans still supporting him. Decades from now, those people will be seen in videos, but future citizens will not have a need to wonder what it was that wasn’t decent or defensible that was going through the minds of those in the frame. They will have an even greater historical record than we do about the past that mystifies us. It will show that some, the million-thronged populace, supported Donald Trump because the conditions for the long con — the necessary mix of fear, anger, ignorance, and foolishness — had been prepared over many years to enable them to fall. That others, among the players on the political stage, married the always courting couple of ambition and self-justification and pledged their troth in service to themselves. That partisans, of party and power — the GOP — despising Trump, gave themselves to him anyway, their dampened fingers raised to the air, when he rode into the city to the cheers of the adoring, fickle crowd.
Those partisans were themselves opposed by partisans, people who might welcome the rise of a demagogue, and the decline of their nation, in order to “bring the revolution.” But they were also opposed by millions who were not blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning adherents of a party, faction, cause, or person. They were opposed, and Trump was resisted, by people who saw him for what he was and sought to prevent him, who see him now for what he is, and could further become, and resist him still. They are not partisans, but, instead, believers. They believe in classic virtues — honesty, human decency — that still receive lip service in the Sunday morning pews of people who voted for a hate-mongering liar and genital-grabbing braggart. They will be slandered by some, for whom defense of the indefensible is mission. They will be diminished by others through shallow political analysis and misapplied labels. But at the critical time, the choices were made. And history will judge them all.