Yet he is not the first to play in this sandbox. Nineteenth century U.S. presidents worked within a political system where slavery was an institutionalized part of the economy, and later in the decade, Southern Democrats who defended racial inequality, segregation, and violence commanded immense influence on Capitol Hill. Woodrow Wilson’s checkered history on civil rights was front and center two years ago when there was renewed attention to his views on race. Even the liberal FDR, as the historian Ira Katznelson has reminded us, accommodated the power of segregationist Democrats as he agreed to live with Southern attitudes in exchange for support on domestic legislation.
Rick Perlstein has documented how Richard Nixon, as candidate and as president, made indirect appeals to southern conservatives and white northerners who firmly opposed the civil-rights revolution. Extremist organizations who espoused these views were always on the fringes of the conservative movement, and there were moments when presidents like Ronald Reagan appealed to them through promises of “states’ rights” and attacks on “welfare queens.” On immigration, there is a long list of presidents who have supported hardline restrictions on persons entering our borders, including Calvin Coolidge, who signed the Immigration Act of 1924 that imposed stringent quotas preventing European immigrants from entering our shores. Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies were famously devastating to an entire generation who lost their homes and lives as a result of his administration’s brutal policies.
Excessive use of “unprecedented” can mask the ways in which Trump’s presidency is an outgrowth of deep trends that have been taking hold in recent decades. He is the symptom of our divided, polarized times, rather than the root cause. For instance, the fact that President Trump spends so much of his time “playing to the base” and ignoring bipartisan opportunities should not be a surprise. We have lived through decades where the forces of partisan polarization have hardened. The parties move further and further apart, with the center vanishing.
While recent presidents, unlike Trump, have still attempted to look for points of compromise, the truth is that they have usually failed. Much of what presidents do these days is focus on their party, and in doing so appeal to the activists and organizations who are loudest and most influential within their coalition. Working for Karl Rove in 2004, adviser Matthew Dowd popularized a strategy that appealed to the base. The assumption of Bush’s reelection campaign was that much of the country, those counties in blue, would never be turned, so best to increase the turnout of core supporters.
In congressional politics, appealing to the base has become a standard tactic in an era of ever-present primary challenges. The rhetoric of partisan polarization vilifies opponents, and imagines a political universe where it is impossible to agree with what the other party has spread through the elaborate partisan media that shapes much of our conversations about Washington. In many respects, the way that President Trump thinks about politics is utterly conventional and, in fact, makes sense given how our system works. We have been witnessing partisan polarization for so long that we should have expected a president who would drop the pretense and embrace this reality without hesitation.