interesting times

When Two Tribes Go to War

To Trump’s supporters, even a Republican like Mueller is suddenly suspect. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The problem with tribalism is that it knows no real limiting principle.

It triggers a deep and visceral response: a defense of the tribe before all other considerations. That means, in its modern manifestation, that the tribe comes before the country as a whole, before any neutral institutions that get in its way, before reason and empiricism, and before the rule of law. It means loyalty to the tribe — and its current chief — is enforced relentlessly. And this, it seems to me, is the underlying reason why the investigation into Russian interference in the last election is now under such attack and in such trouble. In a tribalized society, there can be no legitimacy for an independent inquiry, indifferent to tribal politics. In this fray, no one is allowed to be above it.

On the face of it, of course, no one even faintly patriotic should object to investigating how a foreign power tried to manipulate American democracy, as our intelligence agencies have reported. And yet one party is quite obviously doing all it can to undermine such a project — even when it is led by a Republican of previously unimpeachable integrity, Robert Mueller. Tribalism does not spare the FBI; it cannot tolerate an independent Department of Justice; it sees even a Republican like Mueller as suspect; and it sees members of another tribe as incapable of performing their jobs without bias.

The release of the Nunes memo is just the latest, deeply dangerous manifestation of this. Congressman Nunes saw his task, from the get-go, not as investigating the underlying issue as a congressman concerned with the integrity of elections, but as finding a way to protect his tribal chieftain, Donald Trump, from suspicions that his own campaign might have invited such intervention, or that he might have obstructed justice to stymie Mueller’s inquiry. The entire concept of digging fairly into the facts to discover exactly what relationship, if any, the Trump campaign had with agents of the Russian government is close to meaningless to Nunes. So is any cooperation with Democrats or waiting until the full investigation is finished. More to the point, all this is meaningless to the Republican base as well. Their tribal chief has said there was no Russian interference and no collusion, and that’s all they need to know.

And since they already know the truth, the only point of such an investigation must be an Establishment attack on their own tribe, right? Before too long, even Jeff Sessions was regarded as a traitor, by recusing himself from intervention in the matter. Ditto Rod Rosenstein, another Republican pressured to give Trump personal, and not institutional, loyalty at the DOJ. Mueller himself, of course, is now described by his fellow Republicans as an agent of the deep state, mired in liberal sabotage. James Comey was summarily fired, and even Trump’s handpicked FBI chief, Christopher Wray, is now suspect, because he believes the Nunes memo is deeply misleading and may even compromise national security. The FBI had to be intending to frame Trump, after all, when it surveilled Carter Page’s troubling contacts with Moscow. What other reason could there be? And the media’s reporting of any of these developments is, of course, “fake news” born out of a conspiracy so vast that, well, take it away, Newt: “The elite media group has survived by being in collusion with the senior bureaucracy, the city of Washington, the senior reporters, the senior bureaucrats, the senior lobbyists, they all hang out together, they all talk to each other, they all compare notes.”

Note the C-word. If Trump is accused of collusion, the gambit is to accuse the FBI, the media, and the DOJ of some sort of “collusion” as well. If Trump is exposed as evading the rule of law, so now must the Justice Department and the FBI be seen as undermining it. The logic here is pure Roy Cohn. Bret Stephens made a devastating and completely unanswerable point this week about how differently the GOP would react if these attempts to evade or obstruct justice had been made by a President Hillary Clinton — but to the tribal mind, none of that matters. And the tactics Cohn once deployed are now all around us: throw back the exact same charges you’re facing against those investigating you. Invent a conspiracy theory to rival a collusion theory. Throw sand in everyone’s eyes. Get your allegations out first, in as inflammatory and scandalous a way as possible. Ransack people’s private lives and communications to more effectively demonize them.

