Way back in 2004, a then-up and coming Democratic senator named Barack Obama gave a stirring speech about how there were really no Red States or Blue States, but rather, there was just the United States. As a professor who teaches public speaking, I loved the speech because of its hopeful tone, and because it stressed that maybe Republicans and Democrats aren't so different after all-- maybe we do have things in common and maybe we really can find ways to compromise.
But as I watch our current political climate, I admit I'm not so sure; and I'm certainly not so hopeful, even though I want to be. More and more, it really does seem like what Republicans want is very different from what Democrats want. I am not saying one side is good and one side is bad, but our differences seem like an ever-widening gulf, and I'm beginning to worry that it cannot be bridged. For example, I'm having a really hard time finding common ground with those who support Donald Trump. According to exit polls taken in South Carolina after Trump won the primary there, large numbers of voters who chose him also believed that all undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately; that there should be a total ban on Muslims who want to enter the US; and that the Confederate battle flag should once again fly over the state house. Other polls, including some taken nationally, showed that as many as 20% of his voters believed freeing the slaves was a mistake, and about 1/3 of his voters believed that putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II was a good idea. Much has already been written about Mr. Trump's assertions that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, and about his claim that President Obama wasn't really born in the United States; what's troubling is that many of his voters agree.
I admit to being stunned by Donald Trump's appeal. I would never have thought that so much demagoguery and bigotry would win over large numbers of people. And yet, he has become a hero to many Republican voters, especially working-class whites, who seem to long for the America that used to be, a mythical "good old days" before gay people could marry, a time when Christian prayer was allowed in the public schools, women stayed at home, and few if any black people occupied positions of influence (let alone aspired to the presidency). It was a world where everyone knew their place, and it's a world Mr. Trump seems to want to restore. Even a dear friend of mine from Tennessee, who has strong evangelical Baptist beliefs, is supporting Trump-- despite his three marriages and the fact that he admitted cheating on his ex-wives. She likes him because she believes he will be tough on illegal immigrants, and defend Christians (who she believes are under constant threat, even in America).
I know that some of my Republican colleagues and friends share those views. They have told me so, on social media and in person; and they are mystified that I don't agree with them. In addition to their utter contempt for Hillary Clinton, and their dismissive attitude about Bernie Sanders, they sincerely believe our current president is a total loser, and that only Donald Trump can restore America's greatness, which they are certain Mr. Obama has taken away. (They also agree with Marco Rubio's and Ted Cruz's talking points that Barack Obama has been destroying America intentionally, perhaps trying to weaken it to appease the Muslims, or trying to transform it into some Marxist paradise). And Mr. Trump, while no longer making the Birther claim that Mr. Obama isn't really an American, has also hinted that there is something "foreign" about him, or that he doesn't have America's best interests at heart.
Needless to say, I find these beliefs bizarre. As most of us in the blue states see it, President Obama actually did restore America's greatness during difficult times. He inherited a horrible economy from President Bush, and turned it around. He also inherited the results of a disastrous war in Iraq, and brought the vast majority of the troops home, while leading the mission that killed Bin Laden (something President Bush was unable to accomplish). But worst of all, Mr. Obama inherited a Republican party that no longer wanted to govern. Rather, as Sen. Mitch McConnell put it, his one goal was to make Mr. Obama a one-term president. In that, he failed; but he and his Republican colleagues were certainly able to obstruct nearly everything the president tried to do. To this day, the goal of Republicans seems to be total obstruction-- in an unprecedented move, Leader McConnell now says the Senate will refuse to even consider any nominee for the Supreme Court, no matter how qualified he or she might be. While previous congresses have wrangled over nominees and some have been defeated, the idea that the Senate will not even meet with or consider anyone the president nominates has never happened before, and we in the blue states think it's outrageous.
But for us, it's also typical of the disrespect the Republicans have shown this president since he first took office: not only have some questioned whether he is a "real" American, but others have sent out racist cartoons of him and the First Lady, or called him rude names. No matter what he accomplished (and he accomplished a lot), he never got the credit: if things were going well, it must be accidental, but if things were going badly, of course, it was all his fault. One congressman even felt it was okay to shout "you lie!" during a State of the Union address. I understand that not everyone will like what a president does, and even some of his supporters haven't agreed with every decision he made; but the level of anger and disrespect directed at President Obama from his opponents is deeply troubling.
So, is the anger that seems to be motivating Republican voters, anger that sometimes seems to boil over during Trump rallies, leading to some of his supporters threatening journalists or trying to forcibly remove protesters (Mr. Trump himself has waxed nostalgic about the era when one could just beat such people up). I don't know where the Republican moderates have gone-- surely there must be some out there, and surely they must be nervous about having Donald Trump, or for that matter, Ted Cruz, as their nominee. I've been observing politics for many years, and I can't recall seeing so many furious people-- Mr. Trump seems content to add fuel to that fire, as it is getting him votes. But the heated rhetoric and the encouragement of hateful views could have disastrous consequences. At this point, I don't know if anyone in the Republican party can stop Donald Trump, and he does seem to have a larger following than many of us expected. But I fear for our country, and for our democracy, if he is allowed to become the nominee... which seems more likely with each passing day.