President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House.
As elusive as bipartisanship might be, politicians in both parties will tell you that national unity is something we should always strive for. Particularly in a country with as much diversity as we have — not to mention one that fought a civil war — division is always a threat and a potential hindrance. Those moments when the country seemed to think and act as one, like World War II, offer lessons in what we can accomplish when we are unified.
Which is why so many presidential candidates like to paint a picture of the unified future they can bring about, no matter how many of their predecessors failed at the attempt. Barack Obama said he wanted to unify the country, as did George W. Bush, as did Bill Clinton.
There are complex reasons why none of them could, but we still want presidents to keep alive the hope that it might be possible. We certainly want them not to try to make our divisions worse. And most of all, we want them to act in the best interests of all Americans.
But that has never been Donald Trump's thing. From even before he took office, it was clear that Trump divided Americans into two categories: those who support him and those who don't. Right after the 2016 election he embarked on a "victory tour," visiting only states that he won and ignoring the rest. It was an early indication that his petty vindictiveness and inability to tolerate a slight would be a key feature of his presidency.
And so it has been. When Republicans passed a tax plan in 2017, they limited the deduction for state and local taxes, knowing full well that it would hit taxpayers in relatively high-tax blue states much harder. They are trying to add a citizenship question to the Census with the clear intent of undercounting areas with lots of immigrants, so those areas can then be starved of resources and political power. And now, President Trump is hoping to send crime and chaos to areas of the country that have earned his wrath by failing to support him.
Last week The Washington Post reported that in recent months White House officials had floated the idea of taking immigrants caught entering the United States illegally and busing them to sanctuary cities, those with an official policy not to use local resources helping federal authorities enforce immigration laws. "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco was among those the White House wanted to target, according to DHS officials. The administration also considered releasing detainees in other Democratic strongholds." Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rejected the request out of hand.
But when it became public, the president decided it was a fantastic idea. "The USA has the absolute legal right to have apprehended illegal immigrants transferred to Sanctuary Cities," he tweeted. "We hereby demand that they be taken care of at the highest level, especially by the State of California, which is well known or its poor management & high taxes!" Presumably no one told him that under the American system of government, the president doesn't just get to "hereby demand" something and have it enacted with the force of law.
Some were quick to make jokes about the idea. Just imagine: Immigrants in New York and California? What a shock it will be! The point, however, isn't that an influx of immigrants won't cause crime and chaos as Trump imagines (research has consistently shown that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans). The point is that that is precisely what he does imagine. He refers to them as "Gang Members, Drug Dealers, Human Traffickers, and Criminals of all shapes, sizes and kinds." And he would like to send them to heavily Democratic areas in the explicit hope that people in those areas will suffer. "Let’s see if they're so happy" about immigration once he carries out his plan, Trump says.
We should not let the rolling dumpster fire of the Trump presidency rob us of our capacity for shock at things like this. The president of the United States says he wants to intentionally harm Americans who didn't vote for him, for no reason other than retribution. We have never seen anything like it in our lifetimes.
Sometimes, you will hear someone point out that the most catastrophic things people predicted about a Trump presidency have not come to pass. He has not, for instance, put Gary Busey on the Supreme Court, or started a nuclear war because a foreign leader's wife objected when he tried to stick his tongue down her throat. So is it really so bad? But in many ways, Trump is much worse than we imagined he would be.
Politicians often talk about qualities that they describe as the best aspects of America and Americans, in order to point us toward their preferred solutions. Why will we go to the moon? Because America is innovative and determined. Why do we support democratic movements overseas? Because Americans hold liberty dear and want all to share in its blessings. Why should we accept refugees? Because America is generous and compassionate.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, never bothers with that kind of rhetoric. If he has a spark of political genius, it's in his preternatural sense for what is worst in Americans and how to stimulate it: our envies, our resentments, our fears, our hatreds.
More than that, he not only appeals to what is worst in us, he himself is the worst of us. Had you scoured American public life for a figure more malevolent, shallow, dishonest, and corrupt, you could not have found any to outdo Donald Trump. Ask your Republican friends what aspects of Trump's personality they would seek to cultivate in their own children, and see if they can think of one.
In this instance as in so many others, Trump is taking what Republicans have done for years and turning it up to 11. Politicians in his party regularly talk about the parts of America where lots of Democrats live as alien and contemptible, in contrast to the places where lots of Republicans live, the "heartland" where homespun values prevail and the truest of Americans reside. But they seldom suggested that a president should actually shape policy to do intentional harm to parts of the nation that didn't vote for him. For something as despicable as that, we had to wait for Donald Trump.