New American Tribalism and the Rise of Trump

It would generally be unfair to say that a Donald Trump presidency will be the end of the world barely a couple of weeks into his administration. Traditionally we would reserve this hyperbole until after the first hundred days. And to rush for the hills before he’s had the opportunity to showcase his presidential side, separate from his campaign persona, would not only reduce our credibility, but it would also make most of us look naively partisan, or worse, Donald Trump.

But if we are to move past the animosity in today’s America, a country deeply divided in mostly everything including what the definition of truth is, and begin the “peace talks” that will hopefully lead to a reunification of the country—an outlandish sentence that would fit better in a Korean or Israeli-Palestinian context—we must, first of all, be sincere about the source of the rift. This is a noble endeavor, necessary for world stability. But it’s a process that will be slow and painful. And one that will most likely worsen our situation before improving it.

The absurdity of this past year’s presidential campaign has left many wondering if everything we know about the world is wrong. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the narrative of experts like Nate Silver and institutions like the New York Times prepared us for a monumental win that would never come.

To the awe of pollsters, scientists, journalists, behavioral experts, politicians, and three million more people than those who voted for Trump, he not only managed to walk away with the grand prize, but Republicans took every piece of the government with them. The result was a humiliating defeat that banished every Democrat from the local-party level up into the cold, with their tail between their legs and licking their wounds. An outcome we’d all been assured was next to impossible. Instead of hopeful, that depressing narrative we remember would come to serve as a cautionary tale for the future.

So was Trump’s upset-win a failure of statistical math or an over-dependence on “predictive” polls? Was it a big “fuck you” from an estranged lower-middle class; or was it a highly organized ruse to exploit the weaknesses in our political system?

It’s painfully obvious now from our obstinacy to consider unlikely outcomes that we can’t discount any possibility, no matter how improbable. Thus, if Trump truly is some sort of Machiavellian savant who concocted an airtight plan to disestablish the establishment, then it’d be more than fair to say that he succeeded magnanimously not only in fooling the opposition, but even many of his supporters as well.

However, with the benefit of hindsight in mind, it seems that the “Trump Phenomenon” offers a much simpler and much more sinister explanation. One that is grounded in years’ worth of evidence about who Donald Trump is, about changing social attitudes, and about deep political divisions that are wider now than ever before. This analysis is not meant as a standalone post-mortem. It’s written as a supplement to everything we already know: the Democrats’ failure with the lower-middle class population, Russian intrusion, political corruption, etc.

Whether you’re skeptical to Trump’s abilities in either direction, it’s the past few weeks, and specifically the past few days, that tells us the most about what this presidency will be like. It’s in these few days that his moderate-supporters are now realizing what his opponents are being reasserted about, that Trump has no dimension other than the one he displayed on the trail.

Starting with his cabinet picks—which seem more like a concerted effort to undermine the very institutions they are appointed to serve—to his infantile Twitter rants, to his micro-management of every battle no matter how insignificant, to the petty, incessant lies, the choices the president has recently made point to a trend that is much more likely to continue. Aside from the few campaign promises he’s managed to enact into legislation through executive orders (the most of any incoming president on the same time period), there’s a more obscure aspect to his presidency that is worrying, specifically his disregard for expert opinion, his obsessive preoccupation with his popularity, and his readiness to spar with whomever disagrees with him in the slightest degree.

In a bizarre turn of events, Trump has even managed to briefly alienate the same intelligence community that he’ll have to rely on to expand the powers that his predecessor established, which more than likely he will. Admittedly to see two traditionally reciprocal institutions so publicly at odds is worrisome to say the least. It seems clear now that the strong-arming of Trump by the 17 different intelligent agencies and governmental departments involved in the Russian-hacking investigation, was meant as a message that Trump continually failed to grasp or resisted to do, which was simply to read between the lines and roll with the punches to put the whole thing to rest. In the end, in order to maintain his baseline support, he caved.

The aim of investigations, headed by the same institutions that failed to protect American autonomy in the first place, were not meant to change anything, and until now have been only slightly revelatory. Of course, it’s not the job of the intelligence agencies to change public policy. But it’s the nature of the investigations that do reveal a lot. First, by being primarily a product of public outcry, not of internal inquiry. And second, by exposing Trump’s demagoguery.

