SAN DIEGO – In light of indictments handed down against 13 Russian nationals by special counsel Robert Mueller for attempting to interfere in the 2016 election, both liberals and conservatives have gravitated to the narrative that the Russians succeeded in dividing Americans, fostering tribalism and creating discord in our politics. I get why that chorus has become so loud. This line of argument is convenient for the political parties.
Republicans want to deflect attention away from Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign and avoid questions about why – in Trumpland – so many roads lead to Moscow. They think the way to do that is to blame the Obama administration for not doing a better job of stopping Russian interference.
Democrats want to continue to hammer away at their claim that the Russians cost them the election by, for instance, using social media ads to convince voters not to support their party’s nominee. After all, this is cheaper and easier than leaving Washington and traveling to the Rust Belt with an economic plan that lures back working-class voters.
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Even so, I don’t buy the idea that the Russians divided America. And neither should you. This line of thinking gives too much power to foreign actors. Worse, it doesn’t assign enough responsibility to the people who really created chaos, generated animosity and polarized the electorate in the last election.
The evidence is depressingly clear that it was Americans who divided America. And much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of two Americans in particular: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
It’s not just that these two individuals were the most deeply flawed presidential candidates offered up by the major parties in modern U.S. history. And it’s more than the fact that they spent months engaged in a race to the bottom and ultimately represented a disheartening “lose-lose” choice for voters.
It’s also that the types of slash-and-burn campaigns they chose to run – during both the primary and general elections – tore apart the nation and brought out the worst in Americans.
In the Democratic primary, Clinton tore into rival Bernie Sanders, telling CNN in January 2016 that the Vermont senator was offering unrealistic “big ideas” that were light on specifics, overplaying his anti-establishment credentials, focusing too much on income inequality, and being soft on gun control. She also seemed to paint Sanders’ supporters as suckers who were so delighted by proposals like single-payer health care and free public college tuition that they didn’t seem to care that Sanders never explained how he would pay for the giveaways. Later, in a book she wrote after losing the election, Clinton blamed Sanders – and his attacks on her character – for the fact that polls showed a majority of Americans thought she was untrustworthy.
And, of course, during the general election, the Democratic nominee famously disparaged Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
For his part, during the GOP primary, Trump attacked, well, anyone and everyone. He viciously clawed at just about every other Republican on the ballot, various members of the party’s establishment, and anyone else who got in his way or had anything negative to say about him. In debates, he lobbed personal insults at opponents like Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz.
Trump started his campaign by impugning the character of Mexican immigrants, describing them as criminals, rapists and drug traffickers. In time, he would also crudely attack women – particularly female journalists or politicians who dared to challenge him. From there, he moved on to attacking Muslim Americans, Hollywood actors, union bosses, corporate CEOs, former presidents, members of Congress, foreign heads of state and a certain “Mexican” judge who was born in Indiana. In fact, the only people whom Trump didn’t criticize were Third World strongman dictators, white supremacists and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Everyone else was fair game.
And, for each of these candidates, those antics were just the warmup acts. They really let the fur fly when they attacked each other – with Clinton basically calling Trump a misogynist, and Trump responding that Clinton was a “nasty woman.”
What a mess these two made of the American political landscape. Hopelessly in love with themselves, but without the slightest bit of shame, they left the country in shambles.
But do tell me again how it was the Russians who divided America. I just love a good fairy tale.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.