Last week, President Obama became the target of mockery when he descended into Porky Pig protestations at the divisiveness of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. After tripping over his words while trying to gain his footing, Obama finally settled on a line of attack: “If we turn against each other based on divisions of race or religion, if we fall for a bunch of ‘okey doke’ just because it sounds funny or the tweets are provocative, then we’re not going to build on the progress we started.”
Meanwhile, across the country, likely Obama supporters rioted at a Trump event in San Jose, Calif., waving Mexican flags, burning American ones, assaulting Trump supporters, and generally engaging in mayhem.
The same day, Trump labeled a judge presiding over his civil trial as unfit for his job. “I’m building a wall,” said Trump. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest.” What, pray tell, was that inherent conflict of interest? Trump said that the judge was “Mexican” (he was born in Indiana, to Mexican parents).
Two days later, Trump told Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, “Barack Obama has been a terrible president, but he’s been a tremendous divider. He has divided this country from rich and poor, black and white — he has divided this country like no president in my opinion, almost ever . . . I will bring people together.”
So, who’s right?
They’re both right. Obama, like it or not, leads a coalition of tribes. Trump, like it or not, leads a competing coalition of tribes. The Founders weep in their graves.
The Founders were scholars of both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes argued that the state of nature — primitive society — revolved around a war of “every man against every man.” In such a state, life was awful: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The only solution to such chaos, said Hobbes, was the Leviathan: the state, which is “but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and in which, the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.”
Hobbesian theory has prevailed throughout human history: Tribal societies either remain in a constant state of war with each other, or they are overthrown by a powerful government. Jared Diamond writes that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace.” Those strong central governments often arise, says Francis Fukuyama, thanks to the advent of religion, which unites tribes across family boundaries. The rise of powerful leadership leads to both tyranny and to peace.
The Founders were scholars of both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
But in Western societies, such tyranny cannot last. After generations of tyranny — after tribalism gives way to Judeo-Christian teachings enforced through government — citizens begin to question why a tyrant is necessary. They begin to ask John Locke’s question: In a state of nature, we had rights from one another; what gives the tyrant power to invade those rights? Is prevention of violence a rationale for full government control, or were governments created to protect our rights? Our Founders came down on the side of Locke; as they stated in the Declaration of Independence, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
But the Founders still feared tribalism. They called it “faction” in The Federalist Papers, and were truly worried about the seizure of the mechanism of government in order to benefit one group over another. They may have agreed with Locke over Hobbes about the proper extent of government power, but they never believed that tribalism had disappeared. That is why they attempted to create a government pitting faction against faction, cutting the Gordian knot of tyranny and tribalism with checks and balances. As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
It was a brilliant solution to an intractable problem — so long as it worked.
It no longer does. Tribalism has had its revenge.
It began with the decline of American religion in the 1950s. As religion declined, Americans looked for new sources of community — and in the 1960s, the Marxist Left provided Americans communal meaning in ethnic and racial solidarity. Even as America began to move beyond its historic racism, the Left hijacked the conversation around race and divvied Americans up into subgroups of ethnic haves and have-nots. City governments became playgrounds for racial factions taking control of government and expanding their power. Student groups divided along racial and sexual lines. The social fabric frayed.
The unrest of the 1960s and 1970s provoked a law-and-order backlash — a desire for a government that would tamp down the unrest and restore order. For three decades, Americans rejected tribalism as a mode of politics (Ronald Reagan believed in universal human freedoms, and Bill Clinton famously rejected Sister Souljah’s race-baiting). Not surprisingly, the rejection of 1960s tribalism ushered in an era of smaller government dedicated toward the proposition that constitutional checks and balances were the best protection against tyranny.
And then came the Obama presidency.
President Obama’s tribal politics have crippled America. Americans hoped that Obama — after campaigning on the notion that he would provide the capstone to America’s non-tribalism — would heal our wounds and move our country beyond racial politics. He, in his own persona, was to be a racial unifier. He represented the hope that America could reject tribalism in favor of American universalism.
Instead, Obama has rejected checks and balances as a matter of principle, and has used tribalism to grow his own power. By cobbling together a coalition of racial and ethnic interest groups, Obama knew he could maximize the power of the government to act on their behalf. And so his Department of Justice has crippled police departments based solely on the race of police officers. He constantly suggests that America has an inborn, unfixable problem with racism. He poses as a rejection of the Founding ideology.
Donald Trump is the counter-reaction. But he is not a Reaganesque or even Bill Clinton-esque counter-reaction. He, like Obama, is tribal. His tribalism is the tribalism of Pat Buchanan, who suggested in 2011 what appears to be Donald Trump’s electoral strategy: “to increase the GOP share of the white Christian vote and increase the turnout of that vote by specific appeals to social, cultural, and moral issues, and for equal justice for the emerging white minority.”
“Why should Republicans be ashamed to represent the progeny of the men who founded, built, and defended America since her birth as a nation?” Buchanan asked, concluding that “white anger is a legitimate response to racial injustices done to white people.” Instead of attempting to set checks and balances to prevent faction, instead of attempting to educate Americans in our Founding principles, this philosophy focuses on tribalism of a different sort, making the crucial error of linking skin color to culture.
And so we may have reached the end of the era of small government. As tribalism rises, Americans look again to the strongman. We begin the cycle anew. But first, we feel the rage of riots in San Jose and Ferguson, and the spiteful glee of the white-nationalist alt-right. We watch contests between tribal figures like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We wonder which tribe will win, even as America disintegrates before us.