These should be heady days for anyone who detests Donald Trump and what he has done to America. He is caught in a vise of incontrovertible evidence of innumerable high crimes and misdemeanors. House Democrats are moving expeditiously to file articles of impeachment after carefully building the case that he should be removed from office now because he is a present and continuing threat to our democracy. So why do I have the feeling that I am looking at a false dawn?
It is not that Trump will be acquitted at a Senate trial that he and his congressional sycophancy will try to turn into a circus.
It is not that Rudy Giuliani will continue to torment us with his schizophrenic ravings about deep-state conspiracies.
It is not that the president will reliably suck up to Vladimir Putin and otherwise show his fealty to our enemies.
It is not that he will continue to manipulate a mainstream media that remains clueless about how to honestly report on his lies and deceits.
Or that public opinion will have been little moved by trying to get rid of a president through impeachment for only the third time in our nation’s history.
No, that sinking feeling comes from the fear that America already was broken before Trump became president (with an assist from Putin) and he has now broken it beyond repair.
This is not so much liberal tear jerking. It is a consequence of the knowledge that tribalism in all its destructive manifestations is destroying the guts of our democracy. That electing a new president and a Republican Party that comes to its senses after Republicans invited a pussy-grabbing reality TV star to wreck it — both prayed for consequences of the great American pendulum swinging back to center — may be welcome tonics for our dysfunctional political system but still won’t cure what ails us.
Americans always have had an unjustifiably lofty view of their society, which is why they are able to look down their upturned noses as Tutsis beat up on Hutus in Rwanda, Serbs beat up on Croats in the Balkans, Shiites beat up on Sunnis in Iraq and Buddhists beat up on Muslims in Myanmar, to name just a few of the blood-soaked conflicts in recent history.
Americans believe they’re beyond such tribalism, and indeed the Founding Fathers were determined to build a democracy where the individual was more important than the tribe. That failed spectacularly in a little dustup called the Civil War, and the biggest message underlying the election of Donald Trump is that it is still failing.
The message within that message as we slouch toward whatever Trump’s fate may be — if indeed he is fated — is that he did not make America what it is. To the contrary, America made Trump president because of what it has become.
Those red state-blue state maps that are popping up everywhere as the most important election since the last most important election approaches are not merely graphic representations of the American body politic of recent years. They vividly and shockingly illustrate the parlous condition of our 240-year-old democracy.
A tribe of white voters predominate in red states in the rural interior. They are for the most part nationalist in outlook, evangelical and dominate the Republican Party.
A tribe of non-whites predominate in blue states on the coasts. They are for the most part are urbanized, global in outlook, less religious and dominate the Democratic Party.
But again, that is giving politics too much credit — or blame, as it were.
Tribalism begins to destabilize a democracy when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller loyalties such as our favorite sports team, pop star or brand of fast-food chicken sandwich. That destabilization, as pioneering blogger Andrew Sullivan has written, occurs when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole and tribes become enemies.
And that is where we are today despite the gauzy view of many pundits that all that the national car needs is an oil change.
It is convenient but inaccurate to suggest that tribalism evaporated after the Civil War and re-emerged only in the last several years as politics became so overtly tribal and hence divisive. In fact, tribalism never went away.
Tribalism merely was subsumed by waves of immigrants who were assimilated into society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then the two world wars, which acted as huge unifiers. In the case of World War II and the years following, blacks were integrated into the military, industry and society at large, and nearly 40 percent of black voters called themselves Republicans, the once proud party of Lincoln.
But by 1964, tribalism was back with a vengeance.
Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign drove most blacks away from the GOP and that re-racialization continued apace in the early 1970s with Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy in response to the civil rights movement, Ronald Reagan’s unflattering characterizations of poor blacks in the 1980s, and Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s unapologetic loathing of the Latino immigrants pouring into California in the 1990s.
By the time the first red-blue maps appeared in the 2000 presidential race, abortion and gay rights had further split the two parties as holier-than-thou Republicans launched a series of culture wars and self-righteous Democrats were offended.
Behind the national electoral draw that year between Al Gore and George Bush were the two tribes so recognizable today, and the Supreme Court ruling handing the presidency to Bush ended — probably forever — the Founders’ intention that the high court be nonpartisan, which is to say nontribal.
Then came 2008 and an even deeper tribal fracturing over race with the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, as well as the emergence of Fox News and the Internet and social media, both crucibles for right-wing extremism that underlie many of the horrific mass murders that have become the soundtrack of our country.
And on top of all that, Republicans and Democrats don’t merely disagree with their opponents’ views these days, they disagree angrily and sometimes in violent terms over the other tribe’s values, each side claiming to be more loyal to mother, god and country than the other as emotion reliably supplants reason.
Can you say Brett Kavanaugh?
With the three core components of tribalism — race, religion and geography — defining the political parties, 2016 was bound to be a watershed election.
But little did we suspect that a profoundly unqualified narcissist, career crook, pathological liar and misogynist wearing a red Make America Great Again baseball cap who made vague promises to shake up Washington would face off against an eminently qualified, if flawed, woman who proudly wore a lifetime of public service on her sleeve and promised to build on the Obama legacy while bearing the scars of 30 years of virulent right-wing attacks.
Trump, of course, lost the popular vote but eked out an Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton.
While the pernicious consequences of the Russian effort to sabotage the Clinton campaign cannot be underestimated, Trump built his backdoor victory on opportunism that caught liberals and pollster alike unaware. His claim that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose the support of his followers lays bare a deep-rooted tribal animosity — a toxic brew of fear and hate — toward anyone who is not like them, as well as an addiction to the rhetorical extremism that is Trump’s stock in trade.
Americans, at least those of us who care about such things when not arguing over whether the New England Patriots (pun intended) are the best team ever, have assumed that democracy was on autopilot.
That the worst excesses would sort themselves out as that political pendulum swung back and forth. That constitutional checks and balances would assure that the pendulum would return to center. That our capacity for moderation, compassion and forgiveness ran deeper than our baser instincts. That we would stop talking past each other and talk to each other.
But none of that took into account that beyond halcyon skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties above those enameled plains, we were members of tribes first and Americans second.
Having just read a great book (Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder) which chronicles the murders of millions of men, women and children by Stalin and Hitler before and during the Second World War in horrifying detail, I am convinced more than ever that tribalism is in human DNA. How else to explain what is happening in Poland, which suffered grievously under Stalin and Hitler a mere blink of the eye ago in the long arc of history, but is lurching to the right because of the siren call of fascism as if that bloody interregnum of mass murder of one’s own people in the service of megalomania disguised as national destiny had never occurred?
This makes finding a way out of America’s national nightmare all the more difficult because it would require closing the gap between our tribes, as well as changing or at least diluting the mutations of the political parties.
The revolution will not be televised because there isn’t going to be one. And the impeachment of Donald Trump, as necessary as it is, will not begin to close that gap and probably will make it only wider.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on December 9, 2019 on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.