Trump likes that we’re po­lar­ized, frag­mented

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - E.J. Dionne is on Twit­ter: @ EJDionne.

Why would Pres­i­dent Trump’s hard-core de­fend­ers think that the best way to de­fend a floun­der­ing leader is to hurl re­pul­sive dual loy­alty charges at a dec­o­rated Army com­bat vet­eran who feels an obli­ga­tion to tell the truth to Congress?

Why would British Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son gam­ble on forc­ing an elec­tion in Britain at a time when his Con­ser­va­tive Party is un­der 40% in the polls?

And why are Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s cen­ter­right Chris­tian Democrats and her coali­tion part­ners, the cen­ter-left So­cial Democrats, suf­fer­ing elec­toral losses even though a large ma­jor­ity of the coun­try wants her to serve out her term through 2021?

The stan­dard an­swer to such ques­tions fo­cuses on po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion, and there sure is a lot of it go­ing around: left vs. right, ur­ban vs. ru­ral, re­li­gious vs. sec­u­lar, young vs. old, pros­per­ous vs. left-be­hind, pro-im­mi­grant vs. anti-im­mi­grant.

Po­lar­iza­tion is deep­ened be­cause many of these iden­ti­ties re­in­force each other these days. To pick just one ex­am­ple un­der­scored by re­cent stud­ies from PRRI and the Pew Re­search Cen­ter: Chris­tian con­ser­va­tives rally to the Re­pub­li­can Party while the sec­u­lar are over­whelm­ingly Democrats. Par­ti­sans don’t just dis­agree about pol­i­tics. They are di­vided by some of the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about hu­man ex­is­tence.

But an­other fac­tor that we talk about far less is feed­ing the chaos: frag­men­ta­tion. If some iden­ti­ties are mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing, we have other com­mit­ments that split us into ever smaller groups. This feeds a ten­dency to­ward niche pol­i­tics, vis­i­ble in all the demo­cratic na­tions. Taken to­gether, po­lar­iza­tion and niche pol­i­tics make it very hard to forge the con­sen­sus re­quired to solve prob­lems and move democ­ra­cies for­ward.

Con­sider first the slim­ing of

Lt. Col. Alexan­der Vind­man, who raised dam­ag­ing ques­tions about whether the White House sum­mary of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s pres­i­dent omit­ted a ref­er­ence to for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, whom Trump was pres­sur­ing the Ukrainian govern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate.

Even be­fore tes­ti­fy­ing Tues­day to House im­peach­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors, Vind­man, the top Ukraine ex­pert on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, was sub­jected to at­tacks by Fox News and else­where on the far right be­cause of his Ukrainian her­itage. (He was brought to the U.S. by his refugee fam­ily when he was 3.)

Se­nate Demo­cratic leader Chuck Schumer de­manded Wed­nes­day that Vind­man be pro­tected from re­tal­i­a­tion. He “served our coun­try for more than 20 years and is a re­cip­i­ent of the Pur­ple Heart after be­ing in­jured while serv­ing in Iraq,” and yet “some have even gone so far as to call him a spy and ques­tion his loy­alty to the United States.”

The vile as­sault on Vind­man is de­signed to mud­dle a fac­tual record highly dam­ag­ing to the pres­i­dent. But it’s aimed at the Trump niche, the roughly quar­ter of Amer­i­cans who will fol­low Trump’s lead on al­most ev­ery­thing. This is a case of po­lar­iza­tion and frag­men­ta­tion re­in­forc­ing each other.

In Britain, the av­er­age of three re­cent polls gives John­son’s party, pledged to lead­ing Britain out of the Euro­pean Union, just 38% of the vote. But John­son has good rea­son to think he will win a ma­jor­ity of seats in the House of Com­mons, be­cause his op­po­nents are so frac­tured.

The Labour Party, broadly pro-EU but di­vided on the Brexit is­sue, is at just over 23%, while the pas­sion­ately pro-EU Lib­eral Democrats stand at 18%. An ad­di­tional 8% sup­port pro-EU re­gional par­ties or the Greens, while the Brexit Party (com­mit­ted to an even sharper break with Europe) polls at 11%.

This is a por­trait of rad­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion (gen­er­ally pro- and gen­er­ally anti-EU par­ties are at roughly 49% each) and ex­treme frag­men­ta­tion. Both make Britain harder to govern.

And in Ger­many, elec­tions last Sun­day in the state of Thuringia saw both the Left Party and the far-right AfD party gain ground — the left to 31% and the far right to 23%. The Chris­tian Democrats and the So­cial Democrats each saw their vote re­duced by a third, the Chris­tian Democrats to 22% and the So­cial Democrats to a pal­try 8%.

The out­come in Thuringia is an ex­treme case of what’s go­ing on in the coun­try as a whole, but it is symp­to­matic of the broader de­cay of once uni­fy­ing, mid­dle­ground pol­i­tics.

It would be nice to end on an up­beat note. But the eco­nomic and cul­tural forces push­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously to­ward po­lar­iza­tion and frag­men­ta­tion will be hard to over­come. And just when we need lead­er­ship that might pro­mote sol­i­dar­ity and a de­gree of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, the most pow­er­ful demo­cratic coun­try in the world is led by Trump, who thrives on chop­ping up our so­ci­ety into pieces.

EJ Dionne

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