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American Tribalism During Trump's Presidency

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

More divided than indivisible

More divided than indivisible

An Increasingly Divided Nation

Political commentator Andrew Sullivan says the American people have split into two tribes. In an essay in New York Magazine, he describes how one tribe “contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse . . . ”

He goes on to say that one tribe hews to evangelical Christianity and the other is largely secular. One tribe is insular and nationalistic, and the other believes in international engagement.

Mr. Sullivan adds that each tribe “dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.”

This division has been emerging over the last couple of decades and reached a toxic level during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Politics of Hate

Trump campaigned on the slogan to “Make America Great Again.” University of California professor Robert Reich says Trump’s speeches and policies have actually made “America hate again.”

He began his election campaign in June 2015 by attacking Mexican migrants as rapists and drug dealers. Shortly thereafter, two brothers beat up and urinated on a homeless Mexican man in Boston. They told police “Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported.”

Trump rallies are loaded with dog-whistle words that racists understand and cheer.

Trump rallies are loaded with dog-whistle words that racists understand and cheer.

Trump stirred up white racism towards African Americans. When a Black Lives Matter protester appeared at a Trump rally he was beaten up and the president-to-be’s response was “maybe he should have been roughed up.”

The former president has re-Tweeted some violent anti-Muslim propaganda. Human Rights Watch reports that hate crimes against Muslims are on the increase in America.

As Robert Reich notes in The San Francisco Chronicle “Hateful violence is hardly new to America. But never before has a president licensed it as a political strategy or considered haters part of his political base.”

The Trump Base

The former president has a core of support that cannot be shaken loose no matter how outrageous his behaviour. What motivates these people?

  • Mostly, they are older, white Christians who live in rural areas and who have little education beyond high school. They are fearful of change.
  • They are uneasy about immigration that has brought many Hispanics, Asians, and people from the Middle East to America.
  • The rise of African Americans to positions of influence, even to the presidency, upsets their sense of tradition.
  • The economy is changing, and they don’t see how they can fit into it.
  • They believe the tradition of church and family is under threat from gays and lesbians.

Trump never misses an opportunity to stoke these fears, in particular by portraying immigrants as the source of many troubles.

University of California professor Geoff Nunberg says these beliefs are so deeply entrenched they affect the way people live their lives. In an article for National Public Radio he wrote “They’re people whose partisan identity has become so central that it determines whom they’re willing to date and what brands of pizza and coffee makers they buy, not to mention which news stories they’re willing to believe.”

Some are willing to kill for their tribe. This is a floral memorial to Heather Heyer who died at the hands of a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Some are willing to kill for their tribe. This is a floral memorial to Heather Heyer who died at the hands of a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Tribal Battle Lines Drawn

Veteran Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein says “we are in the midst of a cold civil war in this country, a political and cultural civil war . . . ”

While Mr. Sullivan says both red and blue tribes carry the blame for the opening gulf between them, Mr. Bernstein says the fault is almost entirely that of the conservative reds.

Of course, America has been here before. The bitterly divided nation went to real war over the issue of slavery. Progressives in the north wanted to abolish it; conservatives in the south wanted to keep it.

From 1861 to 1865, armies from both sides slugged it out on battlefields leaving about 640,000 dead behind. The north won and many in the states of the south have never really accepted that fact.

David Blight is a professor of American history at Yale University. He has written (The Guardian) that “The civil war sits like the giant sleeping dragon of American history ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire.”

It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the tribal fault lines in America today are similar to those of the Civil War.

The Tribal Enablers

A segment of the news media has embarked on the mission to sell the right-wing conservative agenda. The people of the red tribe who absorb this are fed a constant diet of opinion that reinforces their beliefs.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh claimed an audience of 26 million people. He called liberals “some of the most arrogant, condescending smart alecks, but they’re just pure ignorant, and they fit the bill of people who have no love and no respect for the founding of this country.”

Sean Hannity at Fox News is a cheerleader for Trump. He pulls in 3.5 million viewers each weekday evening. He says liberals “are misguided, they are wrong. I disagree with them. I don’t want them to vote.”

The Washington Times has joined the others from the red tribe to claim the mainstream media is heavily biased against them. It editorialized that “The only people left believing these liars and slime artists are these melting snowflakes calling in sick and hovering in safe places under their beds.”

There are plenty of others pushing the same message: Alex Jones, Newt Gingrich, Tucker Carlson, and Ann Coulter are the most prominent.

Their text is similar; liberals and progressives are stupid and unpatriotic.

They don’t just say I disagree and then muster an argument to support their point of view. They demonize their opponents. The tribe that follows them is encouraged to hate the other tribe.

American unity is in tatters.

American unity is in tatters.

The Angry Tribal Discourse

The other side, of course, fights back with similar insults.

Late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert said of Trump “You have more people marching against you than cancer. You talk like a sign language gorilla who got hit in the head.” There was much worse to follow.

A November 2017 editorial in The New York Daily News gave its opinion that “The president of the United States is profoundly unstable. He is mad. He is, by any honest layman’s definition, mentally unwell.”

Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth has said, “Donald Trump has proven to be a poison for the presidency, a cancer on the country, and a truly disgraceful human being.”

It’s hard to see how common ground can be found between the red and blue tribes as they hurl vicious insults at one another.

Bonus Factoids

  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has stopped using the word “tribe” because it carries the negative baggage of being associated with backwardness and superstition. The organization prefers to use “nation” or “ethnic group.”
  • In Alabama’s December 2017 special election for a vacant Senate seat people voted along tribal lines. White, evangelical Christian, rural, poorly educated people overwhelmingly picked Republican Roy Moore. African American, college-educated, urban people chose Democrat Doug Jones. Jerry Pow gives us a glimpse of how deep the divisions are. He is the Republican chairman of Bibb County, Alabama. He told a reporter that he would vote for Roy Moore even if the allegation that he molested an underage girl was true. So, in Mr. Pow’s world, a sexual predator of children is better than any Democratic candidate.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor