Tribalism is so easy to recognize when we see it from a distance of several thousand miles.
We recognize it in the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims where their majorities in various countries repress and attack the other denomination of the same religion. We recognize it in Afghanistan with Pashtun tribalism powering the Taliban. We recognize it in Africa where tribal loyalties like the Tutsi and Hutu drive policies in some countries that are about oppression. We recognize it in the Myanmar Civil War whose ethnic groups flare into conflict as they have since just after World War II.
But we had never seen it on display as graphically on our own shores as it was last week and the fact that the stage was the White House Press Room made it even more stunning in its ugliness. It was then that Stephen Miller, senior Trump adviser, brought tribalism front and center into the most hallowed halls of American democracy.
While living in a $1 million condo in one of Washington, D.C.’s trendiest neighborhoods, he still managed to call a CNN reporter “cosmopolitan,” a word that dates back to when Joseph Stalin used it to smear his opponents and which today is synonymous with the word, elitism, in the alt-right parallel universe. It’s an epithet used by nationalists to attack ideas that it considers “alien” and was frequently directed at European Jews, and today, the alt-right hero, Valdimir Putin, has used it to attack people who disagree with his form of tyranny.
It’s Not The Magazine
Interestingly, to many of us, the word, cosmopolitan, conjures up images of a community with people from different backgrounds living in proximity to each other in respect and tolerance. Come to think of it, that might be precisely the image that Mr. Miller so abhors as he works to intellectualize one of the most primal urges – to set up conflicts as battles between “them” and “us.”
But the use of cosmopolitan as an insult was merely punctuation to an announcement that was at its most basic a dog whistle to fellow white nationalists who hail him as a thought leader. It is in that world that the puffed up faux victimhood from the “other” plays strongest.
It stems from one of the most peculiar aspects in modern American life – white resentment. Although whites control most institutions, head almost all businesses, and are the ultimate power brokers in most communities, there is the attitude that somehow, they are not getting their fair share and it’s all the fault of black and brown people, whose average incomes are only about half of the whites.
Looking from afar, we could see the emergence of these nationalistic tribal movements in Europe, but while we were watching there, we thought it could not happen here. And yet, it moved from a smoldering, but largely ignored, group to become a movement that took it from being seen as marginal, extremist militias and laughable Breitbart paranoia to the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
Trickle Down Tribalism
Never has anyone running for the presidency so blatantly and callously driven apart Americans, fueling white resentment and fear of the demographic tide that will make the U.S. majority minority in about 25 years. Sadly, despite all the rhetoric about the New South, the old bigotry and anger surfaced in the states of the Lost Cause and put them solidly in support of the president.
This is not to say that the plight of the middle class – pressured by policies that shifted wealth to the top five per cent – is not real. It is just to say that faced with this reality, it is incredulous that whites blame people who earn much less and have much less opportunity for prosperity than they do.
Even now, faced with growing inequity and decline of the middle class, they are seduced into believing that “trickle down” economic plans benefit them and that more tax breaks for the megarich are actually prerequisites to jobs creation. They embrace a tribalism that gives cover to white nationalists and xenophobes to the point that even their own religious principles can be traded away for the appealing jingoism of intolerance.
We wrote recently about the allure of the Big Lie as it applies to immigration policies of the Trump Administration, but it defies logic that while middle class whites wrestle with having enough money from languishing incomes to pay bills, they see immigrants, Muslims, and African Americans as the reasons for their problems rather than look to government policies that caused it and to see the consequences from deregulations that allow Wall Street to engage again in speculative practices.
Cynicism As Political Philosophy
In the midst of a political landscape where nothing is really changing – where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class gets smaller and smaller – backlash becomes an attitude that powers tribalism as a political vehicle for a presidential campaign. The symbolism and the language escapes most of us, but they connect directly with nationalistic ideas of many Trump voters, explaining why they continue to support him despite the fact that they know he lies and that he has the impulse control of a toddler.
There has always been a certain tribal impulse in evangelical Christianity, whose adherents now overlook sin after sin that would have led them to condemn any other president. There are those of us who remember sitting in these churches in the Sixties as ministers defended segregation and labeled LGBT people as “deviants.” They now claim that Scripture allows the President to threaten people in minority groups and to justify white nationalistic impulses that shock American norms.
The cauldron of white nationalism and white resentment boiled over to put more special interests in charge of federal policy than any time in memory and to elect a president whose chief message is that people are out to get him. And yet, his own unique brand of white resentment connects with the desired audience, because while he has less than 40% approval rating, that group is largely white.
Cynically, to keep their support, he issues executive orders that capture his sound and fury; he calls for travel bans against Muslims and considers grandparents as security risks; he steps up ICE raids although the majority of arrests are of people without any criminal violations; he attacks urban America in criticizing African American leaders and singling out African Americans for drug use; he maligns mayors in “sanctuary cities” when they resist efforts that would undermine local law enforcement; he appoints an Election Integrity Commission whose members represent the country’s most notorious vote suppressors; he announces a ban of transgender military personnel to vilify a subset of people whose members included Purple Heart recipients and national intelligence experts, and he charges across lines of propriety in speeches to Boy Scouts, Coast Guard and Naval Academy graduations.
This brings us back to Mr. Miller, whose plan to limit legal immigration is aimed at only allowing in the “right kind” of people. Those in the alt-right get it: it’s about bolstering the number of whites coming into the United States.
When coupled with federal policies to tamp down the voting of African Americans and to undercut the growing political clout of Latinos, members of the tribe rejoice because it sends the message yet again that it’s these people who are damaging the economy and weakening America. The tribalism is so strong today that they would rather see other ethnic groups fail than to prosper because all of us are thriving.
As tribalism triumphs, good will, fair play, innovative ideas, and facts are scarce, falling prey to alternative facts in a post-truth world. When we are divided into the “right” people and the “wrong” people and into “them” and “us,” it clouds our thinking and obliterates the understanding that are needed in a liberal democracy.
In 1945, the always prescient George Orwell wrote his Notes on Nationalism, arguing that nationalism causes people to set aside their own common sense and deny facts that are blatantly, obviously true.
“Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have connection with the physical world,” he wrote. “The nationalist does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
According to Mr. Orwell, this self-deception lies at the heart of nationalism. It also lies at the heart of its close relative, tribalism. Unfortunately, both today find a home in the highest office in the land.
And if Mr. Orwell were alive today, he would no doubt say that.
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