Politics today is organized around not affinities but aversions. That’s why President Joe Biden, in the run-up to the midterm elections, is suddenly talking about the “ultra-MAGA” capture of the GOP and describing Donald Trump, sneeringly, as “the great MAGA king.” You may not love me, Biden says, but never forget how much you hate those other guys.
Biden doesn’t have much choice. Even if he never runs for president again, Trump and his movement are the animating force in American politics. Hey, I don’t like it any more than you do. Even House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy hoped on January 6, 2021, that we’d seen the last of Trump (“I’ve had it with this guy”). But we hadn’t.
Trump controls the Supreme Court. His three appointees are about to overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump controls the Republican congressional minority. The come-from-behind primary victories of J.D. Vance for Senate in Ohio and Alex Mooney for the House in West Virginia demonstrated the iron grip of Trump’s endorsements. Trump controls statehouse Republicans too. Trump-endorsed candidates for the Senate, House, and governor have won 39 out of 40 primaries, Nathaniel Rakich reported Wednesday in FiveThirtyEight. (The sole loser, Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster, was accused by eight women, including one GOP state senator, of groping them.) These prisoners of MAGA believe what Trump tells them to believe, or at least they pretend to. More than 70 percent of Trump-endorsed candidates, Rakich and Jean Yi reported last month, say they believe the 2020 election results were fraudulent.
For a former president to maintain this level of control over his party is unusual. For a former president voted out after one term, it’s extraordinary. For a former president who never broke 50 percent during his single term, it’s baffling.
Trump’s low approval rating is contagious. Biden, who entered office with a respectable 53.6 percent, fell below 50 percent in August 2021 and has been in the low 40s since January. That’s about where Trump was at the same stage in his presidency. Before Trump, no president had dipped that low at this stage since the notoriously unpopular Jimmy Carter.
Biden’s low numbers are seriously unfair. He’s managing quite expertly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The economy, despite some nasty inflation, is booming. Biden passed a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, and then he passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on which Trump could never get Congress to move (that is, if he even tried). And for those who care (not everyone does), the deficit’s gone down. Biden restored the sense we lacked during the Trump years that the government is operating in a reasonably orderly and ethical fashion. None of this has gotten the country to rate Biden the superior president he so obviously is. So now, in addition to citing all these accomplishments in his speeches, Biden’s taken to pointing out that the MAGA-captive GOP is dangerous and deranged. In effect, Biden’s saying: You don’t care about me? Fine. Start caring about those maniacs.
It never was what Biden wanted to say. He entered office with a long career behind him of Senate dealmaking, speaking of “unity,” and hoping the country could move forward. But the Republicans’ infantile partisanship was too great. Of course, the problem of political tribalism is not new. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton followed the same learning curve, and the phenomenon predated even them. Animosity had been displacing affinity as the animating force in politics since the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2010, the unfavorable stereotyping of members of the opposing party increased by 50 percent, according to a 2012 study led by the Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar. Meanwhile, public trust in government plummeted. “May the best man win” yielded to “May the worst man lose.”
Republicans became much better haters than Democrats because Republican interest in governance dwindled as the party moved rightward. By the 1990s, identitarian loathing had become conservatism’s main point. By the teens, it had become conservatism’s whole point. Trump jacked it up even further.
Voters didn’t put Trump in the White House because they admired him. A July 2016 Pew poll found that fewer than half of registered voters who intended to vote for Trump could ascribe to him a single positive character trait. Only 21 percent judged Trump “someone you admire.” Only 38 percent judged Trump “honest.” Only 29 percent judged Trump “well informed.”
Yet they voted for him anyway. Republicans revised their opinion of Trump’s character upward after he won the election, but the trend reversed during his presidency, with the proportion of Republicans and Republican leaners judging Trump “honest and trustworthy” falling from 81 percent in February 2017 to 72 percent in June 2020. (This was, keep in mind, seven months before the Capitol insurrection.)
Hillary Clinton’s supporters had a higher opinion of her character in 2016 than Trump’s supporters had of Trump’s. But both camps felt much more strongly that the opposing candidate was simply unacceptable. For example, 79 percent of Clinton supporters said Trump had “poor judgment”; 77 percent of Trump supporters said the same about Clinton.
If you doubt that politics today is all about getting voters to loathe the other guy more than they loathe you, observe the path of the GOP’s most rank opportunists. I give you J.D. Vance’s assertion on April 29 that
if you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl? … It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him.
Lies this toxic used to tank candidates’ poll ratings, but Vance’s support went up after this statement. Remember those palmy days when conservative conspiracy theorists outside elective politics spread the word that Democrats wanted to molest your children? Now conservative conspiracy theorists running for Senate spread the word that Democrats want to kill your children.
Biden’s talk about “ultra-MAGA” Republicans is pretty tame stuff in comparison. But the urgency is real. The MAGA court really is about to make abortion less available in San Antonio than it is in Catholic Dublin or Lisbon or Mexico City, or even Rome. Its next project could be wholesale dismantlement of the administrative state. Florida Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, really is trying to raise taxes on the poor, an idea that sank Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012—and maybe eliminate Social Security and Medicare in the bargain. Even Mitch McConnell says so! McConnell distanced himself from the plan, but Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel (Mitt’s niece) endorsed it, along with several other Republican senators.
“What Biden is finally doing,” says Michael Podhorzer, senior adviser at the AFL-CIO, “is trying to alert people to what’s actually at stake in American elections.” If the good things Biden’s done don’t move you as they should, consider the very bad things Republicans do. The lesson of the past two national elections is that you beat Trump and Trumpism by getting out the vote. It worked in the 2018 midterms, where the 50 percent turnout was higher than in any midterm election since 1914, and it worked in the 2020 presidential election, where the 66.7 percent turnout was higher than in any national election since 1896. To hang onto its congressional minorities, Democrats will need that kind of turnout, and that’s what Biden’s after. Biden’s a politician, so he wants you to love him. But if you can’t love him, try hating the GOP. These days, that doesn’t take much effort—even, sometimes, when you’re a Republican yourself.