The headline on this post came from a Guardian interview with the Democratic consultant Paul Begala–an interview that was chock-full of similarly true, pithy statements. Even the title of the piece–“Nothing Unites the People of Earth like a Threat from Mars”–encapsulates a truism about human nature in the face of a common enemy.
When Begala summed up the points he’d made during the interview, he drew a comparison between political parties and churches:
“There’s two kind of churches. Those that seek out converts and those that hunt down heretics and right now Joe Biden’s leading a party that’s seeking out converts. Even George Conway and Bill Kristol are on the same side I’m on. I love it.
“But meanwhile, Trump is leading a hunt for heretics.
(Since a heretic, for Trump, is anyone who is “disloyal” to him personally, that really widens the field…)
The observation reminded me of an old political truism: politics is the art of addition.
Begala drew on his years as a political consultant to underline the importance of focusing on what an election means for voters. Joe Biden is campaigning in an environment where the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, and online disinformation are met with Trump’s countless falsehoods.
In that environment, voters want to know what the candidates intend to do for them. Begala pointed out that Trump’s “gift” or “talent” is “spectacle, it is just show, it is just a Twitter war with Rosie O’Donnell like when he was a TV star but now it’s a Twitter war with Colin Kaepernick or Nancy Pelosi.” When voting for president has literally become a life-and-death matter, spectacle and effort to reignite divisive social issues are unlikely to be enough.
Begala describes himself as a “middle of the road” Democrat, but he took pains to compliment the activists on the party’s left flank
An old political saw holds that Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line. Some have blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 on bitter infighting between moderates and progressives who voted for Bernie Sanders. There were fears of a repeat in 2020 but Biden won the primary with room to spare and now the party appears remarkably united behind him.
He is consolidating the base and that’s for two reasons,” Begala says. “He’s doing his job but you know what? The left is doing theirs. I come from the Clinton wing, I’m a more moderate guy, but I got to tell you, the left of my party has been terrific in rallying to Joe and people like me need to note that and salute that.
As he says, nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.
When he was reminded of the Trump campaign’s efforts to portray Biden as an old man losing his mental and physical fitness, Begala pointed out that Biden “Isn’t the guy telling people to drink bleach.”
The interview was upbeat– until it came to the discussion of correcting the monumental amount of damage that Trump has done, especially to our international stature.
Begala acknowledged what we all know: once the election is over–once the Martians have been defeated–Democrats’ current intra-party unity will disappear. Factions will argue for dramatically different approaches and policies. Government agencies that have been stripped of knowledgable, effective personnel will have to be reconstituted. Allies will have to be convinced that America has learned its lesson and will not elevate someone like Trump in the future.
And what about that future? What has divided the country and distorted our political system and gotten us to this point? Begala didn’t really answer that question, although it is hard to disagree with his observation that it is pretty one-sided.
I do think it’s asymmetrical. The crisis in America is not both sides. It is one side that’s gone insane and seems to be consuming itself with hatred. My party has its problems, believe me, but it is not both sides. This negative partisanship from the right: they will do anything to ‘own the libs’.”
Historians will perhaps invoke Caligula, King George III and assorted authoritarians of the 20th century. But they will surely also dwell on how the Republican party both produced Trump and succumbed to his will, and ponder what it says about human nature.
I know one group that is “pondering” that question right now: Those of us who were Republicans back when the GOP still welcomed converts and didn’t see everyone who refused to drink the Kool-Aid as a heretic to be expelled.