Dominate the news cycles. Do anything to muddy the conflict and to sow suspicion. Lie, if you have to. Exercise not the slightest concern for the stability of the system as a whole — because tribe comes first. Trump, to make things worse, sees no distinction between the tactics he deployed as a private citizen in lawsuits for decades and the tactics he is deploying as president, because he has no conception of a presidency committed first of all to the long-term maintenance of the system rather than the short-term pursuit of personal interest. He simply cannot see the value of institutions that might endure through time, under both parties, as a way to preserve objective fact-finding and the neutral enforcement of justice. All he sees is his own immediate interest, as filtered through his malignant narcissism. Some thought this might change when he became president and realized the gravity of the office. We know now how delusional that idea was.

Many commentators, of course, see all these various gambits at obstructing justice as endangering Trump, as Mueller closes in. Some believe that the public reaction to this overreach will be punishing, especially if serious wrongdoing emerges, and that impeachment could follow. I’m afraid I don’t see this. In fact, I see tribalism deepening and the constitutional crisis intensifying. It’s quite clear now that the GOP has thrown itself in completely with the Trump movement. (Paul Ryan is pledging to “cleanse” the FBI!) The tax bill has become proof, in their eyes, of the potential success of this strategy. They think they can hold back a Democratic wave in November by rallying the tribe behind their leader, and by giving an economy at peak employment a stimulus of over $1 trillion in tax cuts. And, for all their cynicism and fiscal irresponsibility, they may be right.

Since the tax law passed, the Democratic lead in the generic congressional polling has been more than halved from 13 points to a mere 6. Trump’s own approval ratings were negative 20 points in mid-December. Now they are negative 15. Still terrible, I know, but it’s the direction I’m concerned about. Pretty soon, most middle-class workers will also find their take-home pay slightly higher because of the tax law — while Democrats repeatedly told them they would get nothing. In December, according to the Monmouth poll, only 26 percent supported the GOP’s tax legislation. Now that number is 44 percent — a pretty staggering leap. As I recently noted, wages in manufacturing and construction are also finally moving upward. If you keep an eight-year recovery going artificially — through massive deregulation and tax cuts — the very bottom of the workforce is going to feel the dividends simply because of supply and demand. And they will react accordingly.

Check out this AP story on reactions to the slight pay gains: “Wayne Love, who works in managed care in Spring Hill, Florida, got an extra $200 in his paycheck last week, which he said will help offset a $300 increase in the cost of his health insurance. ‘I have heard time and again that the middle class is getting crumbs, but I’ll take it!’ Love said by email.” How many more people are going to feel the same way in the coming months?

There’s also a chance that the first-quarter numbers for growth this year could be dramatically higher than the last quarter: the Atlanta Fed just predicted a growth rate of 5.4 percent. Can you imagine how shamelessly Trump will tout that? I think these tax cuts are extraordinarily fiscally irresponsible, and are already creating a bubble. But if the bubble doesn’t burst before Election Day this year, whatever Mueller finds may well be moot. There isn’t a crime the Trump administration might have committed that will lead to any consequences in a Congress where either chamber has a Republican majority.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ tribalism has also deepened. They picked an iconic tribal name to present their response to the SOTU, Joe Kennedy, and his speech had the failed theme that Hillary Clinton tried out last year: “stronger together.” Beneath that façade was the usual shout-out to the various identity groups who now dominate the Democratic discourse: He praised those pledging to “tear down” a future wall on the southern border; he endorsed Black Lives Matter; he cited the left-feminist women’s marches; he spoke directly in excellent Spanish, as if to taunt Republicans concerned about a changing culture; he invoked #MeToo (ballsy for a Kennedy, I know); he even gave a shout-out to the parents of transgender kids. The Rainbow Coalition is now ever more indistinguishable from mainstream Democratic politics, as the Dems find themselves defending more porous borders, and designating any position to the right of them on immigration as “racist.” Race in general is a theme that is deepening: “In 2011, Democrats agreed that generations of slavery and discrimination have made it difficult for black people to experience upward mobility by a net 15 points (i.e., 15 percent more Democrats agreed than disagreed with that statement). In 2016, that more than doubled to 38 points.” And this is happening as the GOP becomes ever more the party of whites and men.

