And then, in walks Donald Trump. He’s a bigot. He’s a narcissist. He’s misogynistic. He drives businesses into the ground. He talks about the size of his genitalia during debates, he manhandles the truth. He proudly misunderstands the U.S. Constitution. He has no identifiable ideology.

Yet none of that matters to his supporters because he’s promising to burn the whole system down.

Yeah, I know — the story doesn’t make any sense if we start at the end. How have we come to a point where we’re willing to risk it all on this right-wing populist demagogue?

If our country’s flirtation with disaster can teach us anything, it’s that the rise in hyper-partisanship erodes our government institutions and the fabric of American politics, that democracy is fragile and that our country is living out the dangerous ramifications of an unresolved disagreement between our Founding Fathers on the nature of government. 

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Gage Skidmore/

“Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry,” wrote Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic magazine. He argued that it’s this “unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics” that has blocked bipartisan leadership and created the opening for Trump.

A Fight Over The Nature Of Government

We’ve had 240 years of debate, two constitutions and a Civil War, yet we are still forced to choose sides between Alexander Hamilton’s vision of expansive federal oversight and Thomas Jefferson’s disdain for centralized government.

In the book “Founding Brothers,” historian Joseph Ellis wrote that “the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties.”

While every modern democracy has a conservative and a liberal party which reflect changing social values, America is unique in that we fundamentally disagree over the role our government should play in our lives. According to the Pew Research Center, this partisan gap has doubled in the last quarter century. “Republicans are more negative towards government than at any previous point, while Democrats feel more positively.”

Partisan polarization spans multiple realms

Partisan Pleading

It’s this lack of clarification — this dual identity — that continues both to define us and to haunt us.

“Both sides in the debate have legitimate claims on historical truth and both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American Revolution,” wrote Ellis in his book. “While we might be able to forestall intellectual embarrassment by claiming that the underlying issues at stake are timeless, and that the salient questions classical in character, the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading.”

To choose the Democratic Party is to reject the small-government ideology and strict interpretation of the Constitution espoused by southern revolutionary leaders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And to choose the Republican Party is to reject the importance of a strong executive and expansive federal powers espoused by northern revolutionary leaders John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

And so, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has as much a claim for legitimacy as Democratic President Barack Obama. Despite the ideological gulf between them, they represent two valid and competing sides of America.

The Perpetual Debate

In my last column, I called for an increase in government oversight as the only possible solution to climate change and gun violence and I criticized the GOP for causing the political stagnation that has lifted these issues so far out of reach. The article simultaneously was called “terrific” and “idiotic” by patriotic partisans on either side of the gulf. Both are correct. And I understand why so many people recoil at my words: because we can’t have an honest conversation about solutions without betraying the legitimate ideology of the other side.

So instead of working out the best way to solve our complex, systemic problems, we’re stuck in a perpetual debate over the role of the federal government.

Add in the cultural silos enabled by Facebook, the perception that white skin is no longer the badge of power that it once was and a news media which values online shares over accurate information, and we’ve prepared the historical stage for Trump’s grand entrance.

Pulling Trump

While he’s not likely to win the presidency, he won’t be the last authoritarian demagogue to threaten American democracy. As long as we remain stuck in a never-ending battle over the role of government in our lives, there will always be a frustrated populace willing to burn it all down.

At some point, our country has to make a choice between ideology and solutions.

Because ideological purity won’t solve our affordable housing crisis. It won’t reduce our carbon emissions. It won’t stop people from shooting each other. It won’t reverse inequality. And it definitely won’t fill our potholes.

The story of our political crisis isn’t about Trump, out-of-touch politicians or rich donors. It’s about us. It’s about our belief that the will of the people matters more than reason, deliberation and compromise. it’s about our insistence that there are simple solutions to complex problems. And it’s about a country that is still living under the caustic shadow of an unresolved fight between our Founding Fathers.

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