Americans are divided. Not since the expansion of slavery into the territories led us into a Civil War has our nation been so disjointed. President Barack Obama, though he meant well, could not prevent the ever-widening gap between a conservative red America and a progressive blue America.
Though moderates remain, they are a mostly silent minority. We are divided by race, by religion, by geography, by education and economics. We disagree on race, on religion, on sexual politics, on economics, on education, on the environment, on immigration, on foreign affairs and the use of the military. And we are angry: angry at Washington, our state governments, Wall Street, Hollywood, majorities, minorities, foreigners, immigrants and each other. And we elect leaders who refuse to compromise and who insist on having their way, regardless of the consequences. Governed as we are by a Constitution that was created to encourage consensus and compromise, this only makes matters worse.
In other countries, such a state of affairs would lead to a civil war - as it did here in 1861 - or to the rise of a charismatic demagogue who promises to solve all problems. They would take advantage of popular discontent, identify scapegoats for the people to blame their problems on, and promise to save the country if they are given the power to do so.
History has many examples of such a character, from Napoleon I and III in France to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany and countless caudillos in Latin America. Though the United States of America has been tempted by demagogues in the past (Huey Long), we have not succumbed to them.
Abraham Lincoln, to his credit, did not create an imperial presidency to fight the Civil War and restore the Union, though he did increase his powers as Commander In Chief. Most presidents since Harry Truman have increased their military powers though, like the early Roman emperors, they always paid lip service to Congress and the citizens. But they were not demagogues. Donald Trump is; and he succeeds against all odds because he does what demagogues do: promise an anxious nation that he will take care of everything.
If there is anything we can learn from the 2016 presidential campaign, thus far, it is that the old political elites will not cut it. A year ago, we thought that the presidential race would be between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Now the thought of a race between the brother of one president and the wife of another is driving the voters up the wall and to their polling places. On the Democratic left this led to the emergence of Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from Vermont who, aided by Clinton’s baggage, promises things that Europeans take for granted but which still shocks those who believe in American Exceptionalism.
On the right, this led to the Donald, who has taken advantage of red state frustrations, the emergence of the tea party and his own unlimited funds to create a political machine unlike any other. Though Trump pays lip service to right-wing Republican pieties - he even started going to church, to please evangelicals in Iowa and New Hampshire - he offers his own quirky solutions: a wall to keep illegals from sneaking in from Mexico; a ban on all Muslims; and so on.
Trump did not do well in Iowa, where he lost to Texas’s Holy Roller senator Ted Cruz, but he bounced back in New Hampshire, where he beat Cruz, Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio and drove Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina to suspending their campaigns. Sanders did equally well on the Democratic side, where only Sanders and Clinton are left standing. Such a state of affairs has given former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg the presidential itch; and he has promised or threatened to run as an independent if Trump and Sanders are the major party candidates.
Our country has really gone off the deep end if even Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime performance is controversial. But this is what politics have come to in an age of social media, shock radio and a divided country. As a true blue Democrat, I am definitely biased; and I want my side to win. But I know, like Lincoln did, that a house divided cannot stand. We cannot survive as a nation if would-be dictators like Trump have their way. Sadly, in a country and a year like ours, anything is possible.