Donald Trump’s detractors love to characterize his brash and mouthy comments about the state of our union as “divisive.”
“Not Donald Trump, not anyone else will be successful in dividing us based on race or our country of origin,” declared Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to a gathering of Hispanic voters recently.
But Sanders should take a long look in the mirror. Both he and many of his Democratic cohort, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are fiercely pushing a campaign message specifically intended to divide America along different lines — economic ones.
For years, Democrats have used an economic inequality argument to attract voters to their cause and pit certain groups of Americans against others. But they go beyond just making intellectual policy points. It’s a call to arms in a class war they are trying to incite for their own political gain.
And they’re not shy about calling it a “war.” In June, Sanders wrote an op-ed for the Globe in which he decried the “war against the American middle class.” Warren is famous for saying the middle class is “getting hammered.”
The enemy? It’s the wealthy and successful. “Millionaires and billionaires,” as President Obama likes to call them. According to Democrats, you’re not making it because Wall Street tycoons and greedy CEOs are holding you back.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claims it in her 2016 campaign announcement video: “The deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top,” she says. Warren says it on the stump: “The system is rigged.” Sanders heralds it on his website: “The reality is that for the past 40 years, Wall Street and the billionaire class has rigged the rules to redistribute wealth and income to the wealthiest and most powerful people of this country.”
In a country still experiencing vast underemployment and the lasting effects of the 2008 recession, their campaign rhetoric resonates. A recent Gallup poll found that 45 percent of Americans think of the United States as being divided into groups of “haves” and “have-nots.”
Once the message has gained traction, it doesn’t take much for it to spill onto the streets. From Occupy Wall Street to rioting in Baltimore and Ferguson, images of America at war with itself have become part of our daily headlines. And, rather than trying to cool tensions, Democrats use civil unrest as talking points in their campaign to further divide the country into haves and have-nots.
Obama has tied rioting to unemployment and a lack of investment, which he calls “opportunity gaps.” “That sense of unfairness, of powerlessness . . . that’s helped fuel some of the protests we’ve seen in places like Baltimore, and Ferguson, and right here in New York,” he said in a speech in West Bronx last May.
Four years earlier, Occupy Wall Street set up camp in New York City’s Zuccotti Park to protest economic inequality at the hands of big banks. Warren would later say in an interview with The Daily Beast that she supported their efforts and claimed she “created much of the intellectual foundation” for what the group — whose website tagline is “We kick the [expletive] of the ruling class” — does.
It’s a tried and true political strategy – divide and conquer. If you split the electorate and capture a majority with your message, you win.
But America loses.
When the dust settles from the election and the candidates have all gone home, Americans will be left to pick up the pieces. And in 2016, the fault lines they’ll be forced to bridge will be that much deeper.
Meredith Warren is a Republican political analyst and consultant.