“It’s not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. It really is an American thing.”
That’s what former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian meddling into the 2016 election. Yet much of the political reaction over recent days was just the opposite, providing the latest evidence that American politics is more polarized than ever, with much of the country – or at least its elected representatives — siding solidly red or blue.
“President Trump could jump off (Washington’s) Key Bridge tomorrow and half the country would believe he jumped,” said veteran political author Richard Reeves. “The other half would be convinced it was murder.”
Comey, the lawman who has served under Republican and Democratic presidents, delivered a staggering accusation: that the president of the United States had lied and had prodded him to drop an active investigation into Trump’s national security adviser.
Yet many Republicans shrugged and pointed instead to Comey’s testimony about former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s performance in the Hillary Clinton email case and his confession that he had asked a friend to leak to the New York Times the content of a memo detailing his meeting with Trump.
“If anything,” suggested Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann, “we should be looking into Comey for leaking his own internal memos.” And on Sunday, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel called for an end to the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign had colluded with the Russians.
To Democrats, who at one time had assailed Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, his testimony before Congress was proof of Trump’s perfidy: On the House floor, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a former prosecutor himself, said it was “obvious” Trump had committed obstruction of justice. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer extended an invitation for Trump to testify before Congress.
Author Reeves dates today’s partisan rancor back to 1987, and the pitched battle over Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court. Democrats at the time launched a withering and high-profile assault against Bork, who ultimately was rejected by the Senate.
Partisan differences have only hardened into blunt cudgels over the intervening decades, nourished by a combative, partisan media, notably Fox News and the Drudge Report that have hammered away at Democrats. In recent years, MSNBC and late night comedians have become the go-to attack dogs on behalf of liberals.
Social media has amplified the political bickering. Trump has weaponized Twitter, firing away at his detractors. And an audience of critics fires back at the president with abandon.
Amid a bruising presidential campaign with insults, slurs and threats of violence at rallies, a poll last June found America’s partisan divide deeper than at any point in nearly a quarter-century. A majority of Democrats and Republicans in the Pew Research Center poll rated the opposing party “very unfavorably” and sizable shares of both parties said the other side stirred feelings of “not just frustration, but fear and anger.”
A poll released just days after Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton found a yawning chasm between their supporters when it came to even finding common ground on the biggest problems facing the nation. They could only agree that drug addiction and the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges were a priority.
The partisanship is also fueled by an antipathy toward the federal government, with voter frustration toward lawmakers and their inability to deliver on promises made by both sides of the aisle.
The refusal to look beyond the partisan silos has some observers worried, especially with Russia seeking to disrupt American politics by sowing dissent in its democratic institutions, using disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks.
Comey testified that Trump had shown little interest in the details about Russia election interference, beyond an initial briefing. And Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., complained Sunday to Fox News Sunday that Trump “continues to diminish” the threat of Russian meddling.
Trump sees the inquiry as Congress “suggesting he did not win fairly,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CBS’s Face the Nation, adding that although he’d not seen any evidence that Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia, “I see all kind of evidence of the Russians trying to destroy our election and destroy democracy throughout the world.”
Yet the partisan sniping may only cloud that picture.
“What Russian active measures do is they exploit the weaknesses that we present, and partisanship is a great weakness,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.
“Slowly,” she said, “you are eroding your faith in your leaders and the institutions and that is exactly what the Kremlin is interested in. The Russians are starting this, but we are doing this to ourselves.”
Perhaps that’s what Comey, who served under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and briefly, Trump, had in mind when he warned the Senate that Russia will be back in 2018 and 2020: its target America itself.