May 25, 2018

Trump Tribalism and Faith

Make American Great Again hatI was watching the PBS NewsHour the other night, as I tend to do. While I'd never claim that they are beyond reproach with regard to what they choose to cover or how they cover it, I will say that they are my favorite daily news program on television. Anyway, one of their regular political commentators said something I found insightful - seriously depressing but insightful.

She noted that many supporters of President Donald Trump tune out or dismiss any bit of news that might lead a rational person to reconsider his or her support. Basically, Trump has permission to do anything he pleases without risking the support of a significant portion of his base. In their eyes, he can do no wrong. In many respects, this sounds an awful lot like religious faith. Again and again, we see "true believers" maintain their faith no matter what. True believers in MAGA appear to have decided that they will support Trump no matter what. I think this is dangerous. We cannot afford for any leader to be beyond question.

After pointing out this disturbing reality, the commentator went on to point out something I found even more depressing about the left. She indicated that many of those on the left who are opposed to President Trump will never give him credit for doing anything positive. In fact, many will go so far as to deny that he can do anything positive. He could improve relations with North Korea, bring peace to the Middle East, improve the U.S. economy, or whatever else, and they'd still criticize him for it. And yes, I find this dangerous too. The sort of precedent being set by some of this "resistance" is going to be toxic for years to come. And yes, I realize they feel justified in behaving like this because this is how many on the right behaved during the Obama administration.

The political polarization and tribalism seem to be getting worse. Many on the right and many on the left are now living in their own ideological bubbles, and these bubbles have become so extreme that they have come to include serious disagreement over even basic facts. Each side gets their information and news from very different sources, and it is not much of a stretch to say that they are inhabiting very different realities. Neither side seems willing to acknowledge that much of what they believe is likely factually incorrect. And increasingly, neither side seems interested in interacting with the other. Ideological segregation is the new normal. Again, this reminds me of religious faith in many ways.

Human nature has many darker aspects, and tribalism strikes me as one of them. Even though I see the practice of freethought as an effective antidote to tribalism, I won't pretend it is an easy one. It is clear that many people do not want to be less tribalistic. They have little interest in the sort of compromise that makes it possible to govern. Given the choice, they'll take the short-term benefits (i.e., the positive feelings they derive) from demonizing their opponents despite many the long-term costs. Those of us who want to reduce polarization and tribalism have our work cut out for us, and it appears that this is the case whether we're focusing on religion or politics.