Have Trump and Trumpism made the United States ungovernable?
By Thomas B. Edsall
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.
Joe Biden takes office at noon, even as a block of roughly 35 to 40 million Republican voters remains convinced that his victory on Nov. 3 was illegitimate, despite his capture of a decisive majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College. With jubilation in some quarters, rage in others, the electorate is split, 49-50, on whether they are “confident that Biden will make the right decisions for the country’s future,” according to a Jan. 17 Washington Post/ABC News survey, well above Donald Trump’s 38 percent in 2017, but below Barack Obama’s 61 percent in 2009.
Biden may look battered and worn, but he possesses a rudimentary integrity that has been missing from the Oval Office for the last four years. He faces a staggering array of challenges, not least within Congress and the judiciary on which he will rely to enact and uphold his ambitious agenda.
I asked scholars who explore issues of social conflict and polarization about the predicament Biden finds himself in. There were optimists and pessimists. If recent history provides a guide, the pessimists may well carry the day.
In an email, Theda Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard, described some of the pressures at work:
The key dynamic in U.S. politics right now is political civil war dividing the white middle strata between those who want to be part of a multiracial, inclusive future, and those who fear and refuse that.
A significant chunk of very right-wing minded people has been present in the U.S.A. for a long, long time. The changes in recent times are in the G.O.P. as a party and in a set of related organizations. Trump’s impact has been to remake many state GOP parties and to embolden organizations and individuals in the minority, yet powerful, far ethnonationalist right. Trump picked up the reins from the Tea Party, which was too organizationally scattered to unify a far-right movement, but which definitely paved the way for demonizing, no-compromise, quasi-authoritarian politics. Partisan polarization skewed to the right did not start with Trump, but has been sped along and given an anti-democratic, authoritarian focus.
What Skocpol calls the “the overt extremism of the Trumpists” — reflected in the mob assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 — has also been manifested in the refusal of much of the Republican establishment to accept the incontrovertible evidence that Biden won both the popular and Electoral College vote in November. At the same time, the Republican Party is split (although not evenly) over this refusal, over Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 riot, which Mitch McConnell now points to, and over the second Trump impeachment.
It is possible that this set of circumstances offers the incoming Biden administration an opportunity to pick up Republican support for some of its key priorities, which include a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus and Covid relief bill, expansion of LGBT rights and a major immigration reform measure that provides an avenue to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. If no Republicans sign up, the administration will have to rely on 100 percent support among Democratic Senators.
Regardless of the Biden administration’s short-term success or failure, Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, contends in an email that the United States is approaching, or has already reached, ungovernability. Wronski argues that
when Americans are divided on simple facts, and live in two different realities, we are not a governable people. To put it another way, when two people playing a game cannot agree on the basic rules and layout of the game, they cannot play. When groups within American society believe in two different sets of rules on how to play the game of democracy, it cannot be played and we become ungovernable.
Wronski sees the unruliness of the nation as possibly dooming Biden’s best efforts. “Biden has a long, uphill road ahead of him coming into the presidency,” she wrote:
On one hand, he has put in much work with his transition team on vaccination and stimulus plans. He comes into office as a man of respect and civility, who wants to bring relief to the American people. On the other hand, our country is fundamentally divided and Congressional Republicans may want to continue playing hardball, like they did during Obama’s presidency.
Harold James, a historian at Princeton, goes a step further. He warned that not only is American politics under extreme pressure, the larger social order is too — the kind of pressure that produced both national and international crises during the past two centuries:
There are striking parallels with countries which are breaking down or on the verge of civil war — the United States in the early 1860s or Germany after 1919 or the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Coups and putsches belong to that world — think of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, or the multiple putsches of the early 1920s in Germany. The Soviet Union suppressed ethnic conflicts, which then broke out and pushed the society into violence, collapse and disintegration. The language and actions of the Trump presidency fanned a longtime racial divide characterized by unequal access to physical, monetary, academic and political resources.
Biden, James wrote, “is the anti-Trump, with a personality that is soothing, healing, not combative,” but, he cautioned, “having said that, it is the reality of the performance, in the short run on combating the pandemic, in the longer perspective on building better access to resources rather than the benign nature of the personality that will dictate the character of the legacy.”
Some of those I contacted argued that whether the nation and the Congress continue on a path of bitter division or whether a lessening of hostility prevails lies less in the hands of the Biden administration than in the hands of Republicans, many of whom have become reflexively and adamantly opposed to all things Democratic.
Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at Tufts, cautioned that Republicans hold the whip hand, that the governability of “America going forward depends in large part on whether Republican politicians return to an unequivocal adherence to democratic norms, or whether they decide to continue further down the path of Trumpism.”
The likelihood that Republicans, or a substantial share of them, will change course is not high. Schaffner continued:
The past few elections have helped to demonstrate just how difficult it is for America to overcome the longstanding racism and ethnocentrism that increasingly defines the division between the two parties. This conflict is so intense because it is an issue where most Americans believe there is a clear right and wrong and that compromise is not an option. For that reason, it is hard to see prospects for moving beyond this issue in the immediate future.
Kevin Arceneaux, a professor of political science at Temple, also has doubts about the prospects for Republican cooperation:
When a sizable portion of a country does not believe that the party in power was legitimately elected, it reduces support for the system and increases the chance of violence. If a portion of the GOP continues to promote false claims about the election outcome, it will only encourage more of what we saw on Jan. 6.
This could be ameliorated if a substantial block of Republicans in Congress “were to take a strong stand and discipline members who fail to recognize the legitimacy of the Biden Administration,” creating what Arceneaux called a “democracy-first front,” but the odds are against that, to put it mildly.
I asked Arceneaux if Biden’s goal of bipartisanship is pie in the sky:
I fear so. There are so many other forces, beyond the power of the president, that influence polarization. If Republicans in Congress, governorships, and statehouses along with conservative media were to play hardball, I anticipate that polarization will remain at the heightened levels that we now see it.
There are those who are cautiously optimistic, who note the newly visible power of Black voters, striking gains in Biden’s high-level appointments of African-Americans and his commitment to reverse Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Some of these scholars believe that the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 may also open a window of opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.
Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, noted that
as ugly as the last four years have been and, as much as they hurt many people, elites were largely willing to tolerate it — it delivered policies they enjoyed and economic returns to the wealthiest Americans. It even delivered clicks on Twitter and Facebook. The norms that Trump violated were mostly abstract and didn’t seem to be any immediate threat to their way of life.
The events of Jan. 6, Enos wrote by email, transformed all that:
With the visceral reality of the attack on the Capitol, this seems to have changed — some Republican elites immediately abandoned Trump and even elites in business and elsewhere, who previously may have disliked Trump but were still not motivated to take action against him, were shocked into taking action to limit the damage.
Trump’s brand has been greatly diminished. But even in his diminished state, Trump is unlikely to simply go away — and voters most committed to the party, those most willing to vote, are going to continue to listen to him. Republicans have put themselves — and the country — in a terrible position.
Leonie Huddy, a professor of political scientist at Stony Brook University, expanded on this point:
One likely outcome of the violent Capitol riots is that an increased number of Republicans are forced to confront the influence of white supremacy within the party. Many Republicans have looked the other way throughout the Trump presidency. But that will be difficult going forward, creating an obvious fault line within the party. Republican leadership will be crucial in determining whether the party continues to embrace, or at least tolerate white supremacy, or moves forcefully to marginalize its influence.
Expanding further, Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard, wrote in an email:
The invasion of the Capitol gives Biden an opportunity to reach out to Republicans who expressed their unease with Trump after Jan. 6, including Mitch McConnell. I expect Biden to be very effective legislating. Biden knows how to get things done, based on his experience in the White House as vice president and on the Hill as a senator.
Biden, in Ansolabehere’s view, does have one significant weakness:
His Achilles’ heel is communication. He has a great personal style, but that can fall flat and he is prone to snafus. He has a history of being bated in public and a bit too quick, resulting in misstatements. It’s unclear if he has adapted fully to the social media age. Communications might be a struggle, especially compared to the always entertaining Donald J. Trump.
If Biden remains committed to a restoration of bipartisanship in Congress, his administration, in Ansolabehere’s view, will face an ongoing struggle as it attempts to balance the demands of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party while recruiting at least a few Republicans. “I would not be surprised to see a big infrastructure bill with a lot of money for roads, airports and energy,” Ansolabehere said. “That is the kind of measure that would get everybody on board.”
Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at Brookings, described Biden’s task as monumental: “How does President Biden govern in the face of these culturally oriented divisions?” She proposed that he adopt the following strategy:
He would be wise to frame his legislative agenda in the language of red, or at least purple, America. He can be progressive in his actions if he is tempered in his language. He has to convince a large segment of the population that he does not intend to defund the police, socialize medicine, open the borders to unlimited immigration, expand the welfare state, strangle small businesses in regulations, or give new preferences to some groups at the expense of others. He should talk about his faith, his family, his pragmatism and his commitment to working hard to be president of all America.
There are others who believe that Biden has already come close to doing the exact opposite of what Sawhill proposes. David Frum, a speechwriter for George W. Bush, a leading never-Trumper and a staff writer for The Atlantic, tweeted on Jan. 17:
The Biden immigration plans could wreck his whole administration from the start. They will invite a border surge that will force Biden to choose between mass detentions or ever-accelerating unauthorized migration.
One question I posed to the scholars and analysts I contacted was: How governable is a country in which a substantial proportion of the voters believe an election was stolen?
In response, David Bell, a professor of history at Princeton, pointed out that:
The country has barely been governable since the Clinton/Gingrich years, with frequent moments of utter paralysis. Still, it depends on the context. In a moment of genuine national crisis, people come together. George W. Bush enjoyed broad support after 9/11 and achieved major, if debatable, goals during his tenure — notably going to war with Iraq. Biden, in this new moment of crisis, may be able to build substantial support from the center-right, enough to marginalize that proportion of voters who believe the election was stolen. In the long term, however, if these voters continue to reflexively oppose absolutely everything proposed by a non-Trump president, it will make running the country exceedingly difficult.
Musa al-Gharbi, a fellow in Columbia’s department of sociology, has focused on the contested issue of retaining African-American and Hispanic loyalty to the Democratic Party. In an email, he wrote:
The real problem Democrats have is their attrition with minorities. Some of this may be attributable to Trump — whose rhetoric and policies actually do appeal to many African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. However, Democrat losses with these voters have been ongoing since 2010. So this is probably more of a story of alienation from the Democratic Party than resonance with the G.O.P.
The accompanying chart, put together by the demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings, illustrates the problem. In partisan trends from 2016 to 2020, there has been a 3-point Democratic gain among white people, a six-point drop among Black Americans, a five-point drop among Hispanic-Americans and an 11-point drop among Asian-Americans from 2016 to 2020.
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