U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking at a rally in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Trump’s Inexhaustible Need for Enemies

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What will President Donald Trump do with his higher ground? More precisely target his enemies.

Things are going relatively well for the president. Unemployment is below 4 percent. The economy continues to expand, and a plurality of Americans in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll credits the president. Trump’s job approval rating has been steadily rising, reaching 44 percent in that same poll, and 42.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of multiple national polls.

Much else is moving in Trump’s direction. Congress is obedient, preferring not to know what traffic signs the president’s family has erected at the intersection of foreign policy and graft. American conservatism lays docile at Trump’s feet. A large propaganda apparatus, including a powerful television network, is aggressively devoted to undermining Trump’s opponents, discrediting his investigators and recasting ignorance as enlightenment.

The Republican Party, in the words of former Speaker of the House John Boehner, has been supplanted by the “Trump Party.” U.S. corporate leaders, enjoying their tax cuts and freedom to pollute, have little to say about the sharp erosion of democratic standards and fiscal responsibility at home or of U.S. influence abroad.  

Another politician, enjoying a tightening grip on his party and a rise in popularity outside it, might be tempted to keep the good feelings going – making overtures to defuse the opposition and bring the undecided to his cause. Threats loom, of course. The Mueller investigation proceeds. Democrats may yet take control of the House of Representatives in November, and with it control of the subpoena power that poses a mortal threat to Trump’s presidency.

But as Philip Bump pointed out in the Washington Post, Trump still makes no effort to reach out to opponents. “There’s an always-at-war-with-East Asia feel to the Trump presidency,” Bump wrote, “and he’s leveraging partisan hostility to Democrats to expand that conflict outward.”

Trump’s need for enemies appears partly rooted in character. After all, Trump was born not just white and male in mid-20th-century America; he was handsome, athletic and fabulously rich, inheriting a thriving company, a fortune and a father willing and able both to clear his path and bail him out of trouble. Yet in Trump’s telling, he is perennially a victim -- the victim -- of horrible unfairness orchestrated by terrible people.

It’s beyond doubt that Trump is also wedded, faithfully at last, to division as political strategy. He embodies what Princeton politics professor Jan-Werner Mueller defines as populism. 

In Mueller’s definition, there is no populism without enemies. The populist establishes himself as the voice and will of the true people. Anyone who opposes the populist leader, however authentically, is a counterfeit and enemy of the people. The populism of a politician such as Senator Bernie Sanders is weak tea compared with Trump’s authoritarian brand, which targets both shadowy insiders -- the “deep state” -- and marginalized outsiders, including racial minorities.

Trump’s list of publicly identified enemies never shrinks. Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, feminists, Democrats, the news media, judges, law-enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and U.S. allies in Europe, Canada and across the globe. 

Some targets change status. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un transformed from “rocket man” to “very honorable” man. But most of Trump’s domestic targets remain fixed, with racial animus his most precisely guided missile in an otherwise slapdash arsenal.

Trump’s discipline on race is singular. Surely this president would relish basking in the Rose Garden surrounded by sports heroes. Yet as his persistent scapegoating of black professional football players reveals, Trump in this instance stays true to his political agenda. 

He is also more clever, and subtle, at racial division than at many other tasks. Appearing before his nearly all-white rallies, Trump has made a habit of announcing low rates of black unemployment. Why? Because the references amplify Trump’s similarly motivated attacks on affluent black athletes. Look at all we’ve done for them. And still they’re ungrateful. 

Trump didn’t write this playbook. He stands on the shoulders of others, such as Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who attacks his own concocted “deep state” in the “Soros network,” an elitist enemy whose shadows are alleged to dance at the direction of Jewish billionaire George Soros. At the opposite end of power, where Trump locates his rapacious Mexicans and criminal blacks, Orban has elevated to enemy status the immigrants and war refugees seeking shelter in Europe.

Orban is more sophisticated than Trump. But they play the same game, nurturing scapegoats while leveling vicious attacks on independent sources of truth and the political opposition. It has worked brilliantly for Orban. He has consolidated power. He is popular. His government is a success. In Hungary, Orban reaches across the aisle only to strangle an opponent. 

Trump isn’t there yet. And he faces potentially dire threats. But he’s making progress.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.