Observe the sequence, the roiling pattern of the American political condition, the descending scale: From unity and consensus, to hard-edged partisanship, to intense polarization, to tribalism.
What’s next? Does the continuum lead to widespread unrest, violence in the streets, civil strife? With an increasingly unmoored President purposely stoking divisions for perceived political gain, the possibility need well be contemplated.
The work of Donald Trump was less threatening to the public order when the Democrats were relatively passive. But the resistance to the bottom-feeding Oval Office occupant took on a new fervour this past week with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, rage in her voice, urging followers to confront Republican lawmakers in restaurants, department stores, gas stations. She appeared to be advocating public clashes: “Tell them they’re not welcome any more, anywhere.”
In the wake of their policy of separating families at the Mexican border, other top Republicans were denounced in the public square.
The Democratic Party establishment, recalling the backlash against Hillary Clinton when she called half of Mr. Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables,” warned against such tactics. But can the party leaders control the rank and file? When the disgust with governance has reached current levels, it’s unlikely.
One of the catalysts of the latest furor was Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, being told to leave a restaurant by an owner who didn’t like her politics. Ms. Sanders took to the Twitter waves to create a political firestorm and make herself a sympathetic victim of uncivil treatment. As Mr. Trump’s propagandist, she is complicit in his border policies and a rash of other affronts to American norms. Maybe she shouldn’t be surprised that she isn’t welcome everywhere.
Mr. Trump responded to Ms. Waters, a 79-year-old African-American woman, calling her “an extraordinarily low IQ person.” Of her desire to confront members of his administration, Mr. Trump said, “Be careful what you wish for, Max!” He once advised supporters at a rally to “knock the crap out of” protesters.
There are still four months to go before the midterm elections and emotions are already at the boil. What makes the situation more frightening is that the demagogic Mr. Trump wants it that way. He sees tribal warfare as his winning ticket.
With his nativist rants – he delivered a one-hour stream-of-consciousness harangue in South Carolina on Monday night – his intent is to rev up his base to foaming-at-the-mouth levels. Given their new tactics, he now sees the Democrats as helping galvanize his base. The more they denounce him, the more his supporters will turn out. There will be, says his long-time confidant Roger Stone, “an insurrection like you’ve never seen” if, for example, the Democrats push for impeachment following Robert Mueller’s report.
In the months to come, much could trigger outbreaks of civil unrest. At a reception on Martha’s Vineyard last week, Democrat Mark Warner, the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was overheard (according to Politico) telling the crowd on the subject of Mr. Mueller’s inquiry: “If you get me one more glass of wine, I’ll tell you stuff only Bob Mueller and I know. If you think you’ve seen wild stuff so far, buckle up. It’s going to be a wild couple of months.”
There is the likelihood of Mr. Mueller’s report being tabled this summer. There is word going around that if Mr. Trump doesn’t get his funding for the Mexican wall, he will shut down government. The immigration fight could well get nastier as a result of the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday to uphold his travel ban. There are more detonations that could be set off by his push to blow up the international trading system. His preparedness to ignore Constitutional norms is apparent. His willingness to see the system as rigged and wage war against the so-called deep state is clear.
A wild President invites any number of wild scenarios. Civil conflict, the likes of which the United States has not seen in decades, is not out of the question. Senior Democrats are right in calling on followers to desist from the type of tactics Mr. Trump and the far-right deploy. “No one should call for the harassment of political opponents,“ Democratic Minority leader Chuck Schumer said. “That’s not right. That’s not American.”
Democracy, he says, has to have its way. But if the abuse of democracy is such that it isn’t, then what?