Now, ten days into his administration—predictably the most unpopular in record time—he continues to defy the logic of presidential governance by appointing White House Chief-Strategist Stephen Bannon to head the National Security Council, a post usually reserved for high military roles, such as the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. Whereas before any intention to reorganize this cabinet-level department was widely criticized, this time the voices of opposition are silent. However, as reviled as Bannon is by nearly everyone who knows him, he does share the same qualifications to chair the NSC as Donald Trump does to the presidency.

These moves fly over the heads of the fiscally responsible Christian Republicans who just approved a wall that would cost anywhere from $15-25b, and who are more than content to deny entry to visa-holding travelers from Muslim majority countries, excluding Muslim countries Trump has business ties to. After all, he did just win them all three branches of government.

But what does this say about the American public who voted for an”unconventional guy”? It matters to know for two important reasons. One, because unconventional is not necessarily a good thing. Especially in a job, like the presidency, where predictable conventionality is mostly always an asset not a liability. And two because these conclusions say even more about Trump’s base than they do about him.

We can guess as to how the establishment will react. However, for his most ardent supporters, which compose a little less than half the country, the ends, necessarily, justify the means. The irony is lost in some of them when they are confronted by the reality of his style, much in keeping with the opposition and establishment they abhor, which seems, as always, diametrically opposed to people’s attitudes.

A scary-enough prospect considering that in order to pass a lie as truth, truth has to mean absolutely nothing.

This behavior doesn’t grow out of nowhere. It is directly the byproduct of manufactured convictions, the same which have been employed by religious extremists for thousands of years. Unfortunately, in this climate we currently live in, where untruths are allowed to fester and grow like bacteria in the petri dish of ideological bubbles, no one wins. And although one side bears most of the fault, both camps are guilty of this behavior.

Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher has said as much in his show Real Time, noting that Liberals like himself had done the country a disservice by yelling wolf one-too-many times in accusing Republicans and Conservatives of being the harbingers of doom. Equally, Republican and Conservative commentators like Glenn Beck have accused Democrats and Liberals of the same. Now, in light of the potential danger that Donald Trump signifies for the democratic process, both commentators have expressed regret about the role they’ve played and agree that in the end it is the American people who will, once again, suffer the most. But they come too little too late. The American people are through listening.

The end-result is that the country has become desensitized at a very critical moment. Years of mistreating the truth has caused tribal polarity among those who ascribe their allegiance to a group or party, rather than country; and, it has caused people to be much more cynical, more fundamentalist, more unprincipled, and less inclined to search for the truth. This means that seasonal societal clashes that a healthy nation needs to advance progress, are not happening due to the safe-spaces that both sides have created for themselves. Bubbles of animosity that are already bursting with disastrous consequences. In short, we’re fighting each other and disengaging from reality at the same time.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ideological conflicts have always occupied a space where strong claims exist, which politicians have always been willing to exploit. The difference between today and say, 1930s Germany (a time many compare to today) is that the abundance of information has made it much harder for anyone to excuse their ignorance on lack of resources. But with new solutions come new problems. The main factor being that sifting through the mud to find the gold-nugget of truth is now proving to be more time-consuming than ever due to misinformation. Add in the eternal unwillingness of people to engage in conversation or even agree on the basic rules of public discourse and it makes the situation worse. Conversations of unanimity depend largely on a compromise to define truth in a post-truth world. The good news is that post-truth can easily be eradicated if we are willing to. The bad news is that we can’t even agree on this compromise.

Unfortunately tribal polarity is not the only side-effect of vilifying the opposition. Acclimation to hate rhetoric is an even more corrosive adverse effect.

As of November 2016, 77% of Americans were convinced that the country was divided. Comically enough, respondents in that same poll were just about evenly split on whether Trump would be a uniting or dividing force.

So most people agree that America is in terrible conflict. But in trying to analyze the situation most people can’t seem to agree where the problem is. Most Democrats agree that the problem starts from the top-down, with our politicians and financial institutions being too powerful and oligarchic. Most Republicans think it’s from the bottom-up with people not being willing to accept personal responsibility and by blaming their problems on others. But as Americans, people seem to be incapable of accepting uncomfortable truths when they see them, or unwilling to compromise their views when they don’t serve their interests. When confronted, most people retract to what they know instead of inspecting the claim. And really who could blame them when it has become increasingly difficult to stay objectively informed.

