A House Divided

A house divided against itself cannot stand. — Abraham Lincoln, Springfield Illinois, June 16, 1858

Abraham Lincoln delivering his famous House Divided speech

Abraham Lincoln was right; a house divided could not stand. But, it took a fratricidal Civil War to resolve the problem Lincoln posed in the next sentence: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free [italics in original]. 

Americans are perhaps more divided now than at any time since the years leading to the Civil War. These current divisions were not entirely caused by the divisive presidency of Donald Trump. The breakup of the political parties — especially the Republican Party — as coalitions of diverse groups has led to the parties — again, especially, the Republican Party — becoming tribes of like-minded individuals who no longer speak the same language as members of the other tribe.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at his desk

This tribalization of politics has resulted in a breakdown of functioning government. Congress hardly legislates any longer. This is especially true of the Senate, which, under the leadership of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has become an institution that exists merely to confirm appointees to the federal judiciary. Most other legislation, especially when passed by the Democratic-controlled House, languishes on McConnell’s desk. The cycle reinforces itself: As the tribalization of politics has led to a government that no longer works to insure the public good, the public becomes more and more convinced that government is not an agency for change. Cynicism and distrust thus become the norms.

Throw the match of Trumpian race-baiting, lying, and destruction of traditional rules of political behavior into this volatile mix and the result is an election in which Trump’s supporters are convinced that the only way the president can lose is if the other side cheats. Trump has convinced his supporters that mail-in ballots — cast by a huge number of Americans during the pandemic — are fraudulent and that the only electoral count that matters is the one delivered on the evening of November 3. Of course, that is nonsense, but if the election is close when the polls close and Democratic numbers increase in the days after as the mail-in and early vote is tallied, it is not fanciful to imagine that Trump’s supporters will feel cheated.

Trump supporters at a polling place in Fairfax, Virginia

What will they do? Are we poised for a second Civil War? Already, Trump backers are threatening public peace. Trump supporters tried to intimidate early voters in September in Fairfax, Virginia. This weekend, a caravan of Trump backers endangered public safety by surrounding a Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway; Trump tweeted, “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong.” Also this weekend, vehicles brandishing Trump banners snarled traffic on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey and shut down traffic on the Governor Mario Cuomo Bridge spanning the Hudson River in New York. These are relatively trivial escapades, but Trump’s calls for poll watchers “to watch very carefully” has the potential to intimidate voters and affect the election results. And, no one knows what may happen if tens of thousands of Trump voters are convinced his defeat — which seems likely — came because of Democratic cheating.

So, a likely Biden win is not enough. The former vice president needs to run up the score, win by a landslide, to forestall Trumpian shenanigans and the vitriol and potential violence of his followers. It is not enough for Biden to win back the Rust Belt states Hillary Clinton lost four years ago. The Democratic challenger needs to pick off a large number of Trump states from 2016 to gain a convincing victory with 350 to 400 votes in the Electoral College.

A big Biden victory — and Democratic control of both houses of Congress — is necessary if America is to reclaim its soul, its sense of purpose. Trump has so poisoned the political dialogue that even the simplest measures to control the pandemic — wearing a mask, maintaining social distance — have become signs of the tribe to which each American belongs. Trump’s mockery of mask-wearing means that our advanced and wealthy nation leads the world in deaths from COVID-19.

The willingness of Trump’s followers to adopt his disdain for these simple tools to control the pandemic is a symptom of their devotion to what can only be labelled as his cult of personality. Trumpistas flock to his rallies — without masks and standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder — even though a study estimates that 30,000 people have contracted the virus — and 700 people have died — after attending these events. Trump’s evident disdain for the safety of his supporters does not seem to deter them in their support.

It is hard to fathom this level… of what? Devotion? Blind loyalty? Lack of serious thought? But, then again, the level of support for Trump has remained constant through his thousands of lies and all his transgressions. Voters in 2016 knew he mocked a disabled reporter and heard the “Access Hollywood” tape, but Trump still won. Trump has praised White supremacists, given the nod to numerous conspiracy theories, used the White House as a backdrop for his campaign, engaged in countless ethical violations, and lied thousands of times without losing his base. I know that it is fashionable to quote Trump supporters who claim they vote for him despite his crudeness and transgressions because he appoints conservative justices, but I suspect many Trumpistas support him because he flouts the rules. 

With Biden poised to win, Trump appears to be planning one last gasp of rule-breaking. Jonathan Swan of Axios reports, as has long been suspected, that Trump plans to declare victory if he appears to be ahead on Election Night and then go to court to forestall the counting of legally cast ballots in the following days. It is a desperate ploy — perfunctorily denied by Trump — that has no legal standing, but Trump’s loyal followers will believe him when he claims he won.

What will happen next in our divided house? Will the house, as Lincoln said, “become all one thing or all the other?” The answer may depend on the size of Biden’s victory.

Posted November 3, 2020

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