We're polarized and fragmented at the same time. Trump likes that.
Important Note from ArcaMax Publishing: We regret to inform you that as of Nov. 1, the Washington Post syndication service will no longer license this column to ArcaMax. You may write The Post with your feedback here: email@example.com or access the column online through the Washington Post paid service. After November 1, these columns will only be available to print publications.
WASHINGTON -- Why would President Trump's hard-core defenders think that the best way to defend a floundering leader is to hurl repulsive dual loyalty charges at a decorated Army combat veteran who feels an obligation to tell the truth to Congress?
Why would British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gamble on forcing an election in Britain at a time when his Conservative Party is under 40% in the polls?
And why are German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats and her coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, suffering electoral losses even though a large majority of the country wants her to serve out her term through 2021?
The standard answer to such questions focuses on political polarization, and there sure is a lot of it going around: left vs. right, urban vs. rural, religious vs. secular, young vs. old, prosperous vs. left-behind, pro-immigrant vs. anti-immigrant.
Polarization is deepened because many of these identities reinforce each other these days. To pick just one example underscored by recent studies from PRRI and the Pew Research Center: Christian conservatives rally to the Republican Party while the secular are overwhelmingly Democrats. Partisans don't just disagree about politics. They are divided by some of the most fundamental questions about human existence.
But another factor that we talk about far less is feeding the chaos: fragmentation. If some identities are mutually reinforcing, we have other commitments that split us into ever smaller groups. This feeds a tendency toward niche politics, visible in all the democratic nations. Taken together, polarization and niche politics make it very hard to forge the consensus required to solve problems and move democracies forward.
Consider first the sliming of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who raised damaging questions about whether the White House summary of Trump's phone call with Ukraine's president omitted a reference to former Vice President Joe Biden, whom Trump was pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate.
Even before testifying Tuesday to House impeachment investigators, Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, was subjected to attacks by Fox News and elsewhere on the far right because of his Ukrainian heritage. (He was brought to the U.S. by his refugee parents when he was 3.)
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer demanded Wednesday that Vindman be protected from retaliation. He "served our country for more than 20 years and is a recipient of the Purple Heart after being injured while serving in Iraq," and yet "some have even gone so far as to call him a spy and question his loyalty to the United States."