This doesn’t mean there are no reputable sources to follow, only that they’re hard to find. It’s only logical to assume that in the absence of a trustworthy solution people will resort back to what their familiar with, their tribes.

Donald Trump found a behavioral loophole in our social construct and benefited from it. His opportunistic nature to seize on weaknesses, which has made him a very successful businessman, has also given him the tools to create a narrative right out of a mediocre political thriller. Whether he believes it’s in his own interests or the country’s, his imaginative, although simple, mind devised all the plot-elements necessary to make it work. He created an antagonist and a conflict, and then he alone provided the hero and the solution. Sadly, it is the very real weakness of an antiquated system that provided the twist, and people abandoned by the system bought into this narrative wholesale.

It is an absolute truism that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Yet now he claims, without any factual basis, that he lost it because of staggering voter fraud. As embarrassed as we are to have to watch his tantrums on national TV, there’s no doubt that the king believes his case wholeheartedly. And who are we to contradict him?

From the actions taken during his first days in office, it is obvious that the president is more than willing to use his powers against those who swim against the tide of the official line. The imposed gag-orders on all federal agencies even remotely opposed to the president’s philosophy, especially on environmental matters, and the convenient “alternative facts” provided by the administration point to that direction.

Yet even still, no one seriously wants Trump to fail in the general sense just to spite him or his supporters. What the country also doesn’t want is for Trump to succeed in abandoning reasonable governance for the benefit of the doubt—or the ruling party’s interests. Nonetheless, this is the direction we’re headed.

Paradoxically enough, the virulently obstructionist actions of this new administration are now motivating Republicans, the party of small government, to exert more government control, while forcing Democrats to fight to reduce its size. An ideological flip that hasn’t happened since the early 20th century.

In the end it’s up to the people to be cognizant of the fact that representatives are a product of their communities. And we, and we alone, are responsible of forming our own criteria by analyzing opposing and supporting points of view. This makes the very important point that to resist the power of the president is not un-American. It’s perhaps the most American thing there is.

To pre-emptively trash Trump based on nothing but personal convictions is both wrong and irresponsible. To resist him based on established behavior is wise and necessary. It’s possible that this falling plane will stabilize as time goes by. But based on what we’re witnessing today, we wouldn’t be wrong to predict a recurring pattern, one in which Trump creates monsters out of kittens to frighten the children who will in turn hand him all the power he needs, just as we did with Bush. Whatever the future holds, the answers  will never be found in the comfort of tribalism. As a society, Americans would benefit from using distress as a scaffold toward rationality and political centrism.

So to say that Trump is the worst thing that can happen will undoubtedly turn away people who might just be willing to have an honest conversation. But seeing the alternative to a rational presidency, we would be remiss not to be at least a little worried for the future. A future that while we may be inaccurate to classify as dystopian, it’s also now a bit less utopian than what we’d been working for.

Many, including myself, still hold out hope that Trump will find wisdom behind the same desk where Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt sat. His supporters already see him as one of the greats, though obviously with a different set of problems. His opponents, however, remember that the presidency has also produced the likes of Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. Two of the most flawed and unpopular presidents in American history who were not only socially closer to their constituents than Trump is to his, but also much more learned in political theory than Trump is.

Whatever our destiny may be, it’s in everyone’s interest to heed the wise words of author and inspirational speaker Denis Waitley, “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised”.

The Crusaders of Reason (?)

 As you may remember, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck had a little spat on Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher denounced Islam for its anti-progressive, sometimes brutal, nature and where Affleck got all 5-year-old on Maher for being- as he (in)famously put it- a racist. Now, there was a player in there that most people (who are not atheists) don’t recognize but who has for some time been making some serious waves in the public discourse about why we need a more secular America, and indeed a more secular world for that matter, and that man was the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

During the debate, which you have probably already seen on YouTube, Harris sides with Maher and denounces Islam as basically a modern 14th Century Christianity, in reference to the ways the Catholic Church brutally and greedily maintained the status quo and wanted to convert  everyone to the faith Inquisition style. During the debate, Harris makes some pretty incendiary, but true, claims about Islam and about Muslims  who cowardly hide behind the Koran and its texts to justify bloodbaths and acts of terrorism. As it went on, Harris remained completely cool and collected while he talked about the punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries, the treatment of women and homosexuals, and the overall thinking of the majority of Muslims outside the Middle Age… East. Outside the Middle East, excuse me.

