Since President Donald Trump has taken so many positions that align more closely with the typical elected Democrat than the typical elected Republican—skepticism of free trade, support for massive federal infrastructure spending, comfort with a single-payer healthcare system—why can’t the president, who promised to practice “the art of the deal,” advance his agenda by garnering some Democratic votes in Congress, enabling him to bypass the staunchly anti-compromise House Freedom Caucus?
Several pundits have raised that question lately, knowing many of the voters who propelled Trump to power wouldn’t be averse to breaks with Tea Party orthodoxy. “Trump's best bet for a badly needed win to help rebuild his ‘winning’ image may well come by working with the other party,” Clarence Page argued in the Chicago Tribune.
And the White House itself has pondered that course.
Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, who previously led the Republican National Committee, told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, "I think it's time for our folks to come together, and I also think it's time to potentially get a few moderate Democrats on board as well." A senior Trump administration official even suggested to BuzzFeed that the White House would like to attract support from the Congressional Black Caucus.
The obstacles to a bipartisan turn have been set forth even more forcefully. Josh Barro focused on the ways that Trump shortsightedly put himself in a weak negotiating position:
It's possible to imagine a different opening to Trump's administration that would have put him in a much stronger negotiating position. He could have started with infrastructure and tax reform instead of health care. He could have made good on his initial overtures to Democrats, offering them an infrastructure package they would have found tempting, even if it came packaged with tax cuts. He could have sprung this on Republicans at a time when they didn't feel empowered to stand up to Trump.
But he didn't do those things.
Now, Republicans in Congress are annoyed with the president, sniping at each other, and no longer so afraid of what can happen when Trump tweets. They've defied him once and survived — why not do it again? Democrats smell blood in the water, and are much more inclined to deny Trump assistance and enjoy his failures than to work constructively with him.
Michael Brendan Dougherty added that, for Democrats, opposition has huge upsides. “Democrats have a kind of gift in Trump, in that he's almost proven everything they ever said about Republicans, that their high church conservative rhetoric was a mask for hiding their true motivation, racial animus,” he wrote at The Week. “Trump proves that conservatives' family values rhetoric was cynical! Democrats don't need to work with Trump. The Trump presidency is already working for Democrats.”
Those arguments are persuasive.
But I think there is an even deeper dynamic that will make it very difficult for Trump to forge a coalition that includes moderate Democrats or African Americans, at least if he hopes to retain enough support from his base to get reelected.
I’ve recently published a series of articles drawing on the insights of Karen Stenner, a leading scholar of the deep forces that tend to tear polities apart. Her core insight is that democratic countries are composed of citizens with very different predispositions. In her taxonomy, “libertarians” are very comfortable with difference and diversity, while “authoritarians” have a strong, perhaps innate preference for unity and sameness, even if coercive measures are required to enforce it.
Usually, a country’s libertarians and authoritarians live alongside one another in relative peace. Under normal conditions, it can be difficult to even tell them apart.
But everything changes if those with a latent predisposition to authoritarianism are activated. Suddenly, their relative willingness to live and let live gives way to increasing demands for policies that target, repress, or punish those perceived as different.
In response, the predispositions of libertarians are awakened in turn as they perceive a threat to the diversity or difference that they value. They mobilize to protect it. The aftermath of Trump’s first travel ban is illustrative. Folks who’d never been involved in a political action reacted to news of green card holders getting detained at customs checkpoints by spontaneously flocking to airports in protest.
Here’s how Stenner would explain those protests:
Authoritarians and libertarians are mobilized in defense of that which they value only when those valued ends appear to be in jeopardy. For each side, this will be when they are induced to fear that those ends, and the social arrangements that serve them, might be at risk, or starting to seem too risky for the collective. Exogenous conditions of normative threat––most critically, belief diversity and fallible leaders––remind both authoritarians and libertarians of that which they value, of why it is valued, and that it may not be valued (now, or for too much longer) by others.
The experience or perception of a normative threat may certainly, or even often, be a product of elite manipulation. But the predisposition to be hyper-responsive to those conditions is endogenous: a product of the masses.
