Tribal Politics, Tribal Morality

August 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Paul Krugman today points out something I’d missed. Trumps famous line —“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” — is a slur on the morality of his followers. Krugman sees the quote as another instance of Trump’s more general “contempt for his working-class base.” In essence, Trump is saying that the level of morality among his followers is primitive, entirely tribal. The Trumpsters’ only criterion in making moral judgments, no matter how heinous or harmful the action being judged, is whether the person who committed it is one of their own.

After all, if Evangelicals and their leaders have nothing to say about Trump’s lust, greed, anger, sloth, gluttony, envy, and pride; if they are fine with his multiple breaking of the Sixth Commandment, then why would they mind his breaking the Fifth Commandment in the middle of Fifth Avenue?

Tribal morality flourishes when a group feels that it is under attack. The group sharpens the lines between “us” and “them,” as George Bush did after 9/11. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Under these conditions, the group has to direct its attention outward towards the enemy. The only crime by a group member is disloyalty.
Much of Trump’s rhetoric plays to this feeling that “we” are under attack. The threat comes from many sources — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, the media, Hillary, China, and others (though not, of course, Russia) —  and Trump supporters chant enthusiastically about what we must do to these enemies —  wall them out or lock them up or whatever. It is the genius of Trump, his supporters, and Republicans generally that they can maintain this perception of themselves as embattled defenders trying to “take back” their country* even when they control all three branches of the federal government and most state governments.

As long as Trump’s supporters continue to perceive themselves and the world as “us” against “them,” his low estimate of their morality may well remain accurate.

* “Taking back” the country that rightly belongs to them and not to all these other people who cast more votes has been a constant theme among Republicans at least since Obama’s election and perhaps before. See this 2011 post, “Repo Men.”

No comments: