I started doing something that may seem really odd to people of my political persuasion – I’ve started reading The Atlantic somewhat regularly. Yes, I know it is perilously left-wing. The day I’m writing this piece, for instance, here are the top stories on their main page:
- Beto O’Rourke Grabbed a Political Third Rail – And Electrified His Campaign
- Trump’s Incoherent Rally in Charlotte
- Megyn Kelly’s Inevitable Downfall
- I Respected Scott Walker. Then I Worked For Him
- What Progressives Can Learn from Michael Avenatti’s Mistake
They’re leftists. I get it. But I’ve become increasingly cognizant of the dangers I have of slipping into a conservative bubble where I disregard any thought that doesn’t immediately conform to my biases and assumptions. The age of social media – where you follow what and who you want to follow – only intensifies those dangers.
So, I force myself to read articles about topics of interest to me that are written by someone who sees the world completely differently than I do. Sure it can be annoying; but I’ve also found it to be extremely productive in helping me find reason for some middle ground with people I could otherwise easily dismiss as my enemy.
Along those lines, consider a piece written by David Graham entitled “Trump Wants to be President of a One-Party State.” Graham’s underlying thesis is that President Trump only cares about appealing to one side of the country, dangerously conflating his roles as leader of the Republican Party and President of the United States.
I freely admit that I have been troubled by this apparent reality. The most noticeable aspects of Trump’s presidency are his frequent “rallies” that he holds across the country. And these are nothing if they aren’t Republican Party, convention-esque barn burners where Democrats are mocked, trashed, and harpooned without mercy. As someone who believes part of the president’s job, whether he likes it or not, is to unify the people of the country, these rallies can be quite counterproductive.
That doesn’t mean the president needs to be a doormat like George W. Bush was too often. And it certainly doesn’t mean the president needs to acquiesce to leftist politics like a President John Kasich (perish the thought) would have fallen all over himself to do routinely. And as Graham notes:
> [T]here is a more elaborate confusion at play. Every American president has to wrestle with the dual burden of being the leader of the nation as well as the leader of his political party. Inevitably, there are places where he errs. Every president is criticized for using Air Force One and official time to campaign for candidates of his own party. Eight years ago, it was a multiday scandal when Barack Obama carelessly referred to political “enemies”; now that’s just Tuesday morning. Trump has repeatedly stunned Washington by injecting naked politics into occasions and tasks that were once meant to be beyond the grubby reach of partisanship.
Obviously I think that Graham is painfully wrong if he thinks Barack Obama is merely peripherally guilty of the kind of divisive rhetoric that Trump commits routinely. I’ve written many times before, and will always maintain that Obama represented a sea change in American presidential politics. He was (and remains) a community organizer who came to the presidency because of his community organizing skills. Let’s not ignore what those skills are: the ability to divide people, exacerbate divisions, motivate one group while isolating, paralyzing, and vilifying another, riding that swell of anger and passion to power.
Obama regularly treated occasions that “should have been beyond the grubby reach of partisanship” with naked appeals to politics. Whether it was mass shootings like in Tucson or Sandy Hook, racially contentious moments like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Louis Gates, or a host of other examples, Obama’s primary motivation never appeared to be national unity. It’s one example of why I will always maintain that Trump is the anti-Obama, the monster that the Obama movement brought on itself.
But Graham’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge Obama’s culpability in this type of dangerous presidential behavior doesn’t change the fact that I think he’s right to be concerned about Trump doing it too. For instance, I can hardly object to his assessment that:
> In a one-party state, there’s no such problem of separation. The leader of the party and the leader of the nation are one and the same—and the interest of the party and the interest of the nation are, at least in theory, also the same.
> There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Trump sometimes yearns for a one-party state. It’s a thread that runs through his opposition to critical press coverage and threats to throttle the media, his celebration of violence against the press, his incitements to violence against protesters, and his threats to prosecute and imprison political rivals like Hillary Clinton.
Let me reiterate that of course it would have been wise for Graham and like-minded liberals to recognize the bed they were making for themselves when they ignored similar conduct (even if not as transparent) in the previous administration. But the fact that they didn’t doesn’t mean this assessment he's offering isn’t right. And it doesn’t mean that those of us who objected to Obama’s partisan use of the presidency shouldn’t be equally concerned with Trump’s similar behavior.
Excusing it by saying, “What goes around comes around,” may feel good. But it betrays that either we were never serious about the dire consequences we warned about under Obama, or that we’ve accepted the polarization and isolation, content with a party-over-country approach ourselves.
The former doesn’t speak well of our integrity, the latter doesn’t bode well for our republic.