The President & His Imagined Community
The New York Times recently touched on the recent, sharp, and unprecedented polarization in partisan views of the NFL. Until recently the NFL was viewed quite favorably by both Republicans and Democrats – after the President began a pressure campaign against the NFL for tolerating player protests, Republican views on the NFL switched from +40 positive to -20 against. Merits of the issue aside, the finding will not shock those familiar with John Zaller’s work, or really most of the political psychology literature. By intervening in an issue – any issue – the President can sharply change the minds of his co-partisans. For example, by turning them against a once-favored national pastime.
I’ve recently been reading Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants”, on the history of modern advertising. He dwells at length on Nazi propaganda. The focus of Nazi propaganda broadcasts was not ideological – instead, it generally featured light fare with popular music and (anti-Semitic) comedy programs. The focus was on two things – reinforcing the bonds of the national community through shared experiences and on maintaining complete control of the populace’s attention. The political stuff was slipped in around that, relying less on indoctrination than piggybacking on the created sense of solidarity.
The political discourse of the Trump era has been dominated by a single stark fact – a single human commanding more concentrated attention than anything since I Love Lucy. Love or hate, nobody is neutral. The Presidents’ endless war on institutions – virtually all institutions, from the courts to the FBI to the NFL – serves as the raw material for building a shared community. The President’s feuds and vendettas filter down to his supporters, creating a shared community defined by the support of the President against his myriad enemies. Whether this behavior is strategic or instinctive, I don’t know. But the effect is clear; to gradually separate Republican rank and file from all institutions that could serve as cross-cutting loyalties or identities.