Donald Trump: the ultimate wedge issue

Gun Rights

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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

Us versus them.

That may be the core of American politics these days. It often becomes a “wedge” issue. That’s a single, polarizing cause, usually focusing on social concerns, which gets translated into political wars.

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Candidates often make wedge issues the focus of their campaigns. If they can gain support on the strength of their position on that single issue, they expect their voters to give them free scope to pursue most other policies when in office.

Wedge issues have been around for more than a half-century. The idea is thought to have been first applied effectively by   Kevin Phillips, an advisor to Richard Nixon in his 1968 presidential campaign. He wanted Republicans to encourage Southern Blacks to become Democrats. Then, he said, “the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

Under Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson,   civil rights and   voting rights laws had been passed in the 1960s. That would drive many Southern Democrats to the GOP, which had opposed those new laws.

Bitterly, Johnson said that if you could convince a white man that he was better than any Black man, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Johnson had explained the essence of the first effective wedge issue.

Though the Democrats sometimes try to make wealthy people their polarizing target, the Republicans are the party of the wedge issue. This was not a surprising move for the GOP,   concerned about possibly losing support. Such issues might peel away Democrats, as in the South, and could inspire potential supporters who had been on the political sidelines.

While race would remain a divisive issue, two major, new wedge issues arose – abortion and guns.

As laws easing access to abortion were adopted, supporters of traditional limitations organized. The battle lines became sharper after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973   Roe v. Wade decision recognized a federal abortion right.

At the same time, lines were hardening on gun control. In 1968, the   Gun Control Act was passed with the support of the   National Rifle Association, an organization then focusing on recreational firearms use. By 1977, the NRA was taken over by activists who opposed any limits on gun ownership.

On both issues, opposition was focused either on the Democrats or on a liberal Supreme Court. It was natural for the Republicans to align their party with the opponents of increased abortion access or gun control, especially as they became more politically active and heavily focused on a single issue.

Their support gave successful Republicans the backing they needed for other policies. President Nixon could warm up to   Communist China with little controversy, while relying on the support of conservative voters who cared almost exclusively about race, guns or abortions.

Wedge issue constituencies could be added to one another. Catering to gun control opponents did not conflict with also seeking support from abortion foes. It became increasingly clear that the GOP should try to collect special interest constituencies into a coalition to offset any voter losses to the appeal of Democratic economic and social polities.

It has made progress using wedge issues to block the treatment of   transgendered people and   ban books in school libraries. But, in attempting to find new wedge issues, the GOP does not always succeed. Its efforts to outlaw   burning the American flag or   same-sex marriage failed. Its war on “woke,” a sentiment favoring repair of past legal injustice, is still fought but may be fading.

Quite possibly, the greatest wedge issue is not a policy but a person. The Republican Party’s support for Donald Trump reflects both the emotional appeal of an issue like gun control and the political realism of cultivating support to form a coalition that can win elections.

Trump’s appeal seems to withstand the effects from his bravado about   groping women to his facing   four criminal indictments and a host of other legal complaints. His support for wedge issues has made him their embodiment. Trump retains deep-seated political immunity resulting from habitual and pragmatic loyalty among a majority of Republicans.

The exploitation of Trump’s wedge-issue status could make sense. Couple it with the ability of the GOP’s minority of popular voters to control a majority of electoral votes and its efforts to suppress access to the polls for likely Democratic voters, and Republican hopes to control the federal government may be realistic.

Ardent Democrats seem to believe that the American people will come to their senses and halt this divisive push. They may be encouraged by support for abortion rights shown in conservative states after the Supreme Court nullified Roe v. Wade.

The Democrats may need to strengthen their own links to wedge issue groups, especially among women, and get out their vote.

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