The “Tribalism” Red Herring

Perhaps like me you’ve noticed this assertion becoming widely visible in the media: One of America’s chief political/social problems is that Americans have retreated into “tribalism,” thereby tearing the social fabric.  Let David Brooks stand in for others who make this claim. In the column, “Retreat to Tribalism,” January 1, 2018, New York Times, Brooks published this paragraph early on, with “That,” the first word, referring to said retreat:

“That’s essentially what is happening in this country, N.Y.U.’s Jonathan Haidt argued in a lecture delivered to the Manhattan Institute in November. He listed some of the reasons centrifugal forces may now exceed centripetal: the loss of the common enemies we had in World War II and the Cold War, an increasingly fragmented media, the radicalization of the Republican Party, and a new form of identity politics, especially on campus.”

One issue I have with this perspective is that it assumes a “we” that was together before tribalism creeped in, when in fact people who imagined themselves white and imagined that white is the de facto ruling tribe in the U.S. have always occupied the social and political center. By “center” I mean the controlling middle, not the center between Left and Right.  If one was, has been, or is on the outside of that group looking in, then the social fabric isn’t so much torn as it is hostile to threads that aren’t white (and Christian).

I get what Brooks is reacting to: The Trump debacle, which has invited white supremacists, haters of women, haters of evidence, et al., to rise up boldly. This reaction helps account for the claim that the GOP has been “radicalized.”  In my view, if the GOP is now “radical,” it really hasn’t changed much since the Dixiecrats said goodbye to the Democratic Party and where then absorbed into the Southern Strategy promulgated by Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Trent Lott, Mitch McConnell, and on and on. It was “radical” from the get-go. Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes all appealed to a racist base, one way or another.

There is no big difference between Trump and his base and the GOP and its enduring base.  Trump just happens to be a more outrageous white supremacist, misogynist, and ignoramus. He abandoned the dog whistle and just started shouting (and tweeting) horrible things. A lack of subtlety does not represent a radicalizing shift. The White Supremacist “Tribe” has been ruling the country from the beginning, with some relatively measured and hardly overpowering resistance from so-called liberals, civil rights activists, environmentalists, feminists, and labor-friendly politicians (and so on).

What is new is that a competent, affable Black man got elected President twice,  the White Tribe freaked out, and so it got a big crush on a lunatic con-man from Manhattan. The country hasn’t retreated to tribalism. White folks have simply become more lustily excited about the only tribalism that has ever really counted in the U.S.

By all accounts, roughly 90% of Republicans still support Trump strongly.  —After all that he has done and said. Trump is blatantly racist.  He scorns knowledge and evidence.  He oozes hatred for women, Latinos, African Americans, and those of Arab and Persian background. He is abjectly incompetent. He is an agent on behalf of Putin. He won’t do anything about glaring problems with environmental havoc, a decaying infrastructure, an obese deficit (thanks to the GOP tax-cut), and a chaotic healthcare system. And the Republicans love everything about this because Whiteness is back in charge.  And David Brooks has always supported the Republicans. Trump may make him queasy, but that’s more aesthetics than anything else.

I see one problematic tribe. I do not see a retreat to tribalism. If anything, the resistances to Trump are remarkably mixed in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender. Unfortunately, because they are inept, the Democrats will manage not to build on such solidarity, but that’s a separate issue.

We should note, too, that at the end of Brooks’s paragraph above, he gets in a shot at college campuses, which are allegedly more tribal. Nonsense. It’s just that occasionally some students make some noise about climate change, white supremacist statues, white supremacist visiting speakers, etc. Students aren’t supposed to make noise, just as presidents aren’t supposed to be Black.

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