The Corner

Politics & Policy

Us ’n’ Them

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., March 2, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Today on the homepage, I have a brief essay called “The Curse of Identity Politics.” It was motivated by two events yesterday.

Early in the morning, President Trump circulated a video in which a supporter of his yelled “White power!” twice. Later, he took it down. Shortly after the original posting, I went for a walk in a New York City park and happened upon a fierce racial battle (verbal).

Let me relate a few memories, here on the Corner.

The first goes back only to last month — when Trump said, “‘MAGA’ is ‘Make America Great Again.’ By the way, they love African-American people. They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.”

That gave away rather a lot, I thought.

And during the 2016 campaign — at a rally in California — there was that remarkable moment when Trump pointed to a man in the crowd and said, “Look at my African American over here!”

I am a dinosaur, as critics tell me every day (critics on left and right). I believe in the old colorblind faith (although I am hardly naïve, and getting less so by the day). I believe in “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I believe in E pluribus unum.

All that gooey, quaint stuff.

But it is obvious that people want their tribalism, or need it — or are driven to it by something primal. Something “baked in.” I should leave this discussion to the biologists.

Many years ago, I gave a talk at Yale, in which I criticized identity politics and made a pitch for the old ideals. Afterward, I was approached by a young woman: cheerful, bright, and heartbreakingly beautiful. She said she was a Hispanic — a Latina — and that was it. It was her identity, and she wanted it.

What can you do? People are “free to choose,” to borrow an old line.

But let me qualify this — and do so by quoting a paragraph from my piece today:

Some individuals and some groups have tribalism forced on them, at least to a degree, by the tribalism of others. That must be acknowledged. If Smiths are constantly running down Joneses, people named “Jones” are going to feel like Joneses — are going to “identify” that way.

What I know, more than ever, is that leadership matters. We like to think of ourselves as a bottom-up society, not a top-down one. We are a nation of individuals, and little platoons. I don’t know. It seems to me that people take their cues from leaders, for better or worse. Leaders can summon angels: better ones or worse ones.

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” said James Mattis earlier this month. (He is the retired Marine general who served as Trump’s first secretary of defense.) “Instead, he tries to divide us.”

I don’t know about “first president in my lifetime.” But it is certainly true that Trump plays us-and-them politics, as everyone does, to a degree. The question is: What is the degree? Way out there?

As I say in my essay, I know conservatives who refer to “our people.” They mean what some designate as “the white working class,” by and large: good people in the “red states,” unlike bad people in the “blue states,” who attend cocktail parties.

President Obama was no slouch as a divider. In 2012, he ran an ad against the Republican nominee that went, “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” Can’t get starker than that, can you?

Today, Romney is a bête noire of the Right, not of the Left. Political alignments are in frequent motion. They can change faster than the New England weather.

On the subject of identity politics and tribalism, I’m resigned. People want what they want, whether their genes drive them to it or not. But I am not quite defeated. I believe that life can be breathed into E pluribus unum, by people willing to swim against tribalist currents.

I have titled this post “Us ’n’ Them.” I think back to a wonderful moment in the mid 1990s. William J. Bennett gave an interview to The New Yorker. He was criticizing Patrick J. Buchanan, saying that Buchanan was “flirting” with fascism. In the course of describing Buchanan’s worldview, Bennett said, “It’s a real us-and-them kind of thing.”

When the article came out, it had Bennett saying, “It’s a real S&M kind of thing.” The magazine had to run a correction.

Over time, the Republican Party — and the conservative movement along with it — was Buchananized. “The ideas made it,” Pat told Tim Alberta in early 2017, “but I didn’t.”

More Memory Lane? One final jaunt? On October 24, 1999, Tim Russert said to his guest on Meet the Press, “Tomorrow, Pat Buchanan is announcing that he will be a candidate for the presidency.” The guest said, “I just think it’s ridiculous.” Russert asked, “Why?”

“Because — look, he’s a Hitler-lover,” said the guest. “I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy. And maybe he’ll get 4 or 5 percent of the vote and it’ll be a really staunch, Right-wacko vote. I’m not even sure if it’s Right. It’s just a wacko vote. And I just can’t imagine that anybody can take him seriously.”

The guest, of course, was Donald J. Trump. Isn’t politics absolutely amazing?


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