File it under irony or coincidence, but a day after President Trump opened his re-election campaign in Florida amid familiar refrains of jailing vanquished Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and mass roundups of illegal immigrants (slated for this morning but now delayed), a Pew Research Center survey of 10,170 adults revealed what so many of us long ago accepted as reality, even when Barack Obama was president and being blasted by Trump as foreign-born: Eighty-five percent of these Americans say political debate in this country is in the toilet and circling the bowl. And 55 percent say Trump is a major factor in the nauseating decline in political discourse, let alone plain civility.
No surprise there. Trump’s occasional profanity, ready vilification of anyone who crosses him and care-free dispensing of whoppers delight followers transfixed by his audacity, regardless of any standards or norms the rest of us might have once held. As one Trump supporter told a colleague of mine, he sticks his finger in the eye of anything that even resembles political correctness. And as a maintenance worker told BBC at the Florida rally last week: “I think he resonates with people because he comes across as a regular person. He doesn’t talk like a polished politician. It doesn’t matter if he comes across as being rash or harsh or even ignorant at times.”
Regular guy? Well, maybe in the sense the loud mouth at the end of the bar saying absolutely crazy stuff is a regular guy. Yet the survey suggests that, while embarrassed or exhausted by Trump at times, 54 percent of us concede also being entertained by the former reality TV star — something the ratings-happy president would take as a supreme compliment. You never know what he’s going to say or how he’s going to say it because, well, politicians and people ordinarily don’t talk like that. But that’s changing fast, too. We’re all changing.
The survey shows other things worth pondering as we slide further into campaign season: Republicans say members of their party are less comfortable than Democrats in “freely and openly” discussing their political views beyond the usual echo chambers. But then that’s to be expected when you’re championing such ideas as incarcerating immigrant children in dog kennels or suggesting it’s OK to secure dirt on political opponents from foreign agents or claiming that Trump has been anointed by God and that Trump skeptics are so much hellspawn.
There are red lines on what is acceptable. Most Republicans and Democrats agree that one should never misrepresent an opponent’s political record. Most agree it’s inappropriate to speak ill of an opponent’s spouse (which in 2016 contributed to rancor between Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz). However, while 42 percent of Democrats believe one shouldn’t characterize an opponent’s policies as “evil,” only 26 percent of Republicans agree, reflecting the bizarro evangelical strain in the GOP. Only 25 percent of Republicans believe it’s inappropriate to say one’s opponent is anti-American; most Democrats say it’s out of bounds. Oh, and most of us tend to overlook violations of these principles when it’s a member of our own party doing the violating. Which explains why politics is in the crapper. Somebody grab the plunger.
The Pew survey offers a final pearl of wisdom: In any dinner conversation involving folks who don’t just naturally thrive on conflict, it’s better to talk about assault-style weaponry or border walls than the president. However, the survey adds, those of us disposed to conflict demonstrate far less hesitation about stirring things up at dinner, even to the point of indigestion and nausea.
Our advice: Make sure all your dinner guests check their assault weapons at the door.