Even on the eve of Inauguration Day, some are still debating how Donald Trump ultimately won the presidential election.
Philip Bennett, Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of public policy studies and journalism, led a conversation about the current state of political polarization with Dan Balz, chief correspondent for the Washington Post, and Jason Zengerle, a political correspondent for GQ magazine. The discussion centered around clips from a new PBS documentary, “Divided States of America,” which was produced by Bennett and featured Balz and Zengerle.
Although the documentary opened with the 2008 presidential campaign, Balz noted that the polarization began even earlier.
“By one measure, Barack Obama was the most polarizing president we’ve ever had based on his approval rating among Democrats versus Republicans,” Balz said. “But George W. Bush was probably the second most, and Bill Clinton may have been the third most. It was much more out in the open during the Obama presidency.”
The documentary emphasizes the important role of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate during the 2008 election, as the first political outsider to come so close to the presidency.
“We knew Palin was a very unusual choice, but we interpreted it at the time as essentially a Hail Mary,” Balz said. “We learned soon after that she had a constituency that was sizable and remarkable and a challenge to the establishment.”
Zengerle noted that very shortly after Obama reached the White House, he was faced with Republicans that were unwilling to work with him. However, Republicans did not acknowledge the divide stirring within their own party.
“I think that a lot of Republicans thought that [Palin] and what she represented were a passing fad and didn’t have a lot of staying power,” Zengerle said.
Another clip from the documentary focused on Obama’s initial avoidance of speaking about race as president, specifically in discussing the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Although Obama eventually became more comfortable talking about racial issues, especially after the Charleston shooting, the grassroots’ backlash was again overlooked.
“There was this sense that when he became president that we had moved into ‘post-racial America,’ which sounds absurd now, but people were quite serious about that,” Zengerle said. “There was this idea that this was a huge achievement because it was a real sense of progress for the country, and Obama himself acknowledged it. But I think that there were some people that really didn’t think this was going to herald a new era.”
Zengerle added that Trump’s role in the birther conspiracy theory, which claimed that Obama was born in Kenya, led to his rise as a political figure and gave a prominent voice to rhetoric that already existed in some conservative circles.
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A third clip from the documentary focused on then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2014 loss to Tea Party candidate David Bratt in the Virginia Republican primary. Bennett noted that this could have signaled to Trump that an upset victory over the establishment was possible.
“It’s not like when Cantor lost, people suddenly thought Donald Trump’s candidacy was going to be plausible,” Zengerle said. “There was still a good deal of denial not only among Republicans but among reporters, among Democrats that the equivalent of David Bratt could win the presidential nomination and that’s basically what Donald Trump was.”
Even though Obama will be leaving the Oval Office, Zengerle predicted that he would remain a prominent Democratic figure during the Trump presidency.
“Even if it were Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz succeeding Obama, I think Obama would take a very traditional post-presidential role and fade into the background,” Zengerle said. “I think because it’s Trump and because of the threat that people like Obama think he poses to the country and its institutions, he’ll be much more involved than we’re used to.”
A question and answer session with the audience addressed far-reaching topics including a comparison of Obama’s 2012 campaign to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the polarized political climates in countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany.