By Ryan Tierney ‘20
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller finished his two-year investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The probe concluded that there was insufficient evidence to indicate that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government before, during, or after the 2016 election. This objective study resulted in dozens of indictments for federal crimes, including over 20 Russian citizens and several Russian entities for their interference in the campaign. It also “turned a profit”; in December of 2018, the investigation had cost roughly 25 million dollars, while it had gained 48 million dollars through asset forfeitures. Mueller accomplished the objective he was tasked with completing.
However, the Mueller probe also generated massive debates and inflamed tensions between two already contentious political parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. The inquiry, while initially receiving bipartisan support as a matter of national security, quickly became a political battleground. As many Democrat politicians theorized for months about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election, often coming to premature conclusions, Donald Trump tweeted over 1,000 attacks directed at Mueller or other groups related to the investigation, repeatedly calling the whole affair a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the Democrats. These attacks have persisted even after the conclusion of the investigation. While this report has caused so much political tension, it is, sadly, just a microcosm of the intense state of political partisanship, divisiveness, and dichotomy that characterizes the United States’ current political climate.
Perhaps the most basic factor that has contributed to the United States’ heightened partisanship is the idealogical shift “away from the middle” that U.S. politics has experienced in the past decade. This has been caused by a variety of factors, but the 2016 presidential election played a huge role. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were arguably two of the most disliked presidential candidates in history. Nearly 50% of Americans regarded Trump and 38% regarded Clinton as “strongly unfavorable” candidates in April of 2016. That average was 15% higher than any U.S. presidential candidates since 1980 (Gallup Poll). To put it in another perspective, Donald Trump had a lower approval rating as a candidate than David Duke (theformer Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) did in 1992 when he ran for president, and Duke didn’t even receive the Republican nomination.
This situation led many Americans to vote, not out of favor for one candidate, but out of disdain for the other. The Clinton campaign recognized this. So, to discourage votes for Trump and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate in 2016, they declared (as did many media outlets) that “A Vote for Johnson is a Vote for Donald Trump.” The Trump campaign echoed a similar message. This rhetoric caused many Republicans and Democrats to make the critical decision to step away from their “politically moderate” ideas and fully embrace the often radical agendas of their respective parties. The result? Simply put, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree less and less. According to the Pew Research center, 94% of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican (as compared to 68% in 2004), and 92% of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat (as compared to 70% in 2004). However, while these differences in opinion may make compromise increasingly difficult in the U.S. political climate, they are not inherently dangerous.
However, inflamed political rhetoric has taken these differences in opinion and blown them way out of proportion, resulting in intense partisan animosity and divide. This can take the form of flat-out lies, such as when President Trump, on March 28th, 2019, accused the Democratic Party of favoring abortion policies that allowed for “executing babies after birth.” This statement by Trump was absurd and not true in the least… the Democrats’ pro-choice stance on abortion does not, never has, and probably never will extend to after birth. This divisive rhetoric can also take more explicit forms. For example, in October of last year, President Trump described the Democratic party as “too dangerous to govern.” While many people across the country simply brushed aside this remark as “Trump being Trump,” this comment, as does every other remark, lie, or exaggeration, has consequences. Both Democrats and Republicans alike are guilty of painting the opposing party in this fatalistic light, and it shows. Nearly 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans don’t just dislike their opposing political party, they believe they are a “threat to the nation’s well-being” (Pew Research Center). This “fear of the other” makes compromise and common ground exponentially harder to find, as parties seemingly operate on and promote wholly different versions of the truth. But the results of this rhetoric are not just contained in politics. In many cases, it is a matter of life and death.
In June of 2017, Republican Congressman Steve Scalise was shot while practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. His attacker was James Hodgkinson, a left-wing radical who intended to kill more Republican Congressmen at the practice, including Jeff Duncan, Mo Brooks, and Trent Franks. Hodgkinson belonged to many extreme political social media groups, with names including “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans” and “Terminate the Republican Party.”
Last fall, 16 packages containing pipe bombs were sent to various critics of President Donald Trump, including the offices of CNN, former President Barack Obama, and the ex-Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. These bombs were sent by right-wing extremist and vocal Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc,and while he claimed these devices were just intended “to threaten and intimidate,” all 16 were active improvised explosive devices. Sayoc was incredibly involved on social media, propagating right-wing extremist theories on Facebook all the while sporting his “Make America Great Again” hat in countless photos. In addition, his van, which was seized, was covered with large stickers depicting Democratic politicians in the crosshairs of gun-scopes.
Both of these incidents generated news coverage across the nation and were denounced by politicians on the right and the left, as they should be. But while politicians have called for peaceful discourse after these instances of politically-motivated terror, few have taken the next step and changed their day-to-day rhetoric. Donald Trump himself, just hours after several pipe bombs had been sent to CNN offices in the Time Warner Center, sent a campaign message calling on his supporters to “give the media another wake-up call from the American people.” This remark was very poorly timed, but it shouldn’t be acceptable in the first place. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican alike, need to realize that their words carry weight, and they can carry blood.
However, we as citizens have not made changes either. We still tune in to our favorite left or right-leaning news channel, and continue, in many ways, to see the world through a single perspective. In limiting our exposure to other opinions and refusing to listen to the other side, we are helping to perpetuate the political stagnation that exists in Washington and make ourselves vulnerable to this dangerous rhetoric.
As American citizens, we deserve more. We deserve to experience the world through our own unfiltered eyes and ears, not through the lens of partisan rhetoric. We need the unvarnished truth, but where can we start? By releasing the Mueller report to the nation in its entirety (omitting, of course,information on secret informants), the United States would be making a massive step toward political transparency and bipartisanship. It would establish a raw factual base regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and the allegations of obstruction of justice and misconduct that still face Donald Trump. It would allow citizens to make the conclusions for themselves. Then we the people can decide, through the ballot, by what we want this country to be defined.