Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump As Tribal Leader

He's what happens when white people start applying the Left's diversity rhetoric and categories to themselves

Trump called the press to a conference yesterday to tell them what a pack of scumbags they are:

The offense reporters committed this time: asking whether the money he said he had raised at a January benefit — organized in place of a Fox News debate he was skipping — had really made it to the beneficiaries, and if so, how much.

A candidate said he would do a thing; reporters tried to confirm whether he had. (Last week The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump had not yet made his own donation.) This, to Mr. Trump, was an outrage, an affront, not very nice treatment at all. He said he had not wanted to claim credit for his deeds — which he promoted, allowed to be covered on television and referred to during the campaign — but the nosy press had forced his hand.

So he showed up at the news conference with a list of donations and recipients, as well as a list of grievances. Tom Llamas, a reporter from ABC News, was a “sleaze,” he said; Jim Acosta, of CNN, “a real beauty.”

No candidate ever went broke attacking the news media. But if he becomes president, he’s going to make Nixon look like a model of prudence and sanity.

David Frum has a long, rewarding essay analyzing the seven ways Trump’s candidacy has demolished the guardrails of our democratic politics. Excerpts:

During the election of 1800, Hamilton warned his friend Harrison Gray Otis that Aaron Burr “loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement” and could not, consequently, be trusted to honor any agreement with his political opponents. Trump’s political allies have said the same and worse of him, while yet grudgingly pledging to support him in the end. Something’s obviously changed in the American definition of acceptable behavior in those who seek power. That guardrail is down.

What’s new about Trump is that he doesn’t even pretend to respect standards. He’ll talk about his penis on national TV, so what? You can’t shame someone who is shameless. The power of his narcissism is such that he seems to believe that he creates his own reality, that he is beyond judgment.

Read the whole thing.  I would quibble with Frum about a few of his judgments, but not his general point that Trump’s candidacy is a profound challenge to political stability in this country.


The thing that frustrates me, though, is that so many of the anti-Trump people seem to think that Trump is some kind of aberration, that the system was more or less fine before he barreled in and started tearing it up. Not true. He was only able to accomplish this because the Republican Party, and indeed the entire edifice of our political system, has grown weak at its foundations.

Frum says the white identity politics Trump embodies is evidence of the guardrails being down:

As community cohesion weakens, moral norms change. What would have been unacceptable behavior in a more homogenous national community becomes tolerable when a formerly ascendant group sees itself at risk from aggressive new claims by new competitors. Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans. Those white Americans who respond to his message hear his abusive comments, not as evidence of his unfitness for office, but as proof of his commitment to their tribe.

And so breaks another guardrail.

I think Frum is right about that, but it will never fail to astonish me, the degree to which the Left is blind to how its own principles and illiberalism strengthens Trump. We all see how Black Lives Matter and related leftist groups trample all over institutional authority in colleges with race-based special pleading, some of it flatly racist, and administrators yield. We see how any questioning or criticism of whatever new thing the LGBT movement demands this week is denounced harshly as evidence of bigotry, and people clam up for fear of their jobs. And so on. Given that reality, how long did they think it was going to be before a white candidate emerged who would defend white tribal interests, and who didn’t care what any of them thought about him? If Trump is the champion of white identity politics — and he pretty much is — then the Democrats should think about how their practicing tribal identity politics has contributed to his rise on the Right. I’m not blaming Trump on the Democrats, but I am saying that their “diversity” rhetoric, and the way they have mobilized their own tribes, has helped to create the social and cultural conditions that brought us Trump.

Conor Friedersdorf conducted a fascinating e-mail dialogue with a 22-year-old Trump supporter. The young man lives in the Bay Area, and is engaged to be married to an Asian-American woman. They’re both voting Trump. Excerpts:

Trump Voter: We are young, urban, and have a happy future planned. We seem molded to be perfect young Hillary supporters. But we’re not. Both of us voted Libertarian in 2012, and ideologically we remain so. But in 2016? We’re both going for Trump.

For me personally, it’s resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture. That’s where it’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.  Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. There is no saying “Hey, I disagree with you,” it’s just instant shunning. Say things online, and they’ll try to find out who you are and potentially even get you fired for it. Being anti-PC is not about saying “I want you to agree with me on these issues.” It’s about saying, “Hey, I want to have a discussion and not get shouted down because I don’t agree with what is considered to be politically correct.”

