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Who Needs a Platform When You Have Negative Partisanship?
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Who Needs a Platform When You Have Negative Partisanship?

The Republican party is stripped of pretense; it lives for the fight.

Over the weekend, the Republican Party and Trump campaign did two things that should be rather shocking. Indeed, in ordinary times they would be. But these are not ordinary times. 

First, the party decided that it would not create a party platform for 2020. Instead, the party adopted a resolution that it would “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda” rather than issue the normal, detailed statement of Republican principles and policies. The party was now plainly organized around a person. 

Second, later that same evening, President Trump issued his second-term agenda, a series of bullet points titled “Fighting for You!” This was not a statement of ideology or philosophy. Instead, as my former colleagues at National Review noted in an excellent editorial, the document “is better understood as a series of aspirations, with little sense of how the powers of government might plausibly be used to achieve any of these goals”:

Thus, we are told, a reelected Trump would “Create 10 Million New Jobs in 10 Months,” “Return to Normal in 2021,” “Cut Prescription Drug Prices,” “Protect Social Security and Medicare,” “Wipe Out Global Terrorists Who Threaten to Harm Americans,” and “Partner with Other Nations to Clean Up our Planet’s Oceans.” How are voters supposed to evaluate a fuzzy and stilted pledge such as “Drain the Globalist Swamp by Taking on International Organizations That Hurt American Citizens”?

Moreover, the document is just as notable for what it omits as for what it includes. There is no mention of abortion or religious liberty. There is no mention of the Constitution at all. In past campaigns, these omissions would have led to thunderous denunciations from conservatives. 

But that was then. This is now. And exactly nothing I outlined above will matter at all to the president’s base. Why not? There’s a key line in the RNC’s platform resolution that tells you all you need to know: “The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today.”

Or, to put it more simply, the RNC could have simply said, “President Trump’s second-term promise is that he’ll oppose the Democrats.” 

This is negative partisanship in its near-pure form, and it’s the best way to explain Trump’s current appeal to the Republican party. No, it’s not his populism. It’s not his “America-first” foreign policy. His ideology is almost entirely beside the point (I still think that if he abandoned his pro-life stance that he’d lose significant GOP support, but not as much as you might think). His identity matters more, and his identity is clear—the Republican champion against the hated Democratic foe. 

In 2017, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster penned an important 2017 Politico essay headlined “Negative Partisanship Explains Everything.” Here’s how they described it:

Over the past few decades, American politics has become like a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose. Republicans might not love the president, but they absolutely loathe his Democratic adversaries. And it’s also true of Democrats, who might be consumed by their internal feuds over foreign policy and the proper role of government were it not for Trump. Negative partisanship explains nearly everything in American politics today—from why Trump’s base is unlikely to abandon him even if, as he once said, he were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, to why it was so easy for vulnerable red-state Democrats to resist defecting on the health care bill.

At this point it’s worth wondering whether American negative partisanship has any real limits. Do you wonder why we have endured a monumentally stupid culture war over masking in the midst of pandemic caused by a respiratory virus? Because refusing to mask was a condensed symbol of opposition to progressive technocrats. 

Do you wonder why there is an intense partisan divide over voting by mail in spite of the fact that there’s “no evidence” that voting by mail has historically given either side an electoral advantage? Because it’s now perceived primarily as a Democratic initiative. Regardless of the merits, the partisan clustering is now extreme. 

As if on cue, yesterday Politico’s Tim Alberta published an extended piece asking the question, “What do Republicans believe?” It starts with an anecdote:

Earlier this month, while speaking via Zoom to a promising group of politically inclined high school students, I was met with an abrupt line of inquiry. “I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand,” said one young man, his pitch a blend of curiosity and exasperation. “What do Republicans believe? What does it mean to be a Republican?”

You could forgive a 17-year-old, who has come of age during Donald Trump’s reign, for failing to recognize a cohesive doctrine that guides the president’s party. The supposed canons of GOP orthodoxy—limited government, free enterprise, institutional conservation, moral rectitude, fiscal restraint, global leadership—have in recent years gone from elastic to expendable. Identifying this intellectual vacuum is easy enough. Far more difficult is answering the question of what, quite specifically, has filled it.

I’d urge you to read the entire thing, but the essay really boils down to a simple response:

“Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” shrugs Brendan Buck, a longtime senior congressional aide and imperturbable party veteran if ever there was one. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”

I can boil it down into three words—“fighting the left.”

You don’t need a platform to accomplish that goal. You don’t even need to succeed in governing the nation. Your pandemic response can fail. You can watch cities start to burn. Unemployment can soar. But behind it all is a bedrock animosity so strong that any success (such as the excellent diplomatic achievement of an Israeli/United Arab Emirates peace deal) is something your opponent could not possibly achieve and any failure would be orders of magnitude worse under an opposing regime. 

And note how these beliefs are fundamentally unfalsifiable. How can you “prove” a Democrat would have achieved the same success as a Republican? How can you “prove” that their failures would have been worse?

Negative polarization is utterly futile and destructive as a governing philosophy. It can cause an administration to tack away from productive or beneficial policies merely because they originate from the other side. It actively discourages compromise. It incentivizes attempts at domination over accommodation. It disrupts civil society. 

But as a political strategy, negative polarization can certainly win. My brilliant Advisory Opinions podcast co-host Sarah Isgur tweeted this last night, in the midst of the Republican convention:

She’s exactly right. Stoking the rage of the Republican base may indeed grant Donald Trump a second term. But the fact that she’s right should give us all more than a moment’s pause.

As y’all know, I’ve got a book coming out in a few weeks. It raises the alarm about these very issues, including where negative polarization ultimately takes a society. I spend a bit of time reflecting on what I learned in Iraq. I’ll quote a key portion from the introduction—about the remorseless logic of the Sunni-Shiite conflict:

As I interacted with Iraqi police officers, soldiers, and translators, there were two things I noticed about the hatred that was then dominating Iraqi life. First, each side had its own substantially true narrative of grievance and atrocity. For every single example of Shiite violence, one could muster up a story of Sunni viciousness. And while it was absolutely correct that Saddam Hussein had brutally repressed the Shiite population, by 2007 the Shiite militias had made it abundantly clear that they could give as good as they got.

Second, the conflict itself thus became reason enough for sustaining the conflict. While the combatants may have had some sense of the ultimate policy differences in a Sunni- or Shiite-dominated Iraq, as a general rule the motive for the fight was much more primal—those horrible people cannot be permitted to win. The person who killed a brother, son, mother, or uncle had to die. It’s trite to say “violence begets violence,” but it’s quite often simply true. When a militia slaughters a family member, it’s human to seek vengeance. Across the scope of human history it’s normal to seek vengeance. The aberration is the modern embrace of the rule of law and the shedding of revenge for justice.

Thankfully, we are still far from the truly dramatic conflict I witnessed in Iraq, but the same fundamental logic applies here at home—increasingly, the cultural conflict itself has become the reason for sustaining the conflict. And who needs a platform or a program when the central, salient fact of life is that “they are coming for you?” 

In that case, all you need to do is fight, and when the stakes are that high, who cares if your champion is flawed? In that sense, perhaps the RNC has done the nation a favor. The party is largely stripped of the pretense of ideology. The fight itself is now plainly its purpose.

One last thing …

Honestly, if you’re missing NBA bubble basketball, you’re missing out on a ton of fun. And nothing has been more fun (yet) than watching Luka Doncic come back from an ankle injury against the Clippers and turn in a performance for the ages, including this step-back buzzer-beating three. The only thing the moment missed was 20,000 fans in the arena, all losing their minds. Enjoy:

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.