The Country Needs Strong Leaders to Emerge in 2020

There are many interesting things in the New York Times’  latest profile of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. I want to focus on how he talks to Republican voters in his home state. Here’s part of what he said at a recent gathering of Republicans where he was the keynote speaker:

In Greenville, Graham framed the Kavanaugh melee as a proxy battle over President Trump — and placed himself on the Trumpian side of an us-versus-them divide. The Democrats and the national news media, he said, are engaged in a singular mission to thwart the president. “Why? ’Cause they hate him,” Graham said of Trump. “They hate us,” he added, and repeated the call: “They hate us.”

Political parties exist in large part to “thwart” other political parties, especially when they don’t control the White House. It’s not necessary to posit hatred as a primary motivator for political criticism and oppositional behavior. Senator Graham was engaged here in a toxic form of discourse. He was telling people that the Democrats hate them. He said the same thing about the media.

You can hear the same kind of rhetoric on Fox News and hate radio. Joe DiGenova made a recent appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio program and declared:

“We are in a civil war in this country. There’s two standards of justice, one for Democrats one for Republicans. The press is all Democrat, all liberal, all progressive, all left – they hate Republicans, they hate Trump. So the suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future in this country is over. It’s not going to be. It’s going to be total war. And as I say to my friends, I do two things – I vote and I buy guns.”

Again, the media is treated as the enemy, and in this case the solution involves buying guns in preparation for a civil war—with the obvious implication that Republicans need to get ready to kill some folks.

Continuing with this theme, Steven Bannon evoked civil war during a weekend appearance on Face the Nation: 

“I think that 2019 is going to be the most vitriolic year in American politics since before the Civil War,” Bannon said. “And I include Vietnam in that. I think we’re in, I think we’re in for a very nasty 2019.”

The country is certainly divided. It’s astonishing to me that President Trump could have over fifty percent approval with any group of human beings, including his own family, but according to Gallup, he’s actually seen an uptick in the number of states where he has majority support:

The good news for Trump is that he had 50 percent approval or higher in 17 states, up from 12 in 2017. (The additions? Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Utah.)

The bad news? In 13 states he won in 2016, his approval rating is underwater. And in no state that he won in 2016 is his approval rating worse than in Texas.

That’s hardly an enviable political position for a president seeking reelection, but it’s nonetheless troubling that we have states in this country where most people are actually are willing to tell a pollster that they support Trump.

They no doubt base that support in large part on their perception that they share the same enemies. This is supported by a recent analysis from Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. He looked at how people are voting in congressional elections and concluded that they are no longer judging candidates as individuals but only as members of a party that they either support or oppose.

Abramowitz notes that during the 1960s, the 1970s, and even the 1980s, the correlation between the presidential vote in a district and the House vote in that district was about 0.6 — substantial, but not overwhelming (correlations run from 0, meaning no correlation, to 1, meaning perfect correlation). In 2016, it was .97, higher than it had ever been before. The candidates who thought they could overcome their district’s fundamental partisanship by constructing a more moderate profile were almost all on a fool’s errand.

In other words, Trump is getting a lot of support simply because he’s not a Democrat. In many parts of the country, not being a Democrat is all that is required to gain approval, and the Republicans are feeding off of that with the rhetoric that Democrats hate their political opponents.

This will limit how well any Democrat can do in the presidential election, and it will also strictly limit how many seats the Democrats can win in Congress. But I do have two hopeful observations.

While it may be a fool’s errand for congressional Democrats (or Republicans) to pursue a moderate political profile in an effort to win in areas where their party doesn’t predominate, it should still be possible for the presidential candidates to change the overall split in support between the two parties. In other words, where a presidential candidate is winning, the congressional candidates will probably win, too. What this means is that moving the needle must be done from the top.

The second hopeful observation is that better leadership will result in better citizens. Where people feel that opposing the Democrats is a moral or political necessity, they will make allowances for whatever horrible behavior Trump dishes out, but they’ll follow someone else if and when that becomes necessary. If they aren’t constantly being fed divisive and toxic rhetoric and they aren’t constantly having to make excuses for inexcusable behavior, their devolution as human beings will slow and eventually reverse.

Someday soon, Donald Trump will no longer be the leader of the Republican Party. I hope that day comes before the Republicans formally nominate their candidate for president in 2020. If not, we’ll continue to see U.S. senators behaving like Lindsey Graham. And the country cannot long endure if we don’t get off that course.

The country is not necessarily headed for a civil war, but that will depend in large part on what kind of leaders emerge in 2020. Neither side is going to soften or reconcile organically from the bottom up, so we need people to lead the charge from the top.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.