-by Jeff Rasley
My recently published book, 72 Wisdoms, is 72 short, personal essays about concerns and topics all thinking people will encounter and consider in the course of their lives. My intent was to invite readers into a discussion, offer advice on subjects for which my experiences and expertise gave me credible authority and to leave readers with questions they should pursue further. Many historical anecdotes and scholarly works are cited to buttress points made in the essays. It was not intended to be political. However, Donald Trump kept coming up as a counter-example to the virtues and positive values I extol in the book. (The only other person in competition with Trump in the book as an example of an immoral evil-doer is Putin.)
Trump exemplifies the opposite of what I advocate as a wise approach to personal development and for the body politic and as an influence on American culture in chapters on Justice, Environmentalism, Leadership, and the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He figures most prominently in a chapter discussing the danger to the body politic and our political culture of toxic polarization. The following are chunks lifted from that chapter in the book. I have bold-faced the Trump references to emphasize how relevant Trump is to a discussion about the danger of toxic polarization.
Honest Abe was not a unifying figure, when he was elected and while he served
as President. He was reviled in the South and had trouble maintaining the loyalty of the Republican Party while he was President. Later generations came around to venerating Lincoln, as we do today. Numerous polls and many historians have
ranked Lincoln as the best US President. (For example, check out C-Span’s annual Presidential Historians Survey, which consistently ranks Lincoln numero uno.) But in his own time, Lincoln was as polarizing a political figure as Donald Trump has become. Many loved him and many hated him. His election literally divided the nation.
I have lived through two of the most politically polarized eras in US history since
the Civil War. The first was in the late 1960s and early 70s, when the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement divided the country into liberal/conservative and pro/anti-Nixon camps. We are still in the midst of the second. The country is divided into progressive/Trumpist and pro/anti-Trump camps.
In both of the two modern eras of extreme polarization, the most divisive figure
has, like Lincoln, been a Republican politician who was elected President. But
Lincoln was on the Left, the progressive-abolitionist side. During his era, the
Republican Party was the more liberal and progressive party. The Left/Right
alignment of the parties flipped during the 1960s, 100 years after the Civil War, over the civil rights demands of African-Americans.
It is quite a historical irony that the descendants of the slaves, who were freed, in large part, as a result of the Republican Party’s support of the abolition of slavery, vote Democrat by a huge majority. And the descendants of the Southern-White-anti-abolition Democrats tend to vote Republican.
Candidate Nixon decided to try to attract Southern and rural Whites to the
Republican Party and away from the Democratic Party with his so called “Southern strategy.” It worked. The consequence was that the Republican Party has become more attractive to rural White folks and to those who support a more conservative political philosophy. The Democratic Party made a transition, initiated by FDR and furthered by LBJ, into the more liberal party with most of its supporters living in urban areas. The flip of the demographics of political affiliation between the two major parties was completed and hardened into a toxic polarization of the body politic during the 2016 Trump v. Clinton Presidential campaign.
The polarization over slavery in Lincoln’s era was not of his making. He would have much preferred to be a unifying figure. And he was ultimately, in the sense that the Civil War forcibly reunited the States and most Southern Americans eventually agreed that slaveholding was wrong. Nixon and Trump, on the other hand, employed divisiveness as a political strategy to gain and hold power. And they did so, and Trump continues to do so, with lies and manipulative tactics.
Nixon had his “silent majority,” which he manipulated with lies about a plan to
end the Vietnam War and with illegal campaign tactics. His supporters were so
undiscerning about his lack of ethics and his criminality that in 1972 he won the
largest margin of victory of all post-World War II Presidential elections. It was only when Nixon’s lies were exposed through the Pentagon Papers and his criminality revealed through the Watergate Hearings, that his supporters finally began to realize what a fraud he was and to desert him.
Trump is also a master manipulator. He is a pathological liar, sexual predator,
known tax-dodger, and twice-impeached President for obstruction of justice and fraud, and yet, he is still unbelievably popular with the vast majority of voting Republicans. I hope the cataracts will be removed from the eyes of his supporters before the 2024 Presidential campaign begins. But absent his conviction for felonious conduct that shocks their consciences, I doubt the Trumpists will desert their beloved leader.
Is there anything that can be done to depolarize Americans out of our current
deep and angry division, given the loyalty of Trumpists to their Man, while others (including me) see him as a danger to US democracy?
