Over the years, there have been many divides that have defined the American social, cultural, or political landscape. Some have been philosophical, regional, issue-based, racial, economic, gender or age-related. But none have been as deep or as disturbing as the divide that is currently fracturing the American people.
This one is different because it crosses demographic lines (except for race) and isn't as much about ideas or issues as it is about the person of Donald Trump. I'm not sure if he is the source of this rupture or if he is a symptom of it. But whether it is one or the other or both, it should be clear that this division is about Trump. In listening to conversations about the president, it feels as if we have become two separate nations, with each seeing him and what he represents so differently that we can no longer understand each other or even speak with each other.
About 60% of Americans just don't trust Trump. They see him as impulsive, erratic, and unbalanced; they are either disgusted by or embarrassed by his behavior; and they are frightened at the prospect of the lasting damage they fear he will do to the country and its institutions.
This past week, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of six lengthy "no holds barred" editorials that captured the mind-set of this 60%. Collectively the editorials constituted a scathing indictment of the dangers posed to America, its political culture and institutions by the presidency of Donald Trump. They charged him with: repeatedly demonstrating "an utter disregard for truth"; giving voice to race-based conspiracy theories; "targeting the darkness, anger, and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnessing them for his own purposes"; and "undermining public confidence" in core American institutions (a free press, an independent judiciary, and the electoral process, itself).
In one particularly devastating paragraph the Times' editorial board wrote:
"What is most worrisome about Trump is Trump himself. He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that is is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation. His obsession with his own fame, wealth, and success, his determination to vanquish enemies, real and imagined, his craving for adulation—these traits were, of course, at the very heart of his scorched-earth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped him get elected. But in a real presidency in which he wields unimaginable power, they are nothing short of disastrous".
While I confess that I identify with the views of the Times, I recognize how important it is to remember the nearly 40% of Americans who hold a dramatically different view of the President they elected. They see him as a truth-teller who represents their last, best hope to restore traditional values they feel are in danger of being lost. They have placed their trust in him and believe that he is the strong and principled leader who defends them, fight for their interests and "make America great again". Even now, they turn out at Trump rallies, they cheer him on, and they continue to believe in him.
They are true believers who reject any criticism of their president and appear to be resistant to letting truth or facts get in the way of their support. He has backtracked on issues that were central to his candidacy (building a wall paid for by Mexico) or told bold-faced lies (that his crowds or ratings were bigger than those of President Obama) and yet his most ardent followers haven't blinked an eye.
It is difficult to understand how Evangelicals could vote for and continue to support a thrice-married hedonist. Or why so many women would vote for and continue to support a misogynist who has spoken of women in such degrading terms. Or why honest, hard-working Americans facing economic hardships could put their faith in an individual who in his multiple bankruptcies has brought economic ruin to tens of thousands of folks just like them.
Equally confounding is how, in an election year: where "elites" were rejected; where voters railed against "out of touch" politicians who couldn't be trusted to defend the interests of the common man; and where a key concern for many was the class-based issue of the "rich getting richer, while the poor get poorer"—some voters chose and still stand by a president who was: born rich and parlayed "pay-for play politics" to get richer, and flies, at the public's expense, between the White House and his Florida golf resort while his children continue to fly around the world making business deals in foreign lands (while receiving publicly financed security protection).
The academic part of me can understand what's going on, nevertheless, I am troubled. I did my post-doctoral work studying movements that spring up in societies under stress—where severe or prolonged social and political dislocation have produced societal shock sufficiently disturbing to leave portions of the population vulnerable and open to messages and messengers who can explain their plight and rationalize their anxiety. They respond to and often place blind trust in leaders who provide them answers to their confusion and a sense of security that can resolve their stress. This can be as harmless as a feel-good preacher whose message acts as a palliative or it can be dangerous as in the many times in history when we have seen the emergence of leaders who prey on fear and vulnerability and foment division and anger and violence.
I know how this works and have studied it in other societies. I must confess, however, to being deeply distressed when I see it playing out in front of me. Intellectually I know what's going on, emotionally, I just can't. And I worry. Because the divide—between those who believe that Trump will save us and those who are convinced he will bring us ruin—has grown so deep that even rational discussion has become impossible.