Our Stranger Than Fiction Politics

Charlie Cook New
October 11, 2019

On Monday morning, a screenshot came across my family’s text chain—one often reserved for photos of our 13-month-old granddaughter—of a @realDonaldTrump tweet.

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” It bled into a second, similarly toned tweet.

The family member sharing the tweets opined, “Please somebody tell me this is not real.” I checked, assuming it couldn’t be. But it was, and it was just as jaw-dropping as his 5:44 a.m. tweet on Sept. 14 in which he described himself as “A Very Stable Genius!”

As a registered independent who is a philosophically middle-of-the-road, politically neutral noncombatant, I have to say that if I were a Republican, I would be wondering right now where all of this is going, as well as how the 10 to 20 percent of voters who are in the middle on President Trump and will ultimately decide this election view these kinds of statements? If I were a Democrat, I’d be asking myself, “How hard will we have to try to screw this up?” Independents have to be asking something about Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot.

We are at a time when the bizarre has become routine. At a college-football game over the weekend, a friend wondered how the satirical website The Onion, known for parodies of the news, stays in business when fact is even stranger than fiction. Who could possibly make this up?

In so many ways, American politics bears little resemblance to what it was when I worked on my first campaigns in high school and college in the early 1970s. My late father, an electrical engineer, once said to me that so much of the field he studied in college had become almost totally irrelevant in the transition from tubes to transistors and then to integrated circuits. In politics, we are seeing much the same taking place. In their words, deeds, and priorities, both parties have contributed to this new reality of what no longer seems like the one country referenced in our Pledge of Allegiance. It has become anything but indivisible.

Over the past few years, we have increasingly seen both data and analyses about several simultaneous realignments taking place in our country. Rural and small-town America, at least among whites, is now red Republican and getting redder, while the cities and suburbs, at least the suburbs around medium and larger cities, are either blue Democratic and getting bluer, or purple independent and trending blue.

The population density of an area has become a pretty good indicator of the political proclivities there. Former Rep. Tom Davis, who served for four years as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has observed that the Republican Party has gone from country club to just country. But this isn’t just about Republicans.

Former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is now heading up One Country Project in an attempt to reintroduce the Democratic Party—the party that pushed rural electrification—to people who live well beyond major metropolitan areas and see Democrats as a hostile force. As an Electoral College chart on the group’s website says, “Without Rural Voters, Democrats will flatline in 2020.”

Education is increasingly becoming a divider as well; among whites, those with college or graduate degrees are moving toward the Democratic Party while non-college whites are getting more Republican. One reason the Democratic Party is said to be getting more liberal is less that Democrats are changing their ideology and views on issues, and more that working class whites—who were the most conservative voters in the Democratic Party, particularly on social and cultural issues—have left the party since the 1990s. Their departure effectively moved the center of gravity of what remained to the left.

Another divider among whites is religion; those who go to church at least once a week are now far more likely to be Republican, while those who go less often or not at all are becoming more Democratic. The latter party has become, at least among whites, an entirely secular party, and in the minds of evangelical whites, an anti-religion party. The abortion and other cultural issues now drive so many issues that the things President Trump says that were verboten in the Methodist Church in which I grew up now barely raise an eyebrow among most conservative, evangelical Christians, who see his judicial nominations and policies as far more important—a manifestation of “watch what he does, not what he says.”

Simply put, in terms of social and cultural issues so important to that group, he has walked the walk while previous Republican presidents just talked the talk. Like those in rural and small town America, Democrats have lost any ability to talk with religious whites. Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical theologian wrote a book years ago, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. It should be a primer for any Democrat who would like to get to know and possibly gain a vote among white voters of faith.

Of course there are other divides in our society and in economics; in recent years, the focus has been on wealth and income inequality. Sit through a town hall with Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders and you will get a lesson in populism and wonder if it is a preview of coming attractions.

Then there is a trend that has to grab the eye of Republicans. In a fascinating study, Brookings researchers Mark Muro and Sifan Liu found: “The less-than-500 counties that Hillary Clinton carried nationwide encompassed a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity as measured by total output in 2015. By contrast, the more-than-2,600 counties that Donald Trump won generated just 36 percent of the country’s output—just a little more than one-third of the nation’s economic activity.”

One has to wonder where this is going too. This is all getting really weird.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on October 8, 2019