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”.

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