It has become all but impossible to haul oneself out of the dark ooze that is The Trump Pit.
Now comes the latest from that pit – President Donald Trump’s proposed budget imposing billions in cuts to programs for the sick, the needy and the poor while granting trillions in tax cuts benefiting mainly the wealthy.
This federal budget proposal is offered up following a five-decade period during which the gulf between rich and poor in America has widened exponentially. Look at just one statistic pointing to the magnitude of the inequality: Researchers have found that in 1967 the richest 1 percent of 100 U.S. households received 11 percent of income produced by the U.S. economy, and by 2015 – the latest year data is available – that figure had jumped to 22 percent.
The chasm between Trump’s words on the campaign trail and this proposed budget could not be deeper. Trump won 62.9 million votes largely by assuring those who felt forgotten by government that he would be the hero who saved them. Yet his proposed vast infusions of money into defense spending and a border wall will not help the disabled, the students, the farmers and others targeted for the harshest cuts. Neither will he help them with the piles of money he wants to give the rich.
By going out on the road before the November election, I met many voters who saw Trump as their protector. I visited people in small towns of rural America, mostly in the West, and I found a lot, though not all, Trump backers likeable. Some had voted for Barack Obama. Some were so poor they couldn’t pay all their bills. Their stories differed but, for the most part, they had this in common: They abhorred the political establishment, harbored a rabid revulsion for Democrat Hillary Clinton and felt they had finally found in Trump a man who spoke to them and for them.
Having encountered the divide between the Trump and Clinton camps, I sought out academics to hear their thoughts on the nation’s political divide and the forces that helped Trump claim the White House. What I heard helped me grasp how Trump effectively pandered to people’s hopes and dreams, and how he inflamed their fears and hatreds.
“I get asked all the time if there has ever been a time when we were more divided,” David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford history professor emeritus, told me. “In the 1860s we killed some 620,000 men – clearly a condition way beyond what we are facing today. The Civil War was a trial by fire and we went on to become a single country once again.”
Looking at the political divisiveness of today, Kennedy noted that in the last 100 years, the country’s population has become increasingly concentrated in urban areas.
“We have 3,114 counties, and just 146 of them contain 50 percent of the U.S. population,” he said. “Those 146 counties produce 66 percent of the U.S. GDP (gross domestic product); give or take, some 480 counties voted for Clinton and they include most but not all of those 146 counties.”
Viewing these numbers, Kennedy thinks of parallels with the 19th century populist movement “which had its geographic and economic bases in agriculture districts with farmers, miners and loggers – people in extractive industries who understood in their own way that their way of life was falling increasingly behind urban, industrial districts. What is striking today is the persistence of the idea in rural parts of the country that they are being increasingly eclipsed by the prosperity of urban districts.
“The question going forward is can these disaffected who feel themselves on the margins form some kind of partnership with the working class. We don’t know the answer yet, but I have a sense that the Trump organization doesn’t have the strategic thinking apparatus” to build such a coalition.
For Estelle Freedman, another Stanford history professor, anyone trying to make sense of Trump’s victory would do well to look at the issue of race in America.
“The great divide in U.S. history has been very much about race, and we are still experiencing that,” she told me. “We are experiencing a huge backlash against the perceived loss of white entitlement. For the white working class in particular, what race-based privileges they are able to maintain become all the more important.”
While Trump indisputably won the votes of millions angry about what they saw as their loss of white entitlement, Freedman said, he was fueling deep resentments existing long before his campaign for president.
“When you have an increasing disparity of wealth in the country and simultaneously anger against blacks and immigrants, all these ‘others’ are seen as a threat to inherited white privilege,” Freedman added. “This division in America is more than just Trump or anti-Trump or Democrat or Republican.”
David Mayhew, a Yale political science professor, said while today’s polarization between Democrats and Republicans “is unquestionably considerable,” the nation has endured many times of intense polarization: In recent times, he said, “there were serious showdowns about getting involved in World War II, the 1949-1954 period centering on McCarthyism and the Korean War, certainly the 1963-1975 period about Vietnam.”
Some professors, though, see today’s political divisiveness as beyond anything that came before. William Chafe, a Duke University history professor emeritus, is not optimistic about this chasm going away.
“If you had the House and Senate comprised of the same type of people who were there from the 1960s to the 1980s, you would find a way forward,” Chafe said. “But the real division occurred after that. Today we are where there is less bipartisan conversation, more hostilities.”
Jack Rakove, a Stanford professor of history and political science, said many scholars have concluded that “in terms of how Congress acts, we are at a high point of partisanship – Congress has never been as sharply divided as it has been in recent years.” No longer are there liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats who “created a lot of dynamic possibilities” for compromise, he added.
“A lot of scholars are working on this problem of impasse,” Rakove said, “but being just an historian, I don’t have any happy solutions.”
As for Trump, Rakove thinks it pointless to search for historical analogies: “He is such an extreme, out-of-bounds character. Here is a guy who doesn’t read, who says he wants to preserve the Constitution he doesn’t understand, who has no grasp of history. Hundreds of thousands of fifth graders know more about U.S. history than he does.”
So what can be made of all this?
Certainly some of the roots of today’s sharp political divide in America stretch far back in time. It is certain, too, that when Trump is vanquished – by impeachment or defeat at the polls – this bitter division will remain as an immense challenge for the nation in the decades to come.
It also is clear that one of Trump’s most harmful acts is not one that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will be investigating: It is the way Trump donned golden, populist robes, stepped up to podiums across America and split us further apart with his words sowing hatred and fear.
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.