Needing an 'Enemy'

By Mark Shields

August 26, 2017 4 min read

Eric Hoffer, a San Francisco longshoreman and philosopher who died in 1983, the year President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, could have been analyzing contemporary American politics when he wrote, some 66 years ago, that "mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil."

Campaigns are easy. Candidates can often succeed by running all out against widely unpopular, sometimes even sinister, forces. Think of big government or big banks or big labor. Some candidates have chosen to campaign against other "un-American" influences that somehow threaten our national well-being. These regularly include people who go to a different place to worship, people whose families do not speak English as their first language and people who have come here, often with a different skin color, from non-European countries.

It can sometimes be difficult for a winning candidate, once in office, to resist reprising, before worshipful audiences, reliable attack lines that always brought raucous cheers (or jeers) at campaign rallies. A case in point is the current occupant of the Oval Office, who falsely asserted during his winning campaign that Barack Obama is "the founder of ISIS" before adding that Hillary Clinton deserves the gratitude of anti-American terrorists because she is the co-founder of the Islamic State group.

Obama, to the disappointment of many of his admirers, has been rarely heard from since he left office a little more than seven months ago, and Clinton has been fairly quiet during the 9 1/2 months since she lost the presidential election. One line that got next to no press coverage in that Phoenix speech this past week deserves our attention: Democrats, the commander in chief tells us, have "no vision for the country other than total socialism — and maybe, frankly, a step beyond socialism, from what I'm seeing." A step beyond socialism means only one thing: communism. Joe McCarthy lives; the president of the United States is Red-baiting his political opponents, accusing elected members of Congress of being communists.

But as the commander in chief is reminded hourly, whereas campaigning is fun, governing is hard work — demanding, complicated and, worst of all, humbling. In office, it's not enough just to be against things; your fellow citizens expect to know what you are actually for.

Up to now, we know that the current occupant of the Oval Office was for the House Republican health care plan, the passage of which he publicly saluted in a Rose Garden celebration with House Speaker Paul Ryan and his GOP colleagues. That, of course, was the same Republican health care plan that, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, would have taken health care coverage away from 23 million Americans over 10 years. We still have only the outlines of the administration's tax plan, but it is clear that the operating premise is that when it comes to money in 2017, the problem is that the rich in America do not have enough and poor Americans have too much.

P.J. O'Rourke, a conservative humorist, may have put it best: "The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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