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On Trumpism and ‘tribalism’

Thomas Friedman digs into a metaphor.

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman
New York Times

There is, of course, nothing new to an analysis of the current partisan divide in U.S. politics and, ever moreso, U.S. culture more broadly, that relies on the concept of “tribalism.”

But, in his piece Wednesday morning, New York Times columnist (and Minnesota native) Thomas Friedman digs a little more deeply into that metaphor for purposes of understanding how the worst features of political partisanship and the increasing power of one’s partisan preference over one’s identity present a growing challenge to the American experiment in democratic self-government.

Here’s a taste:

More than a few democratically elected leaders around the world now find it much easier to build support with tribal appeals focused on identity than do the hard work of coalition-building and compromise in pluralistic societies at a complex time.

When that happens, everything gets turned into a tribal identity marker — mask-wearing in the pandemic, Covid-19 vaccinations, gender pronouns, climate change. Your position on each point doubles as a challenge to others: Are you in my tribe or not? So there is less focus on the common good, and ultimately no common ground to pivot off to do big hard things. We once put a man on the moon together. Today, we can barely agree on fixing broken bridges.

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He mentions Trumpism only twice, and he broadens his argument to tribal-seeming developments in the politics of many other nations. But it strikes me that the enormous power of Trumpism (and, perhaps, anti-Trumpism) in the current state of U.S. politics is the essence of what’s driving his column.

Here’s an excerpt that reveals how he makes the leap from religious tribalism in the Mideast (his original area of expertise) to recent U.S. political history:

Middle Easterners may call their big tribes “Shiites” and “Sunnis” and Americans may call theirs ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but they each seem to operate increasingly with a conformist, us-vs.-them mind-set, albeit at different intensity levels. Extreme Republican tribalism vastly accelerated as the G.O.P. tribe became dominated by a base of largely white Christians, who feared that their long-held primacy in America’s power structure was being eroded by rapidly changing social norms, expanded immigration and globalization, leaving them feeling no longer “at home” in their own country.

To signal that, they latched on to Donald Trump, who enthusiastically gave voice to their darkest fears and raw tribal muscle that escalated the right’s pursuit of minority rule. That is, not just pushing the usual gerrymandering but also propagating conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, passing ever-harsher voter suppression laws and replacing neutral state voting regulators with tribal hacks ready to break the rules. And because this Trump faction came to dominate the base, even once-principled Republicans mostly went along for the ride, embracing the core philosophy that dominates tribal politics in Afghanistan and the Arab world: The ‘other’ is the enemy, not a fellow citizen, and the only two choices are ‘rule or die.’ Either we rule or we delegitimize the results.

I trust you get the idea, nor is the idea of partisanship and tribalism all that new. But Friedman uses the analogy to do a good job describing the current moment in U.S. politics and the role of what he calls the “virus of tribalism.” Friedman concludes:

We need to find the antidote to this tribalism fast — otherwise the future is grim for democracies everywhere.

The whole Friedman column can be accessed on the New York Times website here.