Two essays this week, by two very different authors, take us deep into the tribalism that marks our politics. Both should serve as a wake-up call for what we risk losing as a culture – as a nation – if we fail to reconcile our differences and heal long-festering national wounds.
Writing at The Atlantic, journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a bleak view of the stinging white privilege that fired Donald Trump’s ascendance to the White House last November, positing, convincingly, that the unifying principle guiding America’s “first white president,” is the “negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”
“It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true - his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power,” Coates writes early on, laying out in painstaking detail, in paragraph after paragraph, page after page, how the former real estate mogul speaks to the insecurities of white voters who see the nation changing around them, but who are unwilling (or unable) to adjust to it.
“In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own. Only grudgingly did Trump denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, one of its former grand wizards - and after the clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Duke in turn praised Trump’s contentious claim that “both sides” were responsible for the violence,” Coates writes.
Meanwhile, in New York Magazine, veteran journalist Andrew Sullivan, in a thought-provoking piece called “America Wasn’t Built for Humans,” posits that “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it was become our greatest vulnerability.”
Looking at the tribal warfare that’s riven Iraq or Syria, where people who look exactly alike, who live next door to each other, and then kill each other with ruthless efficiency over gradients of religious disagreement, Sullivan wonders “what it must be like to live in a truly tribal society.”
Then he realizes he doesn’t have to. He’s already living it in 21st Century America.
“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,” he writes. “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).”
What Sullivan sees now is “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.”
If you’ve ever gotten into a political argument at any moment after Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015, then you know exactly what Sullivan is talking about here.
It’s no longer enough that we disagree with each other – left or right – we have to hate each other. We have to want to see the arguments of the other destroyed or defeated. We’ve lost the capacity to talk with each other. Instead, happily ensconced in our own confirmation-bias bubbles, we merely talk past each other.
Coates, meanwhile, sees one bloc – white voters, or at least those white voters who unquestioningly back Trump – cleaved off from the rest of the rest of the culture and enabling his nationalist excesses.
“The scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness. We are now being told that support for Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s,” Coates writes. Coates ends his lengthy essay with the proposition that “The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president – and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him [whites] cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.”
Sullivan’s essay is equally unremitting in its bleakness, but also offers a path forward, though it is neither easy nor certain.
“No tribal conflict has ever been unwound without magnanimity. Yitzhak Rabin had it, but it was not enough. Nelson Mandela had it, and it was. In Colombia earlier this month, as a fragile peace agreement met public opposition, Pope Francis insisted that grudges be left behind,” he writes.
Sullivan is right that such an embrace is both difficult and counterintuitive. But, he argues it’s absolutely necessary. After all, he concludes, “no one ever claimed that living in a republic was going to be easy – if we really want to keep it.”
And that, right there, is the trick.