For the most part, the other invited guests, contributed little to the discussion although they made one or two good points worth remembering but not worth mentioning here. The whole exchange was mostly between Affleck and Harris, where Mr. Harris said something along the lines of Islam is bad for women, progressives and people wanting to leave the religion and where Affleck usually cut him off or sneered at him without contributing much of weight to the conversation beyond calling him a racist or a bigot. I’m sure that Affleck was speaking out of the kindness of his heart having never heard of Sam and his extensive work and history on the eternal battle between reason and religion. And if you are also not familiar with Harris’ work then maybe it is also reasonable to you take the position Affleck took, after all, outside of context, what Sam Harris and Bill Maher were saying does sound a bit bigoted. But again, put in context what they were advocating was that Liberals have not taken enough responsibility to denounce Islam for its failures as they have done with other religions like Christianity and Judaism.

This is all old-news to you, but here’s where it gets interesting. In the aftermath of the debate, weird things in the political circle started happening. Many News shows, some of them Fox “news” programs- came to the aid of Harris and Maher, known secularists and liberals whom Conservatives and its subsidiaries (Fox) often view with untrusting eyes.

Panelist Greg Gufeld- a self-described agnostic and Libertarian- and part of the the Fox News chain program “The Five” said during a recent airing of the show, “What you see is the crises that takes hold when liberal orthodoxy faces off with real attacks on liberal orthodoxy.” Which I find odd, since it is hardly liberal orthodoxy to want a society that is reasonable and devoid of bad ideas. He goes on to say, “Yes, we get that it’s wrong to stereotype but then we study the facts…” He then ends his segment with a rather funny and contemptuous remark about Maher saying, “…and in a shock to even himself, Maher becomes the sanest man in the room, how’s that?”

Bill O’Reilly in his own Fox News Show “The O’Reilly Factor” also remarked Islam’s isolated ideology, but not because of the dangerous  influence a literal interpretation can cause but rather because he still holds an outdated, crusade mentality that Christianity is the right answer in this whole conflict. “Islam is  a destructive force in the world…”, he says without offering a better alternative other than his own religion. Surprisingly, O’Reilly turns a bit more objective and logical even though the evangelist message, although subtle, continues to be implied.

Not only did all these guys side with Harris, but they went so far to denounce Affleck- a known liberal- as stupid or as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. It was hilarious for me to see that because in virtually NO other context but to denounce Islam as a religion for which war and death is the path to eternal salvation would they have sided with Harris on that matter. And while the debate between the movie star and the scholar was clearly lopsided in the direction of Harris, it was entertaining and informative to see the way that secularists think about the different angles of religious freedom not just here in the U.S. but abroad, and especially in the Middle East.

While Affleck is a smart guy and very knowledgeable and entitled to his opinion- as Sam Harris himself put it in an essay he wrote days after the exchange- he is no authority or an expert on religious fundamentalism, freedom of religion, or rather lack of, especially regarding Islam and Islamophobia and the history and rise of militarized Islam and its influence on the modern world. It seems Affleck sees the argument through the eyes of a romantic defending a bunch of misled young boys. He was obviously not interested with anything Harris had to say or even familiar with his work which, I’m sure, he would have agreed with a lot of it had he given it a page-through.

But this is exactly where the fabric of time seems to disintegrate as logic dissolves. If you know anything about Sam Harris, he is one of the men some Christians call one of the “Four Horsemen”, this of course in reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The brilliant Christopher Hitchens famously mocked the eponym by saying they were in fact “The Four Horsemen of the non-apocalypse.” Harris, as was Hitchens, is a man who is an atheist to his very core going so far as to even hating the word itself for its presumption that to be anti something, it must exist.

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

Over the years, Dr. Harris has written many books about the uselessness of religion in today’s society and other philosophical concepts. He has also debated with dozens of religious apologists from different religions and various politicians from either side, using honest and verifiable rebuttals, while also making his point. But it’s not all Dr. Harris has managed to do since he wrote the New York Time’s Best Seller “The End of Faith”, in his books he not only takes the path of the rank atheist, he steps up the game and proposes alternatives to religious doctrine, something which many before him wouldn’t do. Sam Harris has openly declared that the way towards true equality is not religion, but reason. This is where Fox, Republicans and most serious Christians come in.

