The roots of Donald Trump’s recent success grow wild in the muck of tribalism. Tribalism is the belief that my group is better than yours. This article of faith, in its current form, proposes that a certain group of pale Americans are the true inheritors of the American Dream. It also suggests that members of this tribe have been finding it more difficult to realize their aspirations in recent years because of the growing power and influence of people in opposing tribes (the less pale and the traitorous pale who supported President Obama).
The us vs. them stance can be attractive to those who have been marginalized socially and economically. A man, a woman can join a team, feel part of a bigger movement and experience the surge of power that comes by working to right injustices (real or imaginary). The difficult work of looking for personal reasons for personal failure can be put aside. The familiar carrot and stick promise of the American Dream–if you work hard enough you too can become rich and powerful–if you’re lazy you too will end up in the gutter–can be resuscitated once the so called agents of destruction are removed.
Tribalism is entrenched deep within our psyches. It’s a mechanism that allows us to identify with a group for the shared purpose of survival. Prehistoric encounters between wandering bands competing for the same resources were fraught with danger. Ancient peoples traded goods and information when it suited them, but also fought each other for land, water, genetic variety and hunting territory. The term that tribes used to describe their group, to name themselves, was “The People”. Members of other factions, even if they shared a similar heritage and language, were not considered fully human and were treated accordingly.
The history of the 20th century is a tale of racial and national tribalism. Hitler, of course, made use of this hardwired instinct to manipulate Germans and to persecute anyone he deemed an outsider. Gypsies, Jews, Slavs, the mentally handicapped, and homosexuals were carted away and systematically killed as the Nazis considered them non German (nonhuman). The Japanese promoted their supremacy and justified mass killings in China using a similar set of psychological maneuvers. And Allied propaganda referred to both Germans and Japanese by derogatory names to give the impression that they were less than human. It was easier to kill a “kraut” than it was to kill someone from a culture that produced Beethoven, Goethe, Liebniz and Einstein.
Donald, with all the grace and subtlety of a tank crushing a bed of flowers, has reinvigorated the tribal strain in American politics. Trump promises that he will “make America great again” if chosen to become the leader of his tribe. He will use his manifest power, charisma and can do attitude to reestablish the dominance of his people in America. The details are sketchy, but he has big plans. Big, big plans. His pale people will become great again if only they believe in him enough to join his campaign to persecute Muslims and force Mexico to build a giant wall to imprison themselves within their borders.
He treats his opponents with scorn and derides their achievements. They’re not as wonderful as he is. He rewrites history to suit his narrative. His story is better. And he just won’t stop talking. Why should he when he thinks that he’s already running the show? But what he isn’t saying is that his real tribe consists of himself and a few insiders. He’s a ruthless power player who has used liberal and conservative, private and governmental connections to expand the wealth he inherited from his father. His true associates are a select few. Membership in their tiny tribe is limited to the absurdly wealthy.
The rest of his “millions and millions of people” will eventually find out just how much Mr. Trump cares about them if they are foolish enough to elect him.