In my first job, I mentioned that I enjoyed Hulk Hogan to a colleague who also liked the WWE. I was not aware at the time, but Hogan had recently made news for his use of some racial or homophobic slur. I was met with a horrified stare. By simply saying I liked his showmanship, I was lumped into saying I too was racist or homophobic.

I feel like I have to hide my beliefs.

I cannot say openly that I identify with Republicans, lest I see friendships and potential professional connections disappear with those words. When I see Hillary Clinton, I see the world becoming less and less tolerant of right-leaning views.When I see Facebook censoring conservative outlets and then see The Atlantic defending the practice, that worries me. When I see the fear that reddit users have about admins banning subreddits because of political beliefs, that worries me.

Normally, I would be very concerned with the throwing of the potentially false accusations of rape. I am in the camp of “comfort the accuser, but don’t get ready to hang the alleged criminal until we’ve had due process.” I am concerned with some of Trump’s reversals, but this is not one of them. Why? If false, Bill Clinton will not suffer any real consequences from this. There will be no risk of jail for Bill, which is what the biggest worry is for false accusations. If Trump knew that these allegations were true, I’m not going to defend his conduct. But I will accept it.

This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.

“Total ostracism and shame.” If you lived and worked in a cultural environment in which you were at risk at every moment of saying the “wrong” thing, and being made to pay a severe price for it — even when you are merely stating a conventional conservative opinion — well, wouldn’t you be emotionally attracted to a man like Trump? Again, many liberals haven’t the slightest idea how their own behavior has fueled the rise of Trump. More:

Trump supporter: I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, but I feel in a lot of ways that my identity as a white man is shamed. I am in zero ways a white nationalist or supremacist, and I consider myself a feminist. I will likely sacrifice my career goals, either with fewer hours or relocation as needed, so that my fiancee can pursue her ambitions and goals. But I do not want to be shamed or held back or attacked for just being what I am.

Everything about his professional and personal milieu tells him that he is a second-class citizen because of his sex and the color of his skin. Friedersdorf gave him anonymity for this interview because the young man feels — rightly — that if people knew what he really thought, he would find it hard to get a job. This, because he has expressed opinions forbidden by the left.

Friedersdorf adds:

My correspondent has come to believe that political correctness is transforming American culture in a way that puts his interests at odds with activists who are pursuing social justice and Hispanic immigrants who might benefit from affirmative action. His perception of these changes is causing him to engage in zero-sum thinking. If identity-based tribalism is America’s lot, he intends to vote his group interests, whereas he was previously inclined toward a more individualist ethic.

That shift alarms me.

Neither the pursuit of social justice nor immigration policy nor relations among people of different ethnicities are inherently zero sum in nature. Quite the contrary, if sound policies and social norms are in place. If there is an uptick in white people shifting from a liberal mindset to a tribal mindset, something has gone very wrong.


They finally rejected the double standard and started to apply the Left’s diversity rhetoric to themselves. If black lives matter (for example), then why don’t white lives matter? That sort of thing. For a very long time, much liberal rhetoric has been focused on left-wing identity politics, not appealing to what unifies us as Americans, but on our tribal divisions. But they call identifying and exacerbating difference “diversity,” and claim it as a virtue. Until whites start seeing themselves in the same way left-liberalism has taught blacks, Hispanics, gays and others to see themselves: as one tribe among many.

Yes, Trump’s rise, and his rise as a white identity candidate, is frightening. But he didn’t come from nowhere, nor is he solely the creation of conservatism (indeed, he’s barely a conservative at all). I expect Hillary Clinton to use a lot of unity rhetoric this fall. But here’s the thing: if she wins, I fully expect her to govern as someone who treats my own tribe — conservative Christians — as the enemy. That does not mean I will vote for Trump, or will vote at all. I know conservative Christians who fear and loathe Trump so much that they’re going to vote for Hillary, a candidate they believe despises their kind, for the sake of the common good. I know Christians who despise Trump but who are voting for him, or withholding their vote, because they cannot cast a ballot for a candidate (Hillary) they are certain will name Supreme Court justices who will roll back religious liberty.

The point is that the nation is fractured and fracturing. Both political parties have benefited from the ideological divide they have created, and that historical circumstances have created. What’s new about Trump is that for the first time, many whites are seeing themselves the way Democrats and the liberal media have encouraged blacks, Hispanics, and gays to see themselves: as a tribe.

That particular guardrail was being dismantled long before Trump ever thought about running for president. It didn’t take much to push it over. Only audacity, really.





Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now