The essay transitions into relating a personal anecdote about an experiment I
conducted in Facebook in 2017. The experiment was to see whether it was possible for pro- and anti-Trump voters could engage in civil discourse about “hot political topics” without descending into ad hominem attacks against each other. As related in 72 Wisdoms, the experiment, at first, gave me hope that, despite Trump’s electoral victory over Clinton, the toxicity the 2016 Presidential Campaign generated would subside. But I relate that my hope was soon dashed, because Trump and his MAGA core thrive on toxicity.
The 2016 Presidential Race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump turned
into a bitterly personal and ugly fight. The toxicity of the race ratcheted up the
existent Red and Blue polarization within the US electorate. Trump’s surprising
victory– all the major polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win– did not reduce the level of polarization that had developed between Reds and Blues. His 2017
Inauguration was met with massive protest marches– called the Women’s March– all across the country. President Trump responded by lying about how many people attended the Inauguration.
I began to worry that the country was heading toward another period of riots and politically-motivated violence, like we experienced in the '60s and '70s. Could I do anything to reduce the toxicity of the polarization?
I decided to try an experiment on Facebook. My plan was to use my Facebook
page like it was a village square for civil discussions about political issues. The initial test would be to see whether Facebook friends would be willing to engage in civil discussions rather than hurling insults at those on the other side of the divide or siloing themselves off from any engagement with the other side.
A month after Trump’s Inauguration, I invited my 650 Facebook friends to
participate in a series of discussion threads about political topics. 63 diverse friends agreed. They included pro- and anti-Trump, blue and white collar, Baby Boomers and Millennials, high school grads and PhDs, urban and rural dwellers from various states, and one expat. The topics ranged from immigration reform, confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, US policy in Syria, relations with Russia, possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the Paris Climate Accord, and even abortion.
The only rule was that no personal attacks should be directed at other
participants. Nasty remarks were posted about Trump, Clinton, and other political leaders. But the rule of no ad hominem attacks was honored.
I intended to post one topic each week for two months and then terminate the
experiment. However, several participants wanted to continue the discussions. So I extended it for another month. The total number of participants climbed to 80. A few of the participants initiated their own political discussion threads. The last topic posted was whether the US should stay or withdraw from Afghanistan.
The seeming success of my experiment with civil discourse on Facebook did not
generate a nationwide grassroots movement for depolarization. But, at first, it left me feeling hopeful. I was especially encouraged by the corresponding efforts of an organization called Braver Angels. I was an early supporter of the organization. As Janice Dickinson, a Braver Angels coordinator, put it in the organization’s May 25, 2022 newsletter, the mission of Braver Angels is to help Americans understand, “When you are super polarized, there’s no humor in politics– everything is life and death– but as you get depolarized, you see more diversity and you can find more joy and humor.” In 2017, I was hopeful that many Americans would come to agree with that.
Unfortunately, as time went on during the Trump Presidency, it became
increasingly apparent to me that my worst fears about Trump were justified. And I became more amazed and infuriated that intelligent, educated, and good people I know remained loyal supporters of Trump.
As more and more evidence of Trump’s malfeasance and his cozy relationship
with Putin came out, culminating in the Mueller Report and his first impeachment, I ditched the idea of trying to bridge the pro/anti Trump divide. My fear that Trump is not just a grasping narcissist, but he is also a dangerous fascist, proved to be justified. So I had to conclude that Trumpists, whether they realized it or not, were supporting fascism. I’m sure that most Trump voters would deny that and claim that they want to preserve our form of government as a democratic republic. But the evidence that Trump does not continued to mount and culminated on January 6, 2021.
Some Trump voters claim that they dislike him as a person, but prefer his
policies to policies supported by the Democratic Party. They argue that the
“progressive” wing of the Democratic Party advocates socialism, and that is a greater danger to the country than Trump’s authoritarianism.
I agree that too much government intervention in the economy can damage the
economy and that would be bad for the country. However, the “good Germans,” who supported Hitler, and the “nice Italians,” who supported Mussolini, justified their votes for the fascists on economic policy grounds. But, as in pre-war Europe, there is more at stake than which party has the better policies. If not before, Trump’s danger to constitutional democracy should have been clear to everyone after his lie-inspired attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
... in 2017, so many aspects of Trump’s malfeasance were not yet known. I
predicted that he would further divide, rather than unite, the country during his
presidency. But in 2017, I still held out hope that Trump voters would eventually see the truth about him and not vote to reelect him. That was one of the reasons I thought it was important to promote civil conversations about political issues between Reds and Blues. At that point, I thought at least some Trump voters would desert him in the 2020 Election.
