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Trump’s Tribalism (And Ours)

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Almost two years after the fact, the sting to the American Left has not quite faded. That a bumbling, chauvinistic, vituperative, politically inexperienced real estate scion eked out a victory in a contest for the world’s most powerful office still strikes us a monstrous, unforgivable injustice.

The feeling is understandable, what with Donald Trump’s casual and total disregard for nearly every social rule that leftists hold dear. If the mood strikes, Trump will endorse the commission of war crimes, demean entire countries of color, and publicly profess admiration, or even love, for widely reviled authoritarians abroad. When his focus is domestic, he slashes taxes for the massively wealthy, rails against immigrants, and questions the patriotism of Latino citizens. Altogether, these sorts of transgressions (in our eyes) betray the president’s tribalism, his commitment in any given scenario to bolstering “his people”—the powerful, the rich, the American—often without even feigning concern for anyone else.

To be sure, Trump’s brand of tribalism warrants rebuke. However, our go-to rebuke—that Trump and his tribalistic movement are turning America into a cesspool of selfishness, contempt, and cold-heartedness, dispensing posthaste with the compassionate ethic that once defined us a nation—is dubious. In reality, a lot of people in the United States were narrow-minded and prejudiced well before Trump entered the picture. As it happens, many of them are leftists, self-described opponents of Trump’s tribalism who practice tribalism themselves. Indeed, when we are not careful, our social outlook can start to resemble Trump’s, and nationalistic tribalism can suffuse even our criticisms of him.

Consider the leftist allegation that Trump “continues to spit in the face of poor people.” We are right to say so, of course; the Republican tax scheme offers financial relief to corporations while running up a deficit that may very well harm the American poor in years to come. Trump seems no better in his capacity as a “really rich” private citizen, with The New Yorker reporting in 2016 that he had donated not even one-tenth of one percent of his wealth to charity in the preceding 25 years. As anyone who hears him talk for even three minutes begins to suspect, Trump really is “toxic” privilege personified, lacking the good moral sense to resist the unjust inequalities that have materially benefitted him his entire life.

But Americans of Trump’s ilk are not the only ones responsible for lethal inequality. In the Obama years, well before Trump had resurrected the “America First!” mantra, Peter Singer and his allies reissued their call for a global redistribution of wealth, warning that more than 15 million non-Americans would die each year from illness, dehydration, and starvation if well-heeled Americans and other Westerners failed to send aid overseas. Very few of us heeded the call on an individual level, and our government offered only paltry assistance.

More than 8,000 children continue to die every day for a lack of access to basic necessities, and although billionaires like Trump are better equipped than most of us to help, many Americans with far less live comfortably enough to contribute something. For instance, single Americans raking in $55,000 a year, though not exactly rich by domestic standards, are better paid than 99 percent of humanity and probably never want for shelter, food, clean water, or meaningful forms of entertainment. Thus, if there exists a moral obligation to help the needy, then it probably falls (to some extent) on these sorts of comfortable, middle-class people.

But most of us, even while condemning Trump for his hyper-nationalism and unconcern for the destitute, have thus far joined Trump in excluding the world’s most deprived humans from our moral considerations. We may object to Trump’s condescending rhetoric and galling outbursts about so-called “shithole” countries, but at the end of the day, we share in his general indifference to the preventable horrors that befall many inhabitants of those countries. Following our lead, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and other leftist heroes highlight the struggles of American students and low-wage workers—as they should—while saying very little about the millions of afflicted foreigners who will die this year in the absence of wealth transfers from the West.

To establish our moral differences with Trump, in this and every other regard, it will not be enough just to say that we despise him. In fact, many of our hyperbolic characterizations of Trump—as “the worst president” ever, for example—reflect our Trump-styled tribalism. After all, in construing Trump as some terrible anomaly in U.S. presidential history, we implicitly trivialize unconscionable crimes to which American presidents have subjected foreigners (to say nothing of people here) in the past: radiation testing in the Marshall Islands, the destabilization of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in East Timor, the murderous sanctioning of Iraq, and disastrous regime change in Libya, to name several.

That we would overlook the longstanding lethality of the American Empire speaks to our perilous self-absorption, currently manifested in our thinly veiled sense that oligarchic authoritarianism is something that is not supposed to happen to us. For years we shrugged as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment bankrolled oligarchs and authoritarians all over the world, committing unspeakable crimes with little pushback from their patrons in Washington. For years, too, we “spat in the faces” of starving foreigners, contributing almost nothing to the effort to relieve suffering abroad. In short, our parochial worldview—the sort for which we condemn Trump—got the better of us.

If we wish to prove that Trump’s tribalism is truly anathema to everything we represent, we will need to change our behavior, finally expanding our moral community to incorporate those outside the American tribe. As part of that process, we should broaden our fight against inequality, working to highlight and eliminate the hardships that affect millions in other countries. To that end, let us use resources like GiveWell.org to support highly effective social action organizations. Let us also back politicians who favor life-saving development aid and who, in their resistance to all authoritarianism, oppose U.S. taxpayer assistance to Trump-like tyrants in such places as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda. If we don’t, then perhaps we really are not so different from the tribalists we castigate.

 

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