American Tribalism During Trump's Presidency
Political commentator Andrew Sullivan says the American people have split into two tribes. In a September 2017 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, 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 has reached a toxic level under the presidency of Donald Trump.
Politics of Hate
Mr. Trump campaigned on the slogan to “Make America Great Again.” University of California professor Robert Reich says Mr. 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.”
Mr. Trump has 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 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 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 from the ghettos 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.
Mr. 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 (December 2017) he writes “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.”
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 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 battle fields 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, August 2017) 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.
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 claims an audience of 26 million people. He calls 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 President 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 main stream media is heavily biased against them. In November 2017 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.
The Angry Discourse
The other side, of course, fights back with similar insults.
Late night talk show host Stephen Colbert said of Mr. 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.
- The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has stopped using the word “tribe” because it carries 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 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 under-age girl was true. So, in Mr. Pow’s world, a sexual predator of children is better than any Democratic candidate.
- "America Wasn't Built for Humans." Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine, September 19, 2017.
- "Trump’s Divisive Rhetoric Making America Hate Again." Robert Reich, San Francisco Chronicle, August 18, 2017.
- “The Tragedy of President Trump’s Tribalism.” Ronald Brownstein, Atlantic, November 2, 2017
- “ ‘The Civil War Lies on us Like a Sleeping Dragon’: America’s Deadly Divide - and Why it Has Returned.” David Blight, The Guardian, August 20, 2017.
- “Joe Scarborough Goes Scorched Earth on Trump: ‘Everybody Around Donald Trump Knows He’s not Stable.’ ” Eliza Relman, Business Insider, November 30, 2017.
- “As Fissures Between Political Camps Grow, ‘Tribalism’ Emerges As The Word Of 2017.” Geoff Nunberg, National Public Radio, December 6, 2017.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor