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Did the Politics of Division Work? Yes and No

Though America has always seen progress and pushback, this election threatened to push us back a century or two

When we look back at this election, we’ll remember all the “firsts.” But we’ll also remember that time the president called Andrew Gillum, vying to become Florida’s first African-American governor, “not equipped” and a “stone-cold thief,” Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
When we look back at this election, we’ll remember all the “firsts.” But we’ll also remember that time the president called Andrew Gillum, vying to become Florida’s first African-American governor, “not equipped” and a “stone-cold thief,” Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Donald Trump is a celebrity president, more interested in declaring a “great victory” after the 2018 midterms than in vowing to bring the country together. As he sparred with the media Wednesday and bragged about outdoing Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and famous folks who stumped for the other side, he did his best Rodney Dangerfield routine, playing the aggrieved president who has all the power but gets no respect.

When asked about the violent episodes that shook America in the weeks before Nov. 6 and whether he should soften his tone, he boasted about the economy, said he was “sad” to see the violence, and then talked about his great relationship with Israel.

The president did say he doesn’t much like the dangerous and deadly white supremacist movement law enforcement admits it is unprepared for, though he revealed no plans to combat that particular problem, one that worries many Americans, especially those in its crosshairs.

Are Trump and his party concerned about those Americans? Well, on Wednesday he called himself a “great moral leader,” and then responded to a question about his self-identification as a “nationalist” by saying it was racist.

Was anyone surprised?

This has always been the president, the one everyone knew would spin the GOP loss of the House as a win, with a promise to maybe cooperate with Democrats clouded by a threat to hit back if he feels singed by their investigations.

With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, Tuesday’s verdict was decidedly mixed. And it was troubling if you had any worry of a divided America increasingly dug into blue and red camps, with urban and suburban areas trending Democratic and more rural areas trending Republican.

Though the history of this country has always been one of progress and pushback, some of the ads and tactics in the days leading up to this election threatened to push America back a century or two.

And that doesn’t seem to be a concern for the country’s leader, as he lists off the Republicans who won and the Democrats they defeated, or as he gloats over the Republicans who resisted his embrace and lost. (Maybe I gloated too — over Kris Kobach, the living embodiment of the phony voter fraud claims for which Trump is famous. He lost to Democrat Laura Kelly in his bid to be Kansas governor.)

Know thyself

Identity politics? The term has been used to describe the Democrats’ big tent, which seeks the support of women, minorities and members of the LGBT community, as well as white men, who represented the top spot of every Democratic presidential ticket until Barack Obama came along (though you wouldn’t know it from the backlash). The politics of inclusion excludes only if one considers equal rights to be a zero sum game.

Instead, “identity politics” could be the slogan of a Republican Party, whose leader has doubled down on noxious rhetoric about minorities, immigrants of color and women and prompted censors to think up new ways to record his reported comments about “s-hole countries” and such without getting into trouble.

Those actions, mimicked by candidates down the ballot, have solidified the GOP base of white men — the identity that has come to define the party, many of them angry despite being in charge of pretty much everything through history.

Sharing a bit of the power with a politically, culturally and racially diverse America has resulted not in soul-searching on the part of Republicans after the 2012 defeat of Mitt Romney or a vow to reach out, but in a return to the politics of fear — weaponized.

The GOP used to be subtler with its dog-whistle appeals, from the Southern strategy after Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act — a wink and welcome to those who opposed the law and the progress it represented — to Richard Nixon’s robust “law and order” directives. About as raw as it got was the George H.W. Bush “Willie Horton” ad painting opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime or North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms’ 1990 “white hands” ad tying Harvey Gantt, his African-American opponent, to a “racial quota” taking jobs from whites.

At least upon reflection, the people behind those ads expressed some regret.

Now, appeals to the base have gotten unapologetically base. Robocalls by a laughable Oprah impersonator plagued the Stacey Abrams campaign after Winfrey herself endorsed the Georgia Democrat who would have become the nation’s first African-American female governor. That her opponent Republican Brian Kemp, now narrowly ahead in the count, was the secretary of state in charge of the voting process will cast a pall over the final results.

Caveats and qualifications

Iowa Rep. Steve King had a tighter-than-usual race, but his constituents eventually ignored his support of white supremacist and neo-Nazi politicians at home and abroad. A GOP congressman under indictment, Duncan Hunter, was re-elected in California after falsely linking his Palestinian-Mexican-American opponent to terrorism.

Democrat Antonio Delgado, an African-American, did win in his predominantly white New York State district after national Republicans and incumbent Rep. John Faso used his past rap career to paint the Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law grad as “anti-American.”

But you can see the pattern.

The president of the United States used a slow-moving parade of asylum-seeking migrants walking toward the country’s Southern border to stoke fear of invaders and marauders, to be met with a bolstered military presence. In 1997, a similar deployment led to the killing of a U.S. citizen herding goats, 18-year-old Esequiel Hernández Jr. What could go wrong? An ad backing up Trump’s rhetoric was deemed so misleading and racist it did not meet the standards of media outlets, including Fox News.

But the tactics, while alienating some in the suburbs, probably boosted GOP Senate candidates.

In the campaign’s last days, the president, who had never held elective office before last year, tagged Abrams, a Yale Law grad and Georgia House minority leader, as “not qualified.” He called Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee mayor and Democrat in the Florida gubernatorial race, “not equipped” and a “stone cold thief.” Ah yes, the familiar insults tossed at African-Americans who are never judged worthy, no matter how educated or experienced.

An optimist could look at Tuesday and see two Muslim-American women in the U.S. Congress come January 2019, Native Americans with elected representation in Washington (it’s about time), Massachusetts and Connecticut with their first African-American female representatives and Texas sending two Latinas to Congress.

These were groundbreaking firsts, a reason to rejoice if you believe democracy should truly reflect the face of America — and a reason to remain angry over policies, ideas and people if the divisions stoked by this campaign cycle remain.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Watch: Looking Back at a Tough Night for Democratic Senate Incumbents and Hopefuls

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