Donald Trump: Tribal war chief

I came across an online comment on a website today — I’m not going to bother to track it down again — which perfectly encapsulated the Trump phenomenon: The commenter said something like, “if we’re gonna have tribal politics from now on, I want someone who will fight for my tribe.”

I actually wrote an entire column for my newspaper a few weeks back expanding on this theme, but it bears repeating because a lot of folks still don’t get it: This guy — Donald Trump — is what a divisive, multicultural, multiethnic democracy looks like. This is what seven years of Barack Fuck-You-While-I-Spike-The-Football-In-The-End-Zone Obama has given us. Even if Trump loses the election to Hillary Clinton, this could very well be the model for American politics for the foreseeable future.

Whether they realize it or not, Trump’s fans aren’t looking backward — they’re looking forward to America’s future. In fractious multiethnic societies, politics abandons any concerns for abstract principles and devolves into a tawdry spoils system. People look to a leader who promises to fight tooth and nail to deliver their tribe as big a slice of the pie as possible. His specific views on, say, capital gains taxes (and believe me, in this kind of society, it’s nearly always going to be a “he”) are almost entirely beside the point. What matters is that your guy is a Mighty Warrior, who fights for Your People.

The Trump folks are looking a few years down the road, and they’ve decided, “OK, this is what America is going to look like. So I might as well get ahead of the curve and throw in my lot with a War Chief who fights for My People.” Focusing on policy specifics in this environment is missing the forest for the trees. People in this kind of society are first and foremost looking for a tough, swaggering Alpha Male Conquerer from their tribe. The fine print can be hashed out at some later date.

If you don’t like that — if you want to dissuade Trump voters — then you need to convince them that’s not where society is headed. That is going to be a hard task, because everywhere they look, that’s where Trump people see society headed — and I honestly can’t say that they’re necessarily wrong. These folks are jumping aboard the Trump Train because they believe that whatever its faults, that will be the safest place to be in the coming age.

I guess for those on the broadly-defined “right,” whether or not you’re a Trump person depends on whether or not you still believe things can be turned around. For Trump partisans, they’ve given up. They believe some kind of all-against-all political situation is inevitable, so they’re latching on to the biggest, scariest dude around to protect themselves. As I’ve pointed out ad nauseum — not that anybody listens to me — this is the normal state of affairs for low-trust societies riven by tribal conflict. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the system of order that naturally evolves in brutal Hobbesian environments like prison.

The anti-Trump people still believe a course correction is possible. To the Trump fans, this looks childishly naive, but if you want to make a dent with them, you have to convince them that it’s not. It’s not enough to tell them about all Trump’s lies and craziness. They recognize all that — that’s why they’re voting for the guy. The way they see it, they’re buying a rabid pit bull and letting him run amok in their yard. They know the pit bull will chew their arm off if they get too close — that’s why they bought the frickin’ thing. They weren’t looking for a pet. They’re specifically counting on that scary hyperaggression to ward off strangers.

Anyway. If you’re on the left, and this vision horrifies you, I’d say: “Well tough shit. Maybe you shouldn’t have spent the past 30-odd years pushing society in this direction with Political Correctness. Because this is the result.” If you’re on the right and you’re disturbed by this, I’d say “then give people a reason to believe this won’t happen. Give people a reason to believe there’s still hope.”

Ted Cruz gets this, in a very limited way, which is why I voted for him in the primary. He’s still stuck on the ground floor of understanding, though. He’s in the building but hasn’t yet found the stairs. Marco Rubio was starting to show signs that he got it before his campaign flamed out — his youth worked against him in that regard; he would have been much more formidable if he’d waited a few years and been seasoned with more experience. (This is why I doubt Rubio’s political career is over just yet — towards the end of his campaign, he was starting to show flashes of the brilliant politician everybody was always expecting him to become. But like a talented but undisciplined high school quarterback, he just never managed to put everything together in a way that could consistently deliver wins.)

Losers like Jeb Bush and John Kasich don’t get it at all. They’re stuck in the past, running campaigns that would have been great for the electorate of 20 years ago, but look utterly clueless now. Kasich in particular is just embarrassing; in political terms, he’s like the 35-year-old guy who shows up at a college party and makes everybody uncomfortable by trying to act like he’s still hip and cool.

Trump “gets it,” but he clearly has no idea why he gets it — his schtick relies on pure instinct, and in his defense, his instincts have thus far proven pretty sharp. Still, since he pretty obviously has no idea why his schtick is working, the chances are pretty strong that he will lose to Hillary. Even so, there are younger, cagier politicians who are watching his success right now and taking careful notes, and you can bet they won’t be nearly as erratic when they emerge on the stage a few years from now.

If you want to stop those guys — or if you want to stop Trump right now — the best way is to paint a plausible future that’s more optimistic. Trump is a candidate for people who feel like they’ve already lost and are looking to go down to defeat in a gesture of defiance, with their heads held high. If you want to defeat him, you’ve got to lay out a strategy to win. You’ve got to convince folks that the future they fear will not come to pass. If you don’t want people to die on their feet, convince them that they will not face a future where they’ll have to live on their knees.


2 thoughts on “Donald Trump: Tribal war chief

  1. I think this is mostly right. Trump represents people who feel there is no one in the current political class of either party that gives a damn about them and/or those who hate the existing political class so much that they refuse to lend their support or votes to anyone who is remotely associated with the existing order.

    I personally don’t like Trump (although he is correct on a few things) but I’m disgusted enough with where things stand that he’d get my vote over Hillary. I’d rather see Cruz in there but I don’t think he’s going to pull it out in the end.


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