A new report offers insights into tribalism in the Age of Trump. Away from the fun-house mirrors and the bullhorns of cable news and social media, Americans’ views are more nuanced and less easy to caricature.
We live in a time of tribes. Not of ideologies, parties, groups, or beliefs—these don’t convey the same impregnability of political fortifications, or the yawning chasms between them. American politics today requires a word as primal as “tribe” to get at the blind allegiances and huge passions of partisan affiliation. Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. They’re badges of identity, not of thought. In a way, they make thinking unnecessary, because they do it for you, and may punish you if you try to do it for yourself. To get along without a tribe makes you a fool. To give an inch to the other tribe makes you a sucker.
Lonely dissent used to carry a certain prestige in politics, even if few people had the stomach for it. When Senator Wayne Morse, of Oregon, cast a nearly solitary vote against his Democratic President’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in 1964, he did not win the love of his fellow-senators, but he at least earned a grudging admiration. It was an honorable thing to stand on your own. Today, it’s mocked as feckless, or reviled as near treason. Jeff Flake’s Senate colleagues despise him—the Republicans for temporarily breaking with his tribe, the Democrats for being too weak to follow through.
Everything in American politics today entrenches tribalism: our winner-take-all elections, the dehumanizing commentary on cable news and social media, the people we choose to talk to and live among. The trends are not new, but they’ve dramatically accelerated and intensified under a President who rules by humiliation because he lives in fear of being humiliated.
I’m using “tribalism” to refer to what George Orwell, in an essay he wrote at the end of the Second World War, meant by “nationalism”: “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. . . . The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” Our tribes are competing for power over the state, the media, public opinion, the verbal battleground. When politics becomes a perpetual tribal war, ends justify almost any means and individuals are absolved from the constraints of normal decency. People who would never tolerate cruelty or lying or even ordinary impoliteness in their children cheer every excess of their leaders, none more so than President Trump’s.
The Brett Kavanaugh hearing inflamed the tribes beyond anything since Trump’s election. The weekend of the final Senate vote was all furious gloating in one camp and smoldering rage in the other. The winners seemed more gleeful at having inflicted a painful defeat on their devious foes than at the potential decisions of a conservative Supreme Court. Whenever the war comes to a head, it’s the whirling forms of politics—the tactics and rhetoric and emotions—that consume us, not the policies. The dominant mood is anger—a state we perversely seek out and, at the same time, dread, or ought to.
One side has moved steadily leftward over the past decade, and many progressives are feverish with their own vision of tribal righteousness: identity politics. The escalation requires both sides to feed and perpetuate it. But only one side has turned a major political party over to an unapologetic leader who knows no limits. I could draw a pretty straight line from Newt Gingrich’s radicalism and the government shutdowns of the nineteen-nineties to the opportunistic majority opinion of Bush v. Gore, in 2000; the unstoppable rightward lurch from Jesse Helms to Jim DeMint to Ted Cruz; the nomination of Sarah Palin, in 2008; Mitch McConnell’s vow, in early 2009, to derail the Obama Presidency; the Senate Republicans’ abuse of the filibuster to block all Democratic legislation and appointments; the unleashing of dark money with Citizens United; the extreme gerrymandering and attempted voter suppression in Republican state houses, after the 2010 midterms; the stonewalling of Merrick Garland, in 2016; Republican leaders’ refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in that year’s Presidential election; and the final takeover of the Party by Trump.
Earlier this week, McConnell told Chris Wallace, of Fox News, that, if another Supreme Court seat became available in 2020, during the Presidential campaign, it would be completely proper for the Republicans to confirm another Trump nominee. Never mind that this makes nonsense of McConnell’s excuse for refusing Garland a hearing during the previous Presidential race. The principle, McConnell said, is whether the same party controls the Senate and the White House. He turned this spurious claim into a “tradition” dating back to 1880, but he hardly disguised his real meaning: If we can do it, we will. Call me a hypocrite and see how far that gets you. The recurring theme of this anti-democratic tale is raw power as an end in itself. At every turn, Republicans have pushed the abuse of power further, while Democrats have had to react, often fecklessly. There’s no equivalence, no both-sides-ism. And nothing will return the Republican Party to decency except, perhaps, two or three devastating electoral defeats.
I hear myself say this and think, A solid analysis. At the same time, I hear a Republican reply, Pure tribalism. You’re just proving your own point. I want part of my brain, even a small part, to be always attuned to the frequency of other tribes, ready to pose the essential questions: How would this sound coming from them? How do they see you? I try to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time: the other tribe needs to be crushed, and I have to talk and listen to them. The first thrives on rage, the second on tolerance. These are contradictory states of being, and extremely difficult to maintain in tension, but a sane politics requires both. The alternative isn’t victory but self-destruction. After all, we have to live together.
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