The Republican Party- that’s the guys with the elephant- is, as you know, a political organization (1 of 2) that has a very strong Christian base. Ironically, the Republicans want a smaller government in theory but in reality they expand the government  more than Democrats have done, logically from their close attachment to corporations and corporate interests (which tend to favor big government), most staunchly decline the idea of man-induced global warming- or global warming itself- and they are big on weapon rights. I say this is ironic, because according to Christian principles, these do not align with Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. But among their many accomplishments, they have successfully re-branded Christianity over a generation to fit their own agendas. In a sense, they use the name of Christianity and the Bible, sometimes illegally, to justify injustice at the grandest scales to fit an outdated way of thinking. It’s not about traditional American values, it’s about slowing down progress. I’m not saying that Democrats don’t go down the same road also, but statistically speaking, not in the record numbers that Republicans do.

The psychology of the Republican party is led by the status quo. Which is why progress in areas like gay marriage and gay rights, immigration, the integration of minorities into the political scene, global healthcare coverage and the environment, among others- is rather slow.Republican elephant over bright background

America, being the melting pot that it is with its thousands of religions, thousands of languages, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, is, in a sense, no place for Republicans. For example, more than freedom itself, most Republicans wish that America was an officially Christian country, which is kind of like saying, “You can have freedom of religion as long as it’s Christianity.” Most also wish to make English the official language of the U.S., and limit the inflow of immigration. And while I am inclined to agree with some of what they propose in these and other areas, most I think should be rejected outright. It is, I think, safe to say that most Republican voters would support a bill to amend the part of the Constitution that grants us all, not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. I think you can see where this is leading.

So in one corner, we have Sam Harris, a man of reason and science, and in the other we have the Republican Party, staunch defenders of the faith.

I believe that we as Americans, and within a smaller circle we as atheists, are placing the emphasis on the wrong argument. It shouldn’t be whether Affleck or Harris were right, I think the bigger question is whether Harris or the Republicans are right. Ben Affleck is indeed a hothead, but for all practical purposes, partially correct about the things he says. I believe that given all the information, he can be persuaded about this issue, or at least he would reasonably admire its assertive points. But the Reps on the other hand only agree with Harris because the flawless Christian nation they want this country to be should have nothing to do with Islam. In other words, the crusaders in Armani suits wouldn’t really be so against the idea of waging holy war in the name of Christianity. The-enemies-of-my-enemies-are-my-friends sort of thing.

The Republican party is not really in the side of reason, they just hate Islam more than they hate Harris. And in the off-chance that one of ’em rascals reads this blog, I write it with the utmost sincerity, and anybody who is willing to dispute that claim they can certainly make a case for it.

Eventually, the debate will blow over in the political spectrum and something else will take its place. But what we can take from it, is that this has opened the debate among atheists, and people of all faiths, about just how far we are willing to go to protect bad ideas. While you may think that the current form of Islam is just another religion taking its course and that it has been hijacked by psychopaths, I am willing to bet that the Islam from a thousand years ago was in many ways much more tolerant and progressive, while the Christianity from the same era was brutal and imposing. It seems the roles have changed.

This brings us to ask the question of just how tolerant we are willing to be about a religion that advocates mass murder, misogyny, and illiteracy? And no I’m not talking about Christianity, although the shoe also fits. This forces us to ask among ourselves, just how long we are going to tolerate many bad ideas that are comfortable for a few good ones that are uncomfortable. Change is difficult, but is it more difficult than human suffering and injustice?

Maybe one day, Islam will go the way of Christianity and reform itself without the help of the rest of the world. Maybe Christianity one day will become as thousands of religions have become before it, simply an interesting myth. Maybe Ben Affleck will one day read the works of Harris and understand that while it sounds pretty bad to denounce an entire population for their beliefs, it is in fact their beliefs we are criticizing. After all, no, we don’t have to respect everyone’s beliefs. I would not be willing to accept anyone’s personal beliefs that racism is a good thing or that women are not equal to men. This type of acceptance is dangerous for a population. But more than anything, I hope that maybe one day, politicians can take this all in and understand that beliefs are not mere political tools, but actual instruments of liberation or repression used by the sane and the psychotic alike in a dangerous game of chess where people die when nations go to war because of them.

 

 

If you would like to know more about Sam Harris and his website, Project Reason, and his blog, here are the following links to both, respectively.

http://www.project-reason.org/

http://www.samharris.org/blog