October 8. Gavin Newsom, “progressive” candidate for governor of California, in debate with his Republican opponent, said this about President Trump’s proposed border wall: “The wall is intended to divide this country.”
October 8. Tucker Carlson, conservative pundit, said this about the attitudes of “progressive” Democrats, who, he asserted, wished to divide the nation: “Only a nation divided between warring tribes can be ruled effectively.”
The root concept is “divide and conquer” — a phrase frequently heard on both sides of the recent Kavanaugh-Ford slugfest.
How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them?
I first encountered that cliché when I was in high school. It appeared in discussions of political strategy, and it seemed to make sense. If you were the emperor of Russia, you would naturally be looking for ways to divide the Austrians from the Prussians, so you could, if you wished, conquer them one at a time, or let them try to conquer each other. Books told me that “divide and conquer” was what Napoleon set out to do, and sometimes did, to the powers of Europe. And the “divide and conquer” idea often came up in comments about American political affairs.
But I always had a bad feeling about it. How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them? How did you do that? What happened to the various pieces of the Democrats? Did some of them vote for you? Maybe. But wasn’t that just another way of saying that some of them liked you better than their own party?
The best example appeared to be the election of 1860, when the Democratic Party came apart and nominated two rival candidates, producing a contest in which the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency with less than 40% of the vote. Yet there was still a problem with the concept. Lincoln hadn’t divided the Democrats; they had divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.
Another possible divide-and-conquer situation was the election of 1968, when disaffected Democrats allegedly elected Richard Nixon by not showing up to vote for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. But Nixon hadn’t concocted some scheme to fund Vietnam War protestors while encouraging Humphrey to maintain his fatal support of the war. Nixon simply continued to support the war himself, while promising that he had a secret plan to end it. He didn’t divide his opponents and conquer them; he just got more votes than they did.
Lincoln didn't divide the Democrats; they divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.
Now, imagine that you are Abraham Lincoln or Richard Nixon or any current, down-at-the-heels partisan politician, the kind of person of whom Tucker Carlson spoke in his October 8 TV program, calling them “hacks and joiners and drones.” If that’s you, would you rather “divide and conquer” your opponents, or simply get them to join your side and vote for you? The latter, surely. Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another. That’s why the European powers contracted holy alliances. They would rather be allies than competitors, so long as they could maintain their power. This is human nature.
Coming down to the present, and Newsom and Carlson’s comments: why would Trump want to divide the country, instead of getting most of it to support him? Why would the Democrats find it easier to rule a nation “divided between warring tribes”? Does this make sense?
Suppose that you’re a modern “intersectional” foe of Republicans, and you’re trying to arouse antagonism to them by asserting that because they are “opposed to women,” they are also opposed to “senior citizens,” “people of color,” “the LGBTQ community,” “undocumented immigrants,” “working people,” and, for all I know, Finnish-Americans. Your goal may be to conquer, but it certainly isn’t to set the Finnish-Americans against the African-Americans, and the African-Americans against the immigrants. It’s to get as many groups as possible onto your side. You may call your opponents racists and sexists and so on, but that’s not because you want to divide the racists from the sexists; it’s because you want to shame, scare, and neutralize people who, you think, will never vote for you anyway. But this is not “divide and conquer”; it’s just denouncing your opponents.
Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another.
If you want to understand how things really work, picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down. There isn’t any vote that they don’t want. Republicans can and do actively court gay and black voters; Democrats court evangelicals and conservative Catholics by quoting fondly from the Bible. This is not divide and conquer. This is unite and conquer. Each party dotes on the idea of “uniting this great country.” And neither is kidding about that. They want the whole thing, if they can get it.
I can’t picture Hillary Clinton holding a meeting in which she said, “To defeat Trump, we have to set the women against the gays, and the blacks against the Hispanics. It’s divide and conquer!” But I can picture her holding a meeting in which she said, “How can we ensure that all gays, blacks, Hispanics, soccer moms, overpaid executives, mainline pastors, police unions, publishers of provincial newspapers, Medicare patients, millennials, techies, former prison inmates, police unions, farmers, professors of Harvard college, and did I mention soccer moms, will support me? How can we unite them all behind us?” Again, this is not divide and conquer.
Akin to “divide and conquer” is the idea that politicians willfully create enemies so that they can unify their followers in opposition to the hated foes whom they have conceptually divided from the rest of the populace. This also is a strange idea, when you think about it. Yes, politicians are always attacking “enemies”; they blame things on “enemies”; and “enemies” are sometimes politically useful. But I can hardly think of a case in which politicians have simply created enemies in order to oppose them. Hillary Clinton denounced the “deplorables,” doubtless intending to inspire the non-deplorables to more fervent efforts on her behalf. But she wasn’t trying to manufacture an enemy; she was identifying enemies that she thought she already had.
Picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down.
Perhaps — and this is a big perhaps — Hitler gained massive political support by attacking the Jews. But he didn’t attack the Jews just because he thought that by doing so he would unite the other Germans. He attacked the Jews because he had a maniacal hatred of them. (And no, I am not — I repeat, not — making a moral equation between Adolf Hitler and Hillary Clinton.)
The current American antifa orgs are not attacking speakers who disagree with them in college forums, or people who happen to drive down the streets of Portland while they are showing off, because they want to arouse support by creating common enemies. They attack people who disagree with them because they don’t like people who disagree with them. They attack random motorists because they are in the way, and because they themselves are angry. This is not the arbitrary creation of enemies. This is self-expression, of a peculiarly non-strategic kind.
I suppose — indeed, I know — that I should now try to account for the fact that many intelligent people think that “divide and conquer” and “make up enemies” are profound and potent concepts, crucial to the understanding of political processes. But I can’t.