‘What happened to your country?’: The poisoned well of the Trump era

Americans' opinions of members of opposing parties have worsened since 2016, Pew found

An activist participates in the "March On for Washington and Voting Rights" in August 2021. Pew found voters have intensely negative views of people not in their political party.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An activist participates in the "March On for Washington and Voting Rights" in August 2021. Pew found voters have intensely negative views of people not in their political party. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 16, 2022 at 12:04pm

The small SUV bounced along one of Washington’s many pothole-scarred streets as dusk set in when its driver asked a simple but complicated question.

“What happened to your country?” the Lyft driver, who identified himself as Patrick, asked this columnist as we locked eyes in his rearview mirror.

Born and raised in Kenya, Patrick explained on the evening of Sept. 10 that he emigrated to the United States three decades ago. Back then, and until a few years ago, he said, he was able to understand American politics and culture — even as it underwent inevitable changes.

An affable fellow with a hearty laugh and thin black eyeglasses, Patrick listened as the Donald Trump years — which I covered up close as CQ Roll Call’s White House correspondent — were summarized from the backseat. He nodded as former President Barack Obama’s shortcomings and the driving forces behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement were listed.

But then he interrupted, leaving his passenger speechless.

“Why do you Americans hate each other so much?” he said, not trying to suppress the emotion of his statement. “I came here because this seemed like a country where you always found a way to get to the solutions. Today, I do not see solutions.”

Patrick and his wife settled in southeastern Texas, not far from Texas A&M University. (To his credit, he took in stride the then-No. 6 Aggies upset loss to his passenger’s alma matter, Appalachian State, earlier that day in a 17-14 defensive thriller.) But as Trump and his movement gained steam, the area “did not feel like a good place for a Kenyan and his Black wife,” Patrick said.

He sees things in his adopted country only getting worse since his move. Washington, D.C., he hoped, would be a diverse capital city where people of different races and backgrounds lived in a sense of community. Not so, Patrick said as a man driving a pickup truck unable to slip behind the SUV laid on his horn. “See!” the Kenyan-born driver said.

The country’s politics often resemble the truck’s skull-splitting horn, with politicians taking unfair and unfounded — and just plain false — shots at one another. Even when they offer level-headed assessments of one another’s intention and job performance, they cannot help but flash Patrick’s perceived “hate.”

Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a former Sunshine State governor, head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, offered a reasonable critique of President Joe Biden’s handling, to that point, of a standoff between labor unions and railway companies that ended in a deal early Thursday morning.

“He’s clearly not doing enough, or it would already be resolved,” Scott told Roll Call. “I mean, I’ve had the opportunity to work with unions my entire life. My dad was a Teamster.

“I’m surprised the president can’t figure this out,” he added. “But, my impression is: If you look at the president and the people he’s surrounded himself with, they’re not doers. They don’t get things done. They’re good on television, that’s about it.”

The former Florida chief executive also offered this insightful advice: “What I learned as governor is when you have a big issue, you stay on that issue until you get it resolved.”

But the more he talked about the Democratic president who was in Detroit Wednesday to tout electric vehicles and raise money for his political party, the more agitated he became before lowering the boom: “He doesn’t care about this. He doesn’t care about whether there’s a rail strike or not. Otherwise, he’d be doing this every second.”

It’s more than a stretch to accuse Biden of not caring.

Other Republicans simply lambaste the president as incompetent, even as he stacks up legislative and foreign policy victories.

“It would be nice if he would tend to his duties. … This administration is beyond any help, I believe, at this point,” Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, another potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, said of Biden on Wednesday.

‘Semi-facism’

It’s not just Republicans. Biden himself has had to walk back his initial assessment of Trump’s philosophy and its supporters after initially making clear he didn’t think much of its followers.

“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of extreme MAGA philosophy,” Biden told supporters on Aug. 25 in Rockville, Md. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.”