Although Trump lost, he got 10 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.
So millions of Americans ignored the evidence of his fascistic tendencies, or they
didn’t care, or they favor authoritarian rule.
I go on to describe in the essay my personal experience with Mike Pence and
speculate about what might have happened had Trump been convicted in the
One thing I clearly got wrong in 2017... I posited that Vice President Pence,
because of his Catholic-Evangelical faith and extreme rightwing stances, might be no better than Trump, if Trump was impeached and removed from office. Despite pressure from Trump and actual threats to his life and the lives of his wife and kids, Mike Pence did his duty under the Constitution and certified that Joe Biden was elected President per the votes reported by the members of the Electoral College. It took some courage to do that.
I met Mike Pence the summer after his second year in law school. He was a
summer intern for the law firm where I was an associate attorney. I was on the firm’s recruiting committee, so I got to know Mike on a superficial level. I liked him. He seemed like a pleasant, khaki-wearing, frat boy sort-of fellow. His religiosity was never on display when I was around.
The higher ups in the firm evaluated Mike Pence as not having the right stuff to
join the firm. They didn’t think he was sharp enough to be a top-notch lawyer. So he did not receive an offer to join the firm. When Trump picked Mike Pence to be on the Republican ticket as the candidate for Vice President, I thought that showed what a lousy judge of talent Trump was. He picked a guy to be a heartbeat away from leader of the free world who was deemed not sufficiently competent to be employed as an associate attorney in a medium-large law firm in Indianapolis.
How unpredictable are the twists and turns of history? Pence’s influence with
Evangelical Christians was one of the major reasons Trump-Pence won in 2016.
Four years later, there were shouts of “Hang Mike Pence!” by the insurrectionists in the halls of the Capitol. Vice President Pence ended Trump’s machinations to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election of Biden-Harris by certifying Biden’s victory.
If the Senate had convicted Trump when he was impeached by the House in
2019, and Pence became President, the insurrection of January 6, 2021 would not have happened. The country probably would have remained polarized into Red and Blue voters. A President Pence’s arch-conservative policies and rhetoric would not have softened the divisions. But Mike Pence is not a fascist. And the country would have been spared the insurrection of January 6, 2021.
The United States of America is once again a house divided by extreme political
polarization among citizens and the extreme partisanship of elected officials. I fear for the fate of my country, if Trump runs for President again. I am worried that Trumpist-authoritarianism, if it comes back even smarter and more determined in 2024, will irreparably damage our democratic republic. The foundations are already cracked, because so many Americans believe the lie that the Presidency was stolen from Trump.
In a postscript to the chapter about the dangers of toxic polarization, I relate an
experience I had which foretold what would happen on January 6, 2021.
This is one of the reasons I worry. I was slurping down a quick breakfast in a
motel lobby outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It was the week before Thanksgiving in November 2020. The Presidential Election results were known, but the January 6th insurrection and certification of Biden’s victory over Trump were about six weeks in the future. I overheard two men talking about taking their guns to Washington. A tall, rugged-looking man with close-cropped grey hair, wearing a camo-colored jacket and jeans, said, “I’m not gonna let Pelosi and Schumer get away with it.” A shorter, chubby man in work clothes with a baseball cap on his head nodded along and grunted affirmatively. The hard-looking guy talked about “taking out” Democrat Senators “if that’s what it takes.” The chubby guy continued to nod and grunt his agreement.
The two men were actually talking about participating in an armed revolt and
shooting US Senators! What I heard was obviously premised on their belief that the election was stolen from Trump. I was tempted to butt in, but didn’t. Instead, seething with anger and amazement I walked back to our motel room pondering whether I should call the police. I described the conversation I’d overheard to Alicia. We needed to get on the road, because we were driving down to Florida to spend the week with my mom. So I didn’t report what I’d heard to any authorities. Alicia and I decided, or hoped, the two guys were just blowing off steam because their candidate lost the election.
I have no idea whether those men stormed the Capitol Building on January 6th. I
hope the failure of the insurrection ended the danger of a Trumpist armed revolt. But as long as Donald Trump and his acolytes are in the picture, well, I am worried for my country.
The large and awful footprint Trump has made on so many important issues that affect our politics, the legal system, the environment, and personal well-being is mega-huge. 72 Wisdoms deals with many issues and concerns that have no connection to Trump and his depredations, but still, it was surprising to me, as I was writing the book, what a wonderful example he is of what is wrong with America.