Happily, this means that a spike in authoritarian policy demands does not necessarily mean that overall intolerance will increase. It may, in fact, remain at constant levels or even decline, if authoritarian actions are met by a libertarian reaction that is bigger in strength or magnitude than the repressive actions that triggered it. (As I wrote in February, with whom conservatives ally matters a great deal, too.)
But even libertarians manage to prevent the overall degree of intolerance from changing, “it will be a very different world indeed,” Stenner adds. “The aggregate result of activating this dynamic will be deeply intensified value conflict across the tolerance domain, sharply polarized politics, and enormously increased demands upon the polity: for greater and lesser discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration; for more and fewer limits on free speech, assembly, and association; for stricter and softer policies on common rites, abortion, censorship, and homosexuality; for harsher and more lenient punishment.”
That sounds a lot like America’s situation today, doesn’t it?
Once set in motion, this dynamic can feed on itself. In other countries, it has led to outcomes ranging from sustained culture wars to, at the extreme, a descent into genocide. “This is a volatile movement of the masses, placing vastly-increased and essentially irreconcilable demands upon the polity,” Stenner writes. “It is not a ‘top down’ diffusion of cues and considerations, but a ‘bottom up’ expression of primitive passions; not the politics of ideas, but the politics of fear.” A prudent nation will work very hard to deactivate its authoritarians and change course.
Trump’s position illustrates the consequences of fueling this dynamic.
His bigoted rhetoric and the harsh measures he advocated for during the campaign helped his electoral fortunes by activating a base of authoritarian support. By triggering the dynamic Stenner described, however, he constrained his ability to govern, guaranteeing an energized opposition that regards him not as a normal politician, but as a malign force who threatens a feature of America many hold dear.
Stephen Bannon may not mind that tradeoff.
Bannon has spoken openly about his desire to reorient the ideological landscape, to “bitch slap” the Republican Party, to destroy the political establishment, and to create an international alliance of white nationalist parties across Western civilization. He has even called Trump an “imperfect vessel” for the revolution he wants to see. His project can only succeed via nihilistic exploitation of deep, fear-driven impulses.
In contrast, Trump wants to make deals, be the center of attention, and get high approval ratings. He saw he needed bigoted campaign rhetoric and the base Bannon cultivated at Breitbart to win, but underestimated how severely it would constrain him. Does anyone on team Trump even understand the “libertarian” predisposition? Perhaps Ivanka Trump does, having now lost that part of her customer base.
Sweeping bans on foreign travel and highly visible immigration raids on longtime residents will continue to earn Trump the approval of authoritarians in his base. As inevitably, those actions will provoke unusually furious opposition from Stenner’s libertarians—and vastly complicate cooperation with any elected Democrats.
After all, white Democrats are more likely than white Republicans to value difference and diversity; Hispanic and African American voters are indispensable to Democrats in a way they aren’t to Republicans; and while there is no reason to believe that members of minority groups are any less likely than whites to be authoritarian in their psychological predispositions, even the most difference-averse among them is unlikely to join an authoritarian coalition where they are part of the outgroup.
Yes, some on the right have argued that the Democratic Party’s “rainbow coalition” is vulnerable, because African Americans are as likely as anyone to fear Muslim refugees and are among the biggest economic losers from mass immigration. But a Republican president hoping to drive a wedge between blacks and other Democrat-leaning minorities would be foolish, indeed, to appoint Jeff Sessions attorney general, denounce Black Lives Matter, signal that the Department of Justice will no longer stop policing abuses, and cast black life as carnage.
More broadly, so long as Trump or his team seem antagonistic to immigrants, Muslims, blacks, or any other identity group, Stenner’s libertarians, who wield significant power within the Democratic Party, will reliably savage any elected Democrat who strengthens Trump’s hand. Cooperation with more moderate Democrats might be possible if Trump apologized for bygone misdeeds, transformed his rhetoric, parted ways with Bannon, and made explicit, hugely appealing overtures to African Americans. But that would alienate Trump’s sizable cohort of authoritarians. (Imagine how a sidelined Bannon would play it at Breitbart!)
Despite Trump’s centrism on issues of great consequence, he chose bigotry over bipartisanship as a campaign strategy. If his presidency is a failure as a result then all Americans will suffer. But at least future candidates may conclude that activating an authoritarian dynamic to gain power just spoils the prize they’re seeking.