Trump Supporter Tribalism

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, 2016.

Strangers in Their Own Land was helpful to me in terms of being able to attain a better understanding of the mindset of Trump supporters. Hochschild, a retired sociologist from University of California at Berkeley, carried out the interviews that form the basis of this book in order to try to understand why Trump supporters would, seemingly, vote against their own self interests. Her book is based on interviews with about 60 Trump supporters who live in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana. This sample is too restricted to allow us to generalize the findings to the entire nationwide population of Trump supporters. [Note 1] Nevertheless, there is at least one characteristic that emerges from these interviews that probably does generalize to many Trump supporters, tribalism, and it is that topic I want to address in this essay.

Humans evolved within small social groups of hunter-gatherers. Survival depended on in-group cohesiveness and cooperation, and also on the capacity to deal harshly and violently with out-groups during inter-group conflicts. Thus it is not surprising that one psychological trait that evolved in humans is tribalism, a differential attitude towards and treatment of others depending upon whether the individual is identified as being a member of one’s in-group or of an out-group. For example, obnoxious behaviors that  can easily lead to confrontation, even violence, when exhibited by a stranger (a member of an out-group) are more often than not tolerated when performed by a relative or friend (a member of our in-group). Most of us have probably seen examples of this when watching sporting events. Some particular behavior performed by a member of “the other team” leads to angry boos and accusations of being unsportsmanlike, but when a similar behavior is performed by a member of “our team”, it is greeted with cheers and admiration.

As I will delineate below, this human characteristic of tribalism can account for many aspects of Trump supporters attitudes. However, lest I give a wrong impression that tribalism affects only Trump supporters, I will start by giving an example of the operation of tribalism in a different political context.

I was an academic professor during the 1970’s through the 1990’s, and as such I was highly influenced by ethical principles advocated by radical feminists regarding sexual relationships between professors and their students. It was argued that in order to be ethical, sexual relationships need to be between freely consenting adults, and that sexual relations between professors and their students could never meet this standard due to the fact that professors have power over students. For example, a professor wields power to assign grades and make recommendations that are needed for the student’s future career advancement.

As a professor I observed, and sometimes participated in, academic proceedings in which instructors were censored or otherwise punished for having engaged in sexual activities with students. The question as to whether the relationship was “consensual” was not even allowed to be considered during these proceedings. The simple fact that sexual activities occurred was sufficient to charge a professor with unethical behavior. [NOTE 2]

For these reasons, I fully expected radical feminists to strongly condemn President Bill Clinton, one of the most powerful men on the planet, when it was discovered that he had engaged in sexual activities with a young intern. I was shocked and dismayed when many prominent feminists came to Clinton’s defense, arguing that he had done nothing unethical because the sexual relationship had been “consensual”. One of the lessons I learned from watching these events play out is that tribalism trumps (pun intended) most everything else.  Clinton, part of an in-group that was supportive of many facets of the radical feminist agenda (Democratic Party) was perceived as being attacked by an out-group that was hostile to this same agenda (Republican Party). Under these conditions ethical standards that had been carefully articulated, defended, and enforced for decades were quickly jettisoned.

Based on my reading of Strangers in Their Own Land, it seems likely that something similar has happened with many Trump supporters. Many of these supporters realize, to a greater or lessor extent, that the policies and actions of the Trump Administration are not ones that are aligned with their own self interests. But they do not care! (any more than radical feminists cared whether the sexual relationship between Clinton and the intern was freely consensual.) What does matter for Trump supporters is that a despised out-group (liberal, progressive, elitist, blue state voters who supported Obama) has had the upper hand for the past several years. Members of that out-group are perceived as having been arrogant and often exhibiting condescending attitudes towards the kinds of people who are Trump supporters. After years of perceived suffering at that hands of that out-group, a presidential candidate, Trump, comes along who seems powerful enough to beat up on the out-group and get revenge. Nothing else matters.

I draw two politically relevant implications from this. The first is that arguments about facts, including arguments trying to demonstrate to Trump supporters that they are supporting a candidate whose policies are contrary to their own self interests, are futile. Second, that mass demonstrations against the Trump administration or its policies are likely to be counterproductive if the goal is to convince Trump supporters to abandon him. There are many laudable reasons to participate in such demonstrations, but we should do so with the realization that the demonstrations themselves are probably counterproductive in terms of changing minds of current Trump supporters. Since many Trump supporters are motivated primarily by a sense of tribalism, few events give them as much satisfaction as seeing hundreds of thousands of the despised out-group seemingly having “got their shorts in a knot” because of Trump.

Ron Boothe, psyrgb@emory.edu

NOTES

  1. There appear to be a number of identifiable (although somewhat overlapping) subgroups of Trump supporters. The interviewees in this book appear to be mostly what can be characterized as “Company Town Supporters”, a group whose jobs and economic well-being depend on corporations associated with a particular industry. The dependence of Louisiana on oil has created a loyalty to oil corporations in spite of their known flaws, and this loyalty is enhanced by a deep distrust of government agencies, especially environmental protection agencies, and towards environmentalists in general who are perceived as being hostile to the oil industry. A second group of supporters can be characterized as “Anti-government Property Owners”. This group is especially well represented among farmers and ranchers in the western and southern states as well as small business owners across many areas of the country. The primary sentiment of this group is that government should only play a minimal, unobtrusive role in terms of what private property owners are allowed to do on their own properties, or in terms of regulating the practices of business operators. A third group are religious Christian conservatives for whom issues such as a promise to appoint supreme court justices who will restrict abortion trump (pun intended) all other political issues. Closely related are Christian fundamentalists who, even though they dislike many of Trump’s policies, support him because he is thought to be God’s mechanism for starting a war in the Middle East that prophesies predict will bring on Armageddon and lead to The Rapture. Finally, there are various groups of ideologues and white supremacist racists who are motivated primarily by animosity towards the Obama presidency and support Trump because he is likely to try to dismantle large portions of Obama’s legacy.
  2. This is analogous to the argument that child molestation cannot be justified based on a claim that the sexual relationship was consensual. Children are not in a position that allows them to offer free consent.
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About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2017 Selections, Strangers in Their Own Land and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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