In my last column I said that I would eliminate tribalism (the tendency for humans to identify with a peer group and to fear/distrust those who aren’t part of that peer group) if I had the power to improve humanity by making just one change to human nature. I believe the phenomenon of tribalism is playing a more important role in our society today than it has at any other point in my lifetime, so I thought I would explore the concept a little further this time out.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I believe our current president has exploited our tribalistic tendencies as effectively as any other public figure in our history. He has given a voice to a group of Americans who have long felt forgotten and left behind by those in power in both political parties, and they have rewarded him with a fierce loyalty as their “chief” that seems to be immune to his constant barrage of bizarre anti-social behavior.
Opinion polls consistently show that President Trump is the most polarizing president of modern times. Those who identify as Republicans continue to stand behind him with approval ratings in excess of 80 percent, while Democratic support for his performance is in the single digits. It seems unlikely that we will see any “reaching across party lines” to find common accord on any pressing issues in Washington, D.C. for the next three and a half years.
It’s interesting to witness the mental gymnastics Trump supporters must employ to explain away the outrageous words and actions he continues to bless late night TV comedians with as president. Trump is their guy, and to abandon him would be to betray the tribe and question a basic part of their identities, so excuses for anything he says or does must be found.
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As a fun thought experiment, imagine if Hillary Clinton had won the election but had followed the same path Trump did to get there. What if she has been the first presidential candidate in 40 years to refuse to release her tax returns? What if she had lost the popular vote but won the electoral college? What if there was substantial evidence the Russians had attempted to influence the outcome of the election in her favor and that members of her inner circle had met with Russian officials to receive dirt on Trump?
Now imagine how your favorite member of the right-wing tribe would have reacted if all the things mentioned above had been true of a President Hillary instead of President Trump? They would have been so incensed at the situation that their heads would probably be spinning around like that demon-possessed girl in “The Exorcist.” You better believe they would have been calling for her impeachment if she had won under the same circumstances Trump did.
Of course it goes beyond Trump and extends to policy issues like climate change. Both conservatives and progressives have access to the same set of facts on the issue, but they interpret that data very differently depending on their tribe’s official position on the matter. Let’s face it – nothing in life can be proven with absolute certainty, so if you’ve already made up your mind about something you can always find data that seems to support your pre-decided position. That’s what makes political debates on topics like climate change such a waste of time in most cases.
As it turns out, peer pressure doesn’t go away after we finish high school. It continues to shape our thoughts and behavior throughout our lives. It’s a tough thing to overcome, but the first step may be to realize that the people outside your tribe aren’t really that different from you, and if had you been born into a different family you could easily be a member of their tribe instead of your own.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.