When political experts label a president as “polarizing,” they are generally referencing the public’s perception of that president — as in, how well-received his policies are and the degrees to which people approve or disapprove of him. But when it comes to president Trump, the word “polarization” has a dual meaning. While it’s true Trump is a polarizing figure in the traditional sense — there is probably not an American alive who is lukewarm in their feelings about Trump — he is also polarizing in another way. He himself, with his words and actions, is deliberately divisive. He aims to divide us.
Trump doesn’t simply enact policy that divides and polarizes (though he does do this too). Trump, with his daily Twitter rants and press conferences, encourages Americans to take sides against one another. Every single day, in nearly every statement he makes, he reiterates to his followers that they have enemies. And who are those enemies? Why, their fellow Americans.
Take Trump’s own website. In a set of surveys, he asks his supporters what they want for the country going forward and what they believe his campaign in particular should focus on. Here are a sampling of questions from the survey about what people want going forward:
Q: Who do you believe is more transparent with the American People?
A: President Trump B: Lying Democrat
Q. Who do you believe will ALWAYS put America FIRST?
A. President Trump B. A Sleazy Democrat
Q. Who do you believe is better for America?
A. President Trump B. A Low IQ Democrat
Note the descriptors for democrats. It’s not simply “democrat.” He uses extremely derogative inflammatory descriptors. This is an intentional tactic to sow division.
Here are a couple of questions from the survey about his campaign:
Q. Should President Trump and his campaign do more to hold the Fake News media accountable?
Yes No Undecided
Q. What should the Trump Campaign focus on more?
Attacking Democrats and their radical socialist agenda Promoting all of President Trump’s incredible accomplishments
“Radical,” “socialist,” and “agenda” are each, on their own, incendiary descriptors. Here, Trump puts them all together to compound the effect.
Here we have a jab at China and Chinese people, which Trump is aware of, as he has been repeatedly called out on this racist rhetoric. It is also a jab at the media. Two forms of division in one tweet.
Trump supporters might ask themselves whether the media is truly as biased as Trump claims or whether they are reporting truths about Trump that he would rather the public didn’t see. Is it possible that Trump has something to gain by turning the public against the media? If Trump takes down the media as a source of reliable information, who then is the last person standing for the American people to turn to for “the truth”?
Here, at a rally, Trump tells his followers, “You are warriors. I’ve been watching the fake news for weeks now and everything is negative … you are warriors, thank you. We had some very bad people outside that were doing bad things.”
Does no one in the crowd question why the president is watching “fake news for weeks” rather than doing his job? Does no one see the irony of him making such negative statements under the guise of “calling out” negativity? Does no one wonder why he repeatedly refers to his supporters as “warriors”? Does no one ask themselves what deep-seated compulsion Trump is trying to engage with this “warrior” language?
“China flu,” he says, over and over. The repeated references to “China” are a deliberate manipulation. This is a tactic used by Trump to throw doubt onto the name “COVID-19” because “some people can’t explain what the 19 is, give me the— COVID-19, I said that’s an odd name.”
Polls are also not trustworthy.
He tweets this one a lot. Maybe it’s a request? Maybe he’s watching a TV show he really likes? It’s hard to tell.
What exactly did the “fake news” media lie about?
Here Trump calls out a statement about dismantling the American system of white supremacy and building a more equitable system in its place. The horror.
Casting doubt on mail-in ballots.
More casting doubt on mail-in ballots. Here’s another instance where I would encourage Trump’s supporters to examine intent. Why is Trump so invested in making it difficult for people to vote?
This is not the Black Lives Matter chant, and the Black Lives Matter movement has not advocated for killing police. It has advocated for defunding and demilitarizing police. Huge difference. This tweet is an intentional bid to incite conflict.
When people ask for common sense gun regulation and to divert funds away from a militarized police department and into social services instead, this is what Trump tells his supporters.
Lest we forget, he also retweeted a video in which a white man, riding in a golf cart bearing pro-Trump signs, yells “White power” — twice. The tweet was up for more than three hours before being deleted, followed by a claim from the White House that Trump “didn’t hear” the racist comment.
These are only a few recent examples of how Trump employs divisive rhetoric openly and deliberately in a way that is completely unprecedented in the history of American presidents. No other president has wasted so many words and so much time on turning Americans against one another. I listened to hours of speeches from past presidents from Reagan to Clinton to both Bushes. I read speeches from past presidents who held office prior to the advent of TV. Without fail, even when a president caused great division among Americans, no other president before Trump actively encouraged Americans to take sides against one another.
With every other president, the rhetoric was always about “coming together” as a nation, even if the means by which we aimed to achieve that goal varied widely and were deeply contaminated by sexism and racism.
Trump truly is an exceptional president, though, unfortunately, his exceptionalism lies only in his ability to turn the people of the United States against one another.
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