An Object Lesson on Tribalism

The democratic world has reached the “screaming in your sleep” point in the nightmare scenario George Washington warned of in his “Farewell Address,” namely the devolution of political debate into unthinking partisanship. For a perfectly clear object lesson on the danger Washington feared, we need look no further than the case of John Bolton’s relationship with Donald Trump’s Republican Party establishment.

When Bolton was all over the news networks, in his capacity as “expert commentator,” shamelessly plumping for a position in the Trump administration by praising Trump’s patently incoherent and cowardly “foreign policy” to high heaven, Trump supporters were cheering wildly: “I always loved Bolton, he tells it like it is, a straight shooter, I wish Trump had chosen him as secretary of such-and-such.”

When Trump actually did choose Bolton as his new national security advisor — flattery will get you everywhere with this vain idiot — the tribal Republicans were beside themselves with joy: “Finally a real man working with Trump, now the bad guys of the world are shaking in their boots, this is a match made in heaven.”

When Trump and Bolton divorced a short time later, citing irreconcilable differences, the tribe cried, “Good! I never thought that neocon warmonger was a good fit for Nobel Peace Prize Trump. He always has his own opinions rather than supporting the Stable Genius; we’re better off without him.”

When, after leaving the White House, Bolton began commenting about how he had some important things to say about Trump, and criticizing Trump’s foreign policy as, in effect, incoherent and cowardly, the tribe shouted, “NeverTrump hack! I knew he was never anything but a deep state fake — Trump should never have allowed himself to be talked into hiring the creep.”

These days, at the outset of Trump’s senate impeachment trial, as the Democrats appear eager to call Bolton to testify, and Bolton continues to tease everyone with the idea that he has “new information,” the tribal Republicans are twisted in knots with hatred and hysteria: “He’s just a self-promoter, he’s working for the Democrats, he’s a traitor who hates America.”

Today, I see on Alt-Right Poop that White House spokesdisaster Kellyanne Conway has hinted that Trump might exert executive privilege to prevent Bolton from testifying. The regular readers who have had the nerve to comment on this are unanimous — just as they were on the other side of the matter a year ago — that this would absolutely be the right move for Trump, because Bolton can’t be trusted. In short, “He isn’t one of us.”

I fully believe, not hyperbolically but quite matter-of-factly, that if Bolton were indeed invited to testify, but were then found mysteriously dead in a ditch the day before his appearance, the readers at Right Scoop and the rest of the “conservative” websites would be saying, “Can’t say I feel sorry for him, the guy hated our President, so I say good riddance.”

As in all cases, the Trump cult clarifies matters by giving us the most simplistic, uncircumspect, bald-facedly dishonorable demonstration of a complex concept. They are, in the end, run-of-the-mill political tribalists, but they are so brazen and unapologetic about it that they seem almost hellbent on embodying political-psychological weakness at a level meant to be understood by kindergarten children.

For an example of what non-tribalism would look like, if I may, I offer myself on the same issue. Before Bolton was in full Trump sycophant mode, I was calling him out as a phony tough guy, a career bureaucratic climber, and an unprincipled self-promoter. When Trump hired him, I commented on how the fakes belonged together. When he left the administration, my position on Bolton remained the same. When he became a critic and apparent threat to Trump’s presidency, I continued to hold the same opinion of him — though I enjoyed this part of the story much more than the previous parts, as the Cult of Orange certainly had this comeuppance coming, and it is so much fun for me at this point to watch them pulling their own heads off in their desperate attempt to find the “right” position to espouse on any given day. This, then, by way of contrast with the tribe, is what actually believing something looks like.

In short, to believe something — as opposed, we might say, to believing in something — is to see that thing, as much as possible, with the eye of one’s own mind, rather than through lenses provided by another, or by a collective of others. To view the important things in life, political ideas certainly included, in the latter way is to turn your soul to putty in the hands of anyone who finds the trick to catching your attention. In sufficient numbers, such souls may be manipulated into any shape one likes, a different shape for each day of the week if necessary, to be used for any purpose one likes.

Partisan tribalism, pure and simple, dear reader. The death of citizenship and political morality. The gateway drug to tyranny.

(On the other hand, if your primary objective is to have as many friends as possible — albeit the sort of friends who would burn you at the stake tomorrow, and then dance on your ashes, if you dared to question one iota of the tribe’s official position — then tribalism might be for you.)

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