I’m very smart. My allies are terrific, the greatest, the best. And my opponents are dummies, losers and enemies of the people. Who am I?
If you guessed the guy in the White House, you’re right. But he’s hardly alone. In many cases, my fellow liberals are embracing President Donald Trump’s all-or-nothing take-no-prisoners political style as well. The problem isn’t just Trump. It’s you and me, too.
Call it Trump talk. Its hallmarks are the complete denigration of your foes and a refusal to give any ground even when confronted by facts that don’t fit your point of view.
Consider Trump’s initial move on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has shielded young immigrants here illegally from deportation. Like most liberals, I was outraged by the raw cruelty of that DACA action and by the disruption of 800,000 lives.
But I also know there’s reason to believe that some immigrants drive down wages for our poorest workers. As Harvard economist George J. Borjas has shown, immigrants without high school diplomas have increased the size of America’s low-skilled workforce by about 25 percent in the past two decades. That led to a $800-$1,500 drop in the wages of high-school dropouts, who earn on the average $25,000 per year.
That’s not to say that DACA recipients — most of whom earn high school or college degrees — have “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans,” as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed Sept. 5. But those of us who favor liberal immigration policies should acknowledge that welcoming more people from outside our borders can also disrupt lives inside of them.
For the most part, though, we don’t. Any such suggestion is deemed xenophobic and a concession to Trump. And that also prevents compromise. One can imagine a policy that allows more uneducated immigrants into the country but also provides training and assistance to workers to cushion them from wage loss. But if you can’t say the term “wage loss,” that’s not going to happen.
Closer to my own home, the American university, you can find the same ugly spirit in our ongoing debate over sexual assault. After years of sweeping the problem under the rug, the Department of Education under President Barack Obama required schools to take a more aggressive approach to preventing and policing sexual violence and harassment.
The new rules have surely increased awareness of one of the most fundamental injustices on our campuses. But they also spawned injustices of their own. Students who believed they had consensual sex have been suspended or expelled after their partners decided (sometimes, with the coaching of school officials) that the sex wasn’t consensual after all.
But on today’s college campus, you stand with the survivors or you stand to the side. Anyone who raises doubts about an assault charge risks being accused of blaming the victim — or being dismissed as a shill for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who plans new rules that better protect the rights of the accused.
So people who are uneasy with the system bite their tongues, another classic feature of all-or-nothing politics. A 2014 survey at Occidental College in Los Angeles found that students and faculty were reluctant to discuss the sexual assault controversy on campus for fear of ostracism and retaliation from school administrators or student activists.
The biggest danger to our democracy is our polarizing president, who demands absolute loyalty and vilifies anyone who refuses. And the second biggest danger is that the rest of us will imitate him.
But Trump and Congressional Democrats now are working on a deal on DACA. Maybe we’re moving toward a place where we can converse across our differences, instead of condemning each other as warped or evil.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”