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October 19, 2018

In polarized America, the divisions post-Trump remain intense –

Unfortunately, almost two years into the Trump Administration, the country has not gotten past the hyper-partisanship that dominated American politics during the bitter 2016 campaign and the early months of the unorthodox Trump presidency. American voters remain angrier than ever and the divisions have gotten deeper.

The Senate consideration of President Trump’s July nomination of D.C. Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court brought out the worst of the divisions in the country. Anger, personal insults, bitter accusations and raw emotions replaced the customary confirmation process.  While Justice Kavanaugh now sits on the Supreme Court, it remains to be seen how and whether the personal vindictiveness displayed by U.S. Senators as well as political activists will heal so that the Senate can resume normal business when they return after the midterm elections.

It is easy to blame the Trump presidency – and the bigger-than-life Trump personality – for the divisions in the country. Too easy.  There’s no doubt that President Trump exacerbates the tensions today – he seems to delight in throwing gasoline on burning fires.  But President Trump did not cause the deep divisions in the country, he responded to them.  He recognized the deep voter unrest that both major political parties failed to see, or chose to ignore.   His extraordinary candidacy gave angry voters an outlet, and his presidency continues to give them a voice.

From the very moment of President Trump’s unexpected election, many in the political pundit class predicted that his base of support would erode, assuming that his historically low approval ratings indicated there was broad “buyers’ remorse” among Trump voters. They were wrong – the President’s base remains solidly in his camp.   Trump voters in the “fly-over country” between America’s liberal east and west coasts don’t care about the Russia story, are willing to overlook the President’s personal foibles, and resent the media’s relentlessly negative stories about the President.

Numerous analyses of “typical” Trump voters explain what the media and establishments in both political parties find inexplicable: People voted for candidate Trump, and remain loyal to President Trump, because they felt ignored or, worse, disrespected by the “establishment.”

On May 14th the Washington Post reported on three separate in-depth studies of Trump voters; one by conservatives, one by liberals, and one by a journalist.  One doesn’t need to read the analyses offered by these study authors to understand the Trump voters; those voters say it best in their own words:

We voted for President Obama and still we are ridiculed. Still we are considered racists … There is no respect for anyone who is just average and trying to do the right things.

Our culture in Hollywood or in the media gives off the distinct air of disregard to people who live in the middle of the country, as if we have no value or do not contribute to the betterment of society … It’s frustrating. It really wants to make you stand up and yell, “We count,” except of course we don’t. At least not in their eyes.

Live in a small or medium-sized town, and you would think we were dragging the country down … We aren’t a country just made up of large metropolitan areas. Our politics and our culture up until now has dictated that we are less than in the scale of importance and value. [Emphasis in original]

Candidate Trump appealed directly to what he called “the forgotten men and women of our country.” He made support for his candidacy an outlet for their frustration, while candidate Clinton did exactly the opposite, exemplified by her condescending and politically disastrous “deplorables” statement:

You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.  And, unfortunately, there are people like that.  And [Trump] has lifted them up.

Unfortunately, the President’s antagonists, including those in the media, seem not to have learned from candidate Clinton’s mistake. In an October 11th interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe news program, liberal commentator Chris Matthews was asked about how voters will respond in the post-Kavanaugh environment.  His response:

It’s the people in the suburbs that read the paper, that keep up. They watch this show in the morning on the way to work. They know what’s going on and they’re going to vote against Trump. They don’t like him. They don’t like his style … He’s the bully in the schoolyard. They don’t like him. Out west, in the red areas of the country it’s different. I think they’re more patriarchal out there. They don’t mind guys like Trump as much as the suburban people.

Merriam Webster defines patriarchy as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children . . .”

So . . . in Middle America, voters don’t read papers, don’t keep up, men are patriarchs who don’t object to bullying, and woman vote the way their patriarchal fathers and/or brothers tell them to? Is it any wonder the Trump base feels disrespected by the “establishment” and remains loyal to Trump?

