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Same world, different planet: US polarization exposed by Trump’s arrest

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If the US needed a reminder that a rather large group of Americans completely disagree with another very large group of Americans, it got one this week.

Donald Trump’s arrest in New York City on Tuesday, when he was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in relation to hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, was marked by diametrically opposed rallies, commentary and media coverage.

For those on the right, the charges were an outrage, a sham, a witch-hunt: evidence of an abuse of political power and proof that the system was attempting to silence their man.

For non-Trump supporters, it was justice: recompense, at last, for a man who was dogged by accusations of illegality throughout his presidency, and indeed for decades before that.

As Trump was fingerprinted and read his rights on Tuesday, a neat illustration of the divide was on show outside the court.

A group of Trump supporters, who had gathered to support their man, chanted: “Fuck Joe Biden”. Yards away, behind a metal barrier, came the opposite chant from people gathered to cheer Trump’s arrest. “Fuck Donald Trump”, the non-Trump voters shouted.

As Trump and his lawyers begin to prepare for a trial in the Stormy Daniels case – and brace themselves for other looming lawsuits – some academics believe the country has not been this politically polarized since two sides literally went to war with each other in 1861.

“When I look at the numbers that are coming in when we do the polling, I don’t see any daylight in the distance as far as polarization melting away,” said Tim Malloy, polling analyst at the Quinnipiac University Poll.

“And that’s not opinion, that’s just looking at the numbers – they really never change.”

A recent Quinnipiac survey found that reaction to Trump’s legal travails differed widely between Democrat and Republican voters. Among Democrats, 89% thought the charges against Trump were very serious or somewhat serious. Just 21% of Republicans felt the same.

Some 88% of Democratic voters thought that criminal charges being filed against Trump should disqualify him from running for president again. Only 23% of Republicans were of the same view.

It mirrors the wider divide over Trump, who retains his unique knack of completely alienating some people, and utterly captivating others. Among Republicans, 73% think the one-term, twice-impeached, criminally charged former president has had a positive impact on the Republican party.

Democrats disagree: 93% think Trump’s influence has been negative.

It presents a continuing problem for a country that has recently seen its main seat of democracy attacked by thousands of Trump supporters, but in electoral terms, it isn’t great for the Republican party, either.

“That the fact that if the election were held today, Biden would beat Trump fairly handily has got to be a huge red flag for Republicans,” Malloy said.

The division has worked for Trump previously. From the moment he announced his first presidential campaign, in June 2015, he set out to paint politics as us v them: branding elected officials “losers” who were “morally corrupt”, and would-be immigrants “rapists”.

Little has changed.

In a rambling speech in Florida on Tuesday, hours after he had been charged, Trump lashed out against basically everyone who doesn’t own a Make America Great Again hat, claiming “our country is going to hell” and accusing “radical left lunatics” of trying to interfere in his run for president.

On Truth Social, Trump’s eccentric and misleadingly named social media platform, his followers also received an interpretation of the trial that was completely different from the one in the rest of the world. Democrats have “weaponized our system of laws”, Trump posted, in an effort to drive him out of the 2024 presidential race.

A problem for the US is that people listen, and believe him. Outside the Manhattan court on Tuesday, it was no surprise to hear his supporters parrot Trump’s talking points.

“This is all just a bunch of BS so that Trump doesn’t run for president,” Shaun Lloyd, a Trump supporter, told the Guardian. “The American people are waking up more than ever, every day, to the truth, and the lies and the Democrats are telling them.”

It also doesn’t help that the rightwing media continues to channel lies and misinformation about elections and rival politicians’ behavior. This week some went as far as to hint at violence, with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, telling his audience it was “probably not the best time to give up your AR-15s”, the semi-automatic rifle that has been used in multiple mass shootings.

It is difficult to see a path out of the deep polarization in the country, in part because the divide goes to issues that run to race, identity and culture, said Marjorie Hershey, professor emeritus of political science at Indiana University Bloomington.

“There is increasing evidence that the best predictor of support for Trump in 2020 (and continuing), in addition to one’s party identification, is not feelings about the economy but racial resentment among white voters,” she said.

“For that reason, it seems unlikely that this polarization will decline any time soon. Feelings about race in the US have been continually whipped up by stories of police conduct toward Black people and by a number of Republican Trump supporters, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who find it to their electoral advantage to keep making controversial statements that imply race-baiting.”

The divide represents real dangers in the US, beyond the already evident destruction of faith in election integrity, the political gridlock and the inherent unsavoriness of a society at odds with itself.

In the two years since Trump left office, polls have shown that one in three Americans – including 40% of Republicans – believe violence against the government is sometimes justified: a number that is at a two-decade high.

“We are a nation filled with guns, many of them capable of blasting bodies to pieces,” Hershey said.

“A society that’s roiled by conflict can loosen some of those people’s inhibitions. Let’s hope people remember that you can’t kill an idea by killing an individual; ideas can’t be shot.”

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