January 3, 2020
SOCIALIST. ACOLYTE OF Hitler. Old and doddering. Mentally ill or "crazy." Racist. The evil-doer who will end your lifestyle as you know it and pose a great danger to the nation as a whole.
Welcome to 2020 and its presidential campaign, and best of luck, America. According to many of your fellow citizens, those are actually your choices for president this year. It's not John F. Kennedy's "Time for Greatness" or Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America." No one likes Ike or is going "Forward" with Barack Obama. This campaign year, the unofficial theme is fear – of the other side, other races and ethnic groups and, most of all, the person running in the other party.
So 2019 seemed tense, with the release of the Mueller report, hate-tweets from sources as high as the president, name-calling and impeachment? That could be the proverbial church social compared to 2020, putting the country even more on edge, experts say, with the hope being that Americans will be at each other's throats only in the metaphorical sense.
This year, Americans will be treated – or subjected to – a likely Senate trial of the president, occurring while President Donald Trump is running for reelection and some of the senators judging him are angling to take his job.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts lamented in his yearly judicial message that civics education has "fallen by the wayside" and worried that Americans have come to "take democracy for granted." Roberts will preside over a Senate trial of Trump, though lawmakers are already lining up for or against the president along party lines before any evidence has been presented or witnesses heard.
"We have this uptick in partisan polarization," but the difference now is that the divide is driven more by hatred of the other side, rather than devotion to one's own, says Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the nonpartisan group PRRI, which studies the intersection of culture, religion and public policy. "It's less that we love our own party and more that we hate the other one."
That attitude is on brazen display in social media and at campaign events. While Hillary Clinton's 2016 description of some Donald Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables" raised hackles, such rhetoric is mainstream in the current campaign, where the word "hate" is tossed around freely.
Democratic candidates and activists label Trump everything from mentally unfit to be president to corrupt and cruel. Legendary singer Linda Ronstadt, in a recent appearance on CNN, compared Trump to Hitler, saying immigrants are being targeted now the way the German fascist leader targeted Jews.
"If you read the history, you won't be surprised," Ronstadt told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "It's exactly the same."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Thursday labeled the news media a "hate machine for Donald Trump and his supporters." The pro-immigrant group America's Voice maintains a "Trump Hate Map" the group says documents incidents where people of color have been harassed by Trump or his supporters.
On Christmas Eve, Trump lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, a few days after the chamber she leads voted to impeach him.
"She hates all of the people who voted for me and the Republican Party," the president said.
It's not always just words, either: New York City is reeling from a series of anti-Semitic attacks in recent weeks, and incidents of hate crimes against individuals have grown, though they are down slightly when bias-based property crimes are included, says Lecia Brooks, director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Americans' divisions aren't strictly about issues, she says. "It's about sides." Trump's rhetoric involving accusations and personal animus has "worked to his success, so he continues to use it." But such verbiage and behavior "certainly solidifies people on the other side of the spectrum" as well, Brooks says.
"Partisanship a generation ago was something that people took to the ballot box. Today it is something people take to work, take to school, take to church and even take to bed with them. It's a really different phenomenon," Jones adds.
The trend didn't start with Trump, but it's accelerated during his time in office, analysts say. In 2017, for example, PRRI asked self-described Democrats and Republicans how they viewed the other party, with the choices being that the other party was moving things in the right direction; was somewhat misguided but not dangerous, or so misguided as to represent a threat to the country. A majority of both Democrats, at 54%, and Republicans, at 52%, said the opposing party was so misguided as to be actually dangerous.
Nor would people like it if their offspring married someone from the other political side. A 2019 survey by PRRI found that 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats would be somewhat or very unhappy if their sons or daughters married someone who was a member of the other political party.
That contrasts with the 9% of Americans in a 2017 Pew Research Center study who said interracial marriage is a "bad thing" for society and the 31% of Americans in a 2019 Pew study who oppose same-sex marriage.
Trump, experts say, has been uniquely effective in making the American political divide more about him, rather than the policies or ideas he espouses.
"Trump supporters don't seem to support Trump so much for his policies as for the person they perceive him to be," says Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project. "People who oppose Trump oppose him not just for his policies but for the person they see him to be.
"It's hard to talk people out of it once they're convinced of it," Benesch adds. 2020, then, is shaping up as a long political year.
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