So how are the political parties handling the new normal in America?

In short, not well.

The Democrat party is bitterly divided between the “establishment” and the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren faction which is pulling the party ever farther to the left. That left-wing of their Party threatens the Democratic establishment like the Tea Party threatened Republicans after the 2010 election: deviate from our orthodoxy and we’ll find a primary opponent and take your seat.

They were not idle threats.

In July in California, the state Democratic Party’s Executive Board voted to endorse liberal state senator Kevin de Leon over incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein. Notably, Senator Feinstein received only 7% of the vote, with 28% voting to endorse no one.

In Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania in May, four Socialist-backed candidates won seats in the state legislature, two of the candidates officially running as candidates of the Democratic Socialists of America, the other two with DSA backing.

In July, a 28-year-old self-described Socialist and Bernie Sanders supporter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York City district – and Mr. Crowley chairs the House Democratic Caucus and had frequently been described as a potential successor to House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi.

It is not certain that all of these fire-brand left-wing candidates will turn out to be capable policy-makers any more than the ideologically-pure Tea Party conservatives were – for example, in an interview after her upset win Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rejected the argument that the economy has done well in the last 18 months by arguing that “Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs. Unemployment is low because people are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and can barely feed their families.”  It’s difficult to see how that economic theory will translate into legislation.

There is also uncertainty about whether the new-and-young progressive activists in the House will challenge the older (most are in their 70’s today) establishment leaders. Democratic Leader Pelosi says she has no intention of stepping down, but there is increasing talk about potential challenges to her leadership.

What is absolutely certain is that the make-up of the Democratic Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives will be very different after the mid-term elections, as the Republican Caucus was after the election of Tea-Party conservatives in 2010.

The Republican Party is torn three ways among (1) the Congressional “establishment” and traditional GOP voter, (2) the right wing House Freedom Caucus and its base, and (3) the not-really-a-Republican Trump voter.

The establishment Republicans want to govern and are frustrated that despite GOP control of both houses of Congress and the White House, their list of legislative accomplishments is pretty short.

The House Freedom Caucus members do not want to govern unless the outcomes are completely consistent with their conservative ideology; their rejection of compromise causes the establishment’s frustration.

The Trump base isn’t necessarily Republican and they want the President to continue turning over tables and breaking china in Washington and the President obliges them.

These ever-combative factions put their disagreements aside last year and enacted the first significant broad tax reform legislation since 1986.   But the alliance remains troubled.   The President’s positions on immigration and trade are inconsistent with traditional GOP platforms, and as of this writing there is increasing disagreement between the President and Congressional Republicans on the President’s handling of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.

However, with Congress now out of Washington until after the mid-term elections, no legislation is being considered and the President has turned his attention to those elections, crisscrossing the country stumping for GOP candidate. And that, too, is both a blessing and a curse for Republican candidates. The President remains very popular with Republican voters in many states and districts, and GOP candidates in those areas welcome the opportunity to campaign with him.

But GOP candidates in swing districts and states have to try to find a balance between support for the President’s policies – a strong economy, regulatory reform, and outstanding nominations to the federal courts – and intense negative voter reaction to the unorthodox personal behavior and constant Tweets coming out of the White House.

That conundrum clearly manifests itself in the likely impact of the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight. Polling after the confirmation battle clearly shows that Republican voter enthusiasm increased, but the enthusiasm of the anti-Trump Democrat electorate was also intensified by confirmation politics.

Incumbent Democratic senators running in red states that President Trump carried are finding that their votes against Kavanaugh are helping their GOP opponents, but for House Republicans running in suburban districts, the focus on the Kavanaugh battle could cost them support.

At this point, three weeks before the midterms, it’s generally assumed that the Senate will remain in GOP control in the next Congress, but that the Democrats could well take majority control of the House. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely that collegiality will replace partisanship any time soon.