A few days later, during a Sept. 1 prime-time speech in Philadelphia, Biden called Trump and his MAGA believers a “threat” to the country. He also walked that back the next day: “I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country,” he told reporters after an economic event at the White House.

The president, whom Republicans have accused of running in 2020 as a unifier but governing and speaking with a distinctive leftward tilt, might have tried making a distinction between the MAGA movement and its members, but Americans are not following suit.

Researchers at the Pew Research Center polled Americans on their views about members of other political parties and concluded that, increasingly, Republicans and Democrats view not just the opposing party but also the people in that party in a negative light.

“Growing shares in each party now describe those in the other party as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans,” according to a Pew summary of the August survey.

Strikingly, large majorities of Republicans and Democrats said they view members of the opposing party as “immoral.” Nearly three-quarters, 72 percent, of Republicans see Democrats that way; well over half, 63 percent, of Democrats said the same about Republicans.

Both figures are up sharply since 2016, when 47 percent of Republicans called Democrats “immoral,” and 35 percent of Democrats used that word for GOP members.

“Dishonest.” Most Republicans and Democrats assigned that word to members of the other party, according to Pew: 72 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats. “Fewer than half in each party said this six years ago,” the researchers noted.

What’s more, an eye-popping 83 percent of Democrats said Republican Party members are “close-minded,” while 69 percent of red voters said the same of blue voters. And, tellingly, 62 percent of Republicans called Democrats “lazy.” (Only 26 percent said the same of GOPers.)

“Deeply negative views of the opposing party are far more widespread than in the past,” the Pew researchers wrote. “While these highly negative views of the opposing party are little changed in the last few years, the share expressing this level of antipathy is higher than it was even five years ago, and considerably higher than it was a few decades ago. In 1994, fewer than a quarter in both parties rated the other party very unfavorably.”

Zeroing in on the change over the last five years begs a question: What changed about politics in the United States? One does not have to beg for the clear answer: Donald John Trump.

‘Big problems’

The real estate tycoon and former reality television host might champion himself as the great disrupter in chief of American politics, but there is mounting evidence he did more than shake things up — he poisoned the political well.

And he continues to do so, daily. Trump still generates headlines with his baseless and false claims, his personal attacks, and his mission to shred every foe and institution that ever dared criticize, oppose or scrutinize him or his associates and his businesses. This week offered more examples of The Donald shaking more toxicity into U.S. politics.

“I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it,” the former president told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday. When the man who told his angry supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, to storm down the street to the Capitol and “fight like hell,” was told by Hewitt some would call that statement again calling his MAGA mob to violence, Trump doubled down.

“That’s not inciting — I’m just saying what my opinion is. I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it,” he said. What does that mean, Hewitt asked. “Big problems. Big problems,” Trump replied in one of the least-veiled threats you will ever find.

More poison came Wednesday evening on his social media platform, when Trump broke the news that one of his associates was questioned by federal investigators: “Breaking News: Mike Lindell, ‘THE Pillow Guy,’ was just raided by the FBI. We are now officially living in a Weaponized Police State, Rigged Elections, and all. Our Country is a laughing stock all over the World. The majesty of the United States is gone. Can’t let this happen. TAKE BACK AMERICA!”

Trump never says how his supporters should “take back” the country or respond to his possible indictment in a seemingly ever-growing list of federal and state investigations. He doesn’t have to. The poison, to some, is fuel. We learned that on Jan. 6.

Democrats are not innocent. NASCAR champion and former Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip said of the yellow flags that slow races after crashes in his sport, “cautions breed cautions.” In politics, extreme breeds extreme — the Democratic Party’s cash and energy are most plentiful on its further left wing. But its policy ideas often are unrealistic and alienate conservatives, and many young progressives’ attempts to weaponize words only further poison the well.

So, Patrick, what happened to our country? Donald Trump happened. And evidence suggests that the angry rhetoric and hostile views won’t subside until the former president recedes from the spotlight.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.