by Justin Rosario
The big new word of 2016 and 2017 has been “tribalism”, the cool hipster way of saying “left” vs. “right”:
Tribalism triumphs in America – The Washington Post
Empathy: Missing from the Vegas Shooter and Cauterized by Tribalism – Patheos
Toxic tribalism is poisoning our public life – The Times
The Revenge of Tribalism – National Review
POLITICAL TRIBALISM AND IDENTITY POLITICS – Dangerous Thoughts
At first blush, it seems like a fairly reasonable way of understanding the right wing’s seemingly mindless devotion to Trump and the Republican Party. Despite a campaign in which Trump treated them like absolute morons, conservative voters were impossible to dissuade.
After decades of proudly beating liberals over the head with their moral superiority, right wingers stampeded to see to who could be first to bend the knee to a man that was quite literally the opposite of everything they said they wanted in a leader. An East Coast elitist Manhattan billionaire with a literal golden toilet that bragged about being an adulterous sexual predator, Trump should have nauseated the blue collar rural “family values” voter. With no religious background to speak of (he couldn’t quote a single passage from the Bible), the religious right should have rejected him outright but they’ve been among his strongest supporters.
“Tribalism”, the drive to support your “tribe” no matter what, seemed to be a fairly handy explanation of how Trump could lie to his followers, sometimes in the same breath, and still have them begging for more.
But there’s a problem with the media’s use of tribalism as an explainer. They’re not using it to describe only the right’s utterly abnormal behavior. They’re also using it to describe the left’s utterly normal behavior and you know where that inevitably leads the us:
Both sides do it.
But then we don’t really have to wonder what it’s like to live in a tribal society anymore, do we? Because we already do. Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous. I don’t just mean the rise of political polarization (although that’s how it often expresses itself), nor the rise of political violence (the domestic terrorism of the late 1960s and ’70s was far worse), nor even this country’s ancient black-white racial conflict (though its potency endures).
I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.
That was Andrew Sullivan a few weeks ago lamenting how the two party system is calcifying the political discourse in America. Curiously, we’ve had a two party system for the last, let’s, couple of hundred years, so it’s strange how many people, particularly people invested in preserving conservatism, are suddenly very very concerned about how “tribal” both sides have become now that one side has gone all in on white nationalism, Nazis, and Donald fucking Trump. It’s almost like they’re desperate for any way to spread the blame as the American right wing becomes an existential threat to the planet.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a country with a political spectrum going from left to right. On the left was Socialism and Communism. On the right was Capitalism and Oligarchy. The country usually fell somewhere in the middle, but generally well to the right of its European cousins. Every now and then, the richest, most powerful people in the country got too greedy and pushed the system too far towards Oligarchy, making life unbearable for the majority of the country.
Annoyingly for the rich and powerful, the political system in this country is such that every now and then, a politician with truly good intentions can ride a populist wave into office and move the system back to the center, maybe even a bit to the left of center. The rich and powerful hated that so they started to undermine that system by dividing the country. A divided country means no more populist waves.
Abortion, religion, race, drugs, immigration…all useful ways to drive a wedge between economically similar groups that could band together to oppose the rich and powerful as they looted the country and rigged the game in their favor. And then came the masterstroke of manipulating the mass media.
Using Fox News, AM Hate Radio and, later, right wing websites, the rich and the powerful were able to move the spectrum of what was acceptable to the right every year just a little more. They did this by framing anything the right did as no more extreme than what the left did even if the left didn’t actually do anything extreme. The press came to love the “both sides” narrative because the soap opera of it all guaranteed them ratings and it was easy work. Why investigate and waste all that time when you can just talk about which side was up today and which side would be up to tomorrow?
The more extreme the right became, the louder the “both sides” narrative, culminating in the election of 2016 in which Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, with something like 50 years of public service between them, were somehow diminished into the moral and political equivalent of reality TV star, sexual predator, and serial conman Donald Trump that had never spent a second in his life on anyone other than himself. The result, as we all know, was the election of the single most dangerously unstable and unqualified monster to ever squat in the Oval Office. We are one serious international crisis from nuclear war, or a collapsing economy, or any number of outcomes that the rich and powerful did not actually want.
They had lost control of their monster.
After decades of propaganda, the rich and powerful had reduced the rubes on the right to such an easily manipulated stupor of rage and paranoia that they got outmaneuvered by the Mercers, an even more unscrupulous group of rich and powerful people who used Steve Bannon to inject full blown white nationalism into the body politic. Now the right is so far right that we can’t say “both sides” anymore because even worst political hacks like Chris Cillizza can’t hope to convince anyone that Bernie Sanders demanding universal healthcare and free college is the other side of this particular coin:
There’s Antifa, but as badly as the right wants them to be the “alt-left”, Antifa doesn’t have a single unifying political principle beyond “Are you a fascist? Then I’m here to punch you in the face.” Their name is literally “ANTI-FAscist”. Good luck pushing the both sides narrative there.
So, new tactic: “Tribalism.”
It’s just repackaged “both siderism” so we won’t have to discuss just how fucking crazy the right has become. We won’t have to talk about how Republican voters are now literally voting for Breitbart candidates handpicked by a literal Nazi sympathizer. We cannot say that because in American politics, we are not allowed to call out right wing extremism under any circumstances. We can call Bernie a crazed radical for demanding something every other industrialized nation has but we can’t call actual literal Nazis extremists because it might hurt their feelings and make the media look biased.
That, of course, is the point. It’s why we can’t call it treason when Rex Tillerson dismantles our State Department or when Trump gives away secrets to the Russians. It’s why we The New York Times and Washington Post are still talking about Steve Bannon like he’s just another operative leading an ordinary political movement when leaked emails prove he’s a Nazi sympathizer explicitly building a white nationalist movement. It’s why we’re allowing a stolen presidency to remain stolen knowing full well that a Democrat would have been removed already for even the suspicion of having colluded with Russia electoral tampering.
Every time you hear someone talk about how tribalism is tearing America apart, tell them to shut the fuck up and take a good hard look at what’s actually happening in America. The left and the center are doing what they’ve been doing for the last couple of centuries while Trump is just a few Imperial Proclamations away from turning his rallies into something out of a bad post-apocalyptic movie:
Don’t blame “tribalism” for the state of the country when only one of those tribes is filled with inbred radioactive cannibals with cheesy Mohawks and or, worse, neo-Nazis in polo shirts. It’s about time we pointed fingers and stopped being polite about who is setting the fires burning America to the ground and raking anyone averting their eyes over the burning coals.