This week, after authorities captured a Trump supporter who allegedly sent pipe bombs to numerous prominent liberal politicians and mainstream media figures, Donald Trump showed little interest in uniting this country. Regarding his rhetoric, he even warned: “I could tone it up.”
Trump has many gifts. He can be funny and charming. He can even do a decent job of reading conciliatory words off of a teleprompter. But he immediately contradicts them with additional comments and actions that betray his real purpose—which has never been about uniting Americans.
Trump’s biggest fans see this as necessary for combating a radical left and a biased media. “Fight fire with fire,” the saying goes.
In doing so, they have adopted a confrontational ethos that was once heralded by their enemies and rejected by their friends. Consider this trope, which—until recently—rang true to me:
Never settling for the status quo, liberal activists and agitators demand more change—more “progress.” Conservatives, viscerally uncomfortable with confrontation, accept a compromise solution in exchange. This lasts for some amount of time before the next front in the culture war mysteriously pops up and the entire exercise begins again. The cumulative result of the constant struggle is to gradually move the nation leftward.
This may or may not be an accurate reflection of modern American politics, but many conservatives perceive it to be. There is a sense that conservatives have lost ground on issues ranging from gay marriage (which is now a mainstream position) to healthcare (today, the notion of “Medicare for all”—once viewed as a radical notion—is gaining steam). And this sense that they are losing the culture, even as they win political elections, has influenced the kind of attributes they want in a Republican president.
Under the old model, a president who is focused on governing all Americans, on bringing people together, and on transcending his political party, will rise to the occasion during times of crisis. He will summon the right words, and then act in bold and unifying ways that sometimes surprise both friends and foes in their magnanimity.
In transcending their party, these presidents do not betray their party or ideology. Indeed, they might be winning converts. We can quibble over the mistakes made by Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan (just to name three), but how many generations of Americans (a) changed their political affiliation, or (b) were locked into their political affiliation based on the ability of those men to unite the nation in a a great struggle?
Donald Trump sees his role in a different light. To the extent he believes that there is some great cause to champion, that cause is his own; and accomplishing it often requires utterly vanquishing his domestic political enemies along the way.
Whereas inspiring leaders make their enemies look small and irrelevant, Trump wants to crush his in more overt ways.
This has only become more amplified as the midterm elections near.
Trump believes that if the focus is on a caravan of Honduran migrants invading our borders, Republicans will stand a better chance of holding the House. He intuitively grasps that getting to define which topic Americans are talking about is upstream from getting to frame what is being said about that topic.
But it would be wrong to suppose that Trump’s lack of unifying leadership at this tragic moment—in which the largest apparent attempted political assassination in U.S. history was followed by the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history—has much to do with the upcoming midterms. This is a leitmotif.
Donald Trump has not come to bring peace to America, but a sword.
Politics has always been a nasty business. But the adults must now step in and provide leadership. This will mean voluntarily deciding not to maximize our profits or exploiting every single opportunity for buzz, ratings, clicks, or even votes. Starting a few years ago, conservatives like Ted Cruz started promising disruption. This was meant to be a very entrepreneurial/Silicon Valley-esque ethos. But it struck me as simultaneously un-conservative and discordant. And in the wake of the massacre in Pittsburgh it would serve him and others mimicking that rhetoric, to simply stop.
But there are other steps to take. I recently criticized the media for our contribution to the anger and chaos. I would also encourage conservatives and GOP committees, as a sign of good faith, to drop the George Soros ads and be more attuned to the notion that memes about the caravan are triggering people in dark ways. Liberals should not cheer activists who get in Republican lawmakers’ faces during their dinners. Social media companies should redouble their efforts to find ways to clean their proverbial pipelines of conspiracy theories and hate.
This is not an attempt to draw equivalency between each and every act. The tone starts at the top, which is precisely where Donald Trump sits and the notion that he will ever change seems sadly, painfully absurd.
Still, we must plead and hope that he can find a way because the alternative is too dark. It’s time to tamp down the insanity.