Is There a Limit to Tribalism?

Many people observe our current political situation, and our unique President who arose out of it, and wonder if there can possibly be any limit to the blind, passionate loyalty of the right wing to their favorites.  Those favorites are usually defined by Fox News, Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine, and accepted without question by the masses who rely on them and them alone for all their information.

President Trump has certainly changed the views of most political observers as to what the limits of tribal identity are in America.  Never before has such a polarizing figure, with such extreme views, been so popular in the U.S.  Never before has anyone been excused so many damning actions and comments that would have instantly destroyed the political careers of any other politician.  While he remains deeply and historically unpopular, his core supporters love him all the more for it, and many others, even though he embarrasses them and they may even despise him, still support and will vote for him because their tribal identity is so strong that supporting or voting for another party is literally unthinkable.

This is highly unusual in American political history, which has largely been dominated by left-center and right-center pragmatists, with occasional veers toward the left or right that were quickly corrected.  Experts continue to be astounded by the phenomenon, and political moderates of the left and right worry about what this change means for the future of our country.

I think that I have found a good analogy from the world of sports that seems to explain the phenomenon, though.  In team sports, particularly in the contact sports, many teams have one or more players who are known as agitators.  They play the game close to the edge of the envelope of the rules, and frequently cross over that edge.  They are the ones who run their mouth constantly at the other team.  The ones who always get in an extra shot or two at the bottom of the pile, or a slash or kick to the back of the legs when the referee isn’t looking.  The ones who are always trying to bait the opponents into retaliating.  The ones who frequently are involved in cheap shots or dirty hits that result in injuries.  They rack up a lot of penalties, fines and suspensions.  The players and fans of every other team in the league hate them with a passion.  Frankly, they are complete and total jerks and most people agree the game would be better off without them.

But usually their own teammates and fans LOVE them.  They are frequently among the most popular players on their teams.  The reason why is, of course, because our loyalty to our teams is not entirely rational.  It’s based on emotion and identity, rather than logic.  We don’t love our teams because they are really better or more deserving in any way than other teams.  We just love them because they are OUR teams, perhaps from our schools or from the towns we grew up in, or the towns we live in now.  And we hate many of the other teams almost as deeply, because they are, by definition, not OUR team.

Even the most despicable human beings are heroes to us if they play for OUR team.  Frankly, the more abuse and punishment they dish out to the other team, the more they infuriate and frustrate the opposition, the more we love them.  They may be jerks, but they are OUR jerks, and their abuse and insults are directed towards the other teams that we hate, so it’s all good.  Even the most analytical and honest fans, who may acknowledge what a horrible jerk their team’s agitator is, still don’t stop supporting their team because they employ the bad actor.  They rationalize that the other team is even worse, or whatever they need to do to justify their continued loyalty.

Trump as a politician is just like that bad actor on the field.  He’s a complete and total jerk (I think much stronger words actually describe him better, but I try to keep profanity in my posts to a minimum).  Everyone knows it.  But, for his supporters, he’s being a jerk primarily to the other team, or at least to people they don’t know or care much about, so it’s all good in their eyes.  The more he outrages the other team and its fans, the more many of them love him.  Others may be embarrassed by his actions, but they remain loyal to the team, because they believe the alternative is unthinkable.

Of course, the future of our country is not a game.  There is considerably more at stake.  We cannot allow tribal loyalty to divide us permanently.  At the moment, however, unless the absolute death grip that right-wing propaganda has on the beliefs and loyalty of a large portion of this country is somehow disrupted, unless facts and expert opinion regain their ability to sway people’s minds, I’m not sure how it can happen.

Until that happens, Trump the instigator will continue to appall the rest of the nation and the world.  Everyone not on his team, essentially.  It’s who he is and he won’t change.

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