Us vs. Them How Trump Hijacked the GOP

U.S. Republican party presidential candidate Donald Trump has effectively hijacked his party with divisive rhetoric, writes Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent.
Donald Trump arrives onstage during the third day of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 20. Photo: DPA/Shawn Thew

Donald Trump has a reputation for being a colossal egomaniac, but his favorite word is “we.”

His speeches contain tales of miracles that only a collective show of strength could accomplish: stopping illegal immigrants, bombing terrorists to smithereens, or restoring America to its former glory.

If voters choose him as president, then there is supposedly nothing “we” can’t do, Mr. Trump promises. If not, then the end is nigh. Whether he's speaking of the final fall or a national rebirth, Mr. Trump doesn’t bother with nuance.

The populist millionaire real-estate developer won the Republican presidential nomination because he works in contrasts, even in his use of the word “we.” The word doesn’t unify, but divides. It encompasses a group of voters by setting them apart from others.

Republicans, whose great hero is the 'sunny, optimistic' Ronald Reagan, are now paying homage to a prophet of doom.

In Mr. Trump’s America, not all citizens are equal. There are the respectable and decent ones, who are mostly white. And there are the rest – the foreign, the corrupt, the troublemakers.

Mr. Trump’s “we” rips at the seams of a pluralistic nation. And his divide-and-conquer political strategy as a candidate has already changed the country more profoundly than many a president.

The change can be felt everywhere at this week’s convention in Cleveland. Mr. Trump has bent the Republican Party to his will and dragged it out of its political home. But except for a few rebels guided by their conscience, Republicans are singing the praises of their hijacker. The party has succumbed to Stockholm syndrome.

His triumph is a victory of identity over ideology — because Mr. Trump can’t be pinned down somewhere along the left-right spectrum.

When he promises to counter the pressure of globalization with trade barriers and to maintain the social safety net, he shifts Republicans to the left.

Yet by also pledging to track down immigrants without papers and throw them out of the country, he pushes the party to the right.

Mr. Trump’s unconventional campaign replaces traditionally conservative and liberal world views with a new battlefront: “us” against “them.”

“Them,” to Mr. Trump and his supporters, means globally oriented elites in economics and politics, who don’t give a damn about the interests of ordinary citizens.

“Them” stands for supposed allies in Asia and Europe who steal American jobs and snuggle contentedly under the military protection of the United States.

And “them” includes economic refugees from Mexico and Central America who bring drugs and violence – or people in the Black Lives Matter movement who protest police violence.

Republicans, whose great hero is the “sunny, optimistic” Ronald Reagan, are now paying homage to a prophet of doom.

“America is a hellhole, and we're going down fast,” thunders Mr. Trump. The entire country is torn apart, he claims, infested with crime and terrorism.

As crass as his language seems, the method is not new to U.S. politics. The screenplay for the 2016 Republican campaign was authored by former President Richard Nixon in 1968.

At the time America was riven by war and civil tumult. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy traumatized the nation. Protests against the Vietnam war were escalating. Racial riots rocked U.S. cities and frightened white citizens.

Mr. Nixon promised law and order – and won.

“Law and order” are fighting words. Mr. Nixon’s policies were viewed by African Americans as a program for criminalizing civil rights activists – just as Mr. Trump’s revival of the slogan is considered an attack on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mr. Trump willingly foments this division. He transfers the creed of the anti-terrorism warrior George W. Bush to domestic politics: Whoever isn’t with us is against us.

This gives even former President Bush the creeps. He is aware of how much America has changed since Mr. Nixon’s presidency. In 1968, almost 90 percent of voters were white. Today the figure is 60 percent.

And whether that means that recipes from the past might not work as well these days, Mr. Bush and other prominent Republicans are keeping their distance from Mr. Trump’s coronation.

Close sources say that Mr. Bush fears he could end up being “the last Republican president” after Mr. Trump destroys the party.


Moritz Koch is Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent. To contact him: [email protected]