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Trump Divides: Can Disunity be a Successful Strategy?

Unity is not the default setting in a democracy, particularly in one as diverse as America’s, and as Trump divides the public, the disunity seems ever more obvious.

President Trump appears to promote disunity as a strategy. And it is working; he might be the first President to become a lame duck before his so-called honeymoon is over.

It takes a special kind of ineptness to achieve such a result.

History teaches us that most successful political leaders try to avoid long and intense periods of disunity. They know that government is composed of power centers and when those centers are animated by entirely different views, more than tactical victories are difficult.

Obama’s lessons

During President Obama’s second term, he resorted to executive orders that ended with predictable challenges by the other two branches. Congress turned back his infrastructure initiative and the Court reversed his executive order to protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

After that reversal he said, “I have pushed to the limits of my executive order ….. we now have to have Congress act.” He turned into a lame duck before his time.

The Super Bowl connection

A friend of mine said the most encouraging thing about the Super Bowl was that Vice-President Mike Pence was sitting next to James Baker, who served both Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush as White House Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary.

Working with President Reagan’s Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, I got to know Jim Baker’s deft moves as we worked on new telecommunications policy. Domestic policy initiatives were vetted by the Economic Policy Council, which Baker chaired. He understood power and like a maestro knew how to blend disparate players.  

Today’s White House could glean a great deal of wisdom from past administrations.

Lessons for a new administration

The best presidents use persuasion skills, but also hire staff that is experienced and talented. When the two work seamlessly, presidents succeed and ultimately to the historian’s satisfaction.

Much is written about the President and his staff; unfortunately the reviews are negative. Trump attempts to deflect this criticism by counter-attacking. This is not a successful long term tactic; counter-attack can be used successfully only when deployed selectively.

Always a bumpy road

America generally perseveres; it has survived assassinations, impeachments and attacks on the homeland. Yet, each intensely disruptive moment carries long-term implications and often perverse ones.

September 11, 2001, brought America two wars and ubiquitous intrusions on privacy. And when Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, said that the constitution protected the right to abortion, he triggered severe disunity that is entering its third generation.

Today, we’re seeing a whole new phenomenon, as politics have become an all-out war. We see White House policy positions greeted with social media frenzy nearly every day.

The inadequacy of bipartisan politics

On the positive side, both political parties have received negative reviews. They both needed to be shaken, although it is unclear whether either can escape their hard-edged extremists.

Hard edge can bring in money and create powerful street scenes, as leading provocateurs use social media. But, when America is at war internally its strength is sapped externally.

The problem with disunity

A warring political class takes attention off what really matters. We as a nation face some rather significant issues—spending, debt, health care, and economic insecurity. These highlight what I think of as a necessary renewal agenda.

The political reality is that those issues cannot be resolved with executive orders, therefore disunity will exact a heavy toll.


Photo by Gage Skidmore

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