We are in a different zero-sum political world. This is a tribal scorched-earth war, underpinned by racial and gender divides, thriving regardless of the consequences for our democratic institutions, discourse, and way of life. And if we once thought with confidence that one tribe would come back in the midterms, and somehow moderate this, we may be forced soon to reconsider. I know my pessimism is deep. I just long for evidence that it is misplaced.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

It was interesting to see last week that the political journalist Ryan Lizza, formerly of The New Yorker, was reinstated by CNN as a commentator after a six-week investigation of a charge of sexual misconduct against him. I mention this because it appears to be the first case in which someone summarily fired and disgraced in the sex panic of last year has subsequently been cleared of all charges by a cautious news organization with absolutely no interest in getting on the wrong side of the workplace-harassment debate.

So what exactly happened? It seems we’ll never know. Lizza (a former colleague and friend) was first impugned by the anonymous spreadsheet, the Shitty Media Men list, as the purveyor of “creepy DMs.” But we still have no idea what those DMs might have contained. We also don’t know what Lizza was actually charged with at The New Yorker; who made the accusation; and how The New Yorker was able to conclude that Lizza had to be dismissed within days, while a six-week investigation by CNN found nothing incriminating. All of this remains in a haze. I’ll just note that the coverage of Lizza’s sacking was massive; his reinstatement barely got a mention in Erik Wemple’s Washington Post blog. A cloud still therefore hangs over his reputation, fairly or unfairly. Guilty until proven innocent seems to be the guiding principle here. For anyone concerned with simple due process — and the prevention of real sexual harassment — this should be worrying.

The Delinquent President

A while back, as so many on the right pooh-poohed the idea that Trump was a threat to the Constitution, I asked if there were circumstances in which he might simply refuse to enforce the law as written by the Congress, if the margin were veto-proof. He had largely obeyed various court rulings, which was a relief, even if he routinely demonized individual judges and courts. But we had only one instance of the Congress passing a measure by such a huge margin that he had no wiggle room but to do something he didn’t want to do. That instance was a renewed tightening of sanctions against Russia that passed the Congress by veto-proof margins in the wake of the unprecedented attack on our democracy by the Russian government in 2016. The law passed by a majority of 98–2 in the Senate and by 419–3 in the House. Trump grumpily signed it.

Then, we found out this week, the president did nothing to follow through. He simply ignored the law, as I suspected he would. Senator McCaskill called it a constitutional crisis. Strictly speaking, it isn’t, because the law included a provision that the president could make exceptions at his discretion if he believed national security was at stake. So technically, Trump is in the clear. But more broadly? The intent of the law could not have been clearer: a near-unanimous congressional signal that the U.S. took Russian meddling in its own elections to be a major breach that would lead to serious consequences. The Trump administration subsequently simply refused to perform this constitutional duty. Trump is characterologically incapable of taking instructions from anyone, including Congress. His White House even made a mockery of the intent of the law by hurriedly publishing a list of oligarchs it might sanction — by cribbing it off a Forbes magazine article! And this all came to light immediately after the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, announced that Russia was once again gearing up to intervene in the midterm elections as well. Is Trump taking this threat seriously — or is he quietly hoping the Russians will help the GOP?

This may seem a minor matter. Except it isn’t. A massive attack on our democracy took place in the last election. Nothing, so far as we can see, has been done by this administration to prevent this in the future. The Congress’s bid to punish Moscow has now been sidelined by a president unwilling to perform his constitutional duties. When the president is already suspected of having had ties with the Russian government during an election when that government tried to tilt the results to Trump, his refusal to obey Congress’s specific intent to punish Moscow is more than troubling. Can we truly expect this presidency to exist within the framework the Founders constructed? Can we trust our elections anymore? Or is tribalism getting closer and closer to something we used to call treason?

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: When Two Tribes Go to War