The Tribalism that Divides: “the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true”

Jonna Ivin’s long-form effort to understand the rise of TrumplandiaI Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump—investigates an important question about political allegiances in the U.S.:

There is an unavoidable question about places like Benton County, a question many liberals have tried to answer for years now: Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?

The election of Trump has spurred a seemingly endless debate about -isms: racism and nationalism prominent, but rarely evoked but enveloping of both, tribalism.

Of these three -isms, discussions of racism remain taboo, sparking often white denial; nationalism draws both support and criticism; yet, as I noted, tribalism tends to be unspoken in the context of the U.S.

As a life-long U.S. citizen old enough to have witnessed the irrational national hatred of the USSR and Russia morph into a right-wing embracing of Russia based significantly on race, I am struck now by the tribalism central to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a fictional examination of the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70.

“In 1967, Colonel Ojukwu declared that Eastern Nigeria would be known as the Independent Republic of Biafra. The main intentions of Colonel Ojukwu were to break away from the dictatorship of the Northern Nigeria Military who were immensely discriminating the people of Southern and Eastern Nigeria.” Cole Kirkpatrick

Adichie dramatizes the power of language, education, and tribes to drive power distributions. However, the U.S. version of tribalism is segregation—both de jure and de facto—that tends to fall along racial and economic lines.

Trump and his administration has fueled a growing genre of which Ivin’s essay is among the more powerful, although ultimately inadequate—the best trying to deconstruct white voters (often narrowed to working class and/or poor white voters), but the worst masking apologist journalism uncritically blinded by its own whitewashing.

Like J.D. Vance’s deeply flawed Hillbilly Elegy, Ivin’s piece is a sympathetic read of whites in the U.S., although much more blunt than Vance about the fact of racism running through angry poor whites, captured in her refrain: “I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.

As someone with white working-class roots nurtured in racist soil who eventually focused a great deal of scholarship and professional work on the intersections of inequity (poverty and racism) and education, I recognize that while poverty can and should unite, individual and systemic racism trumps common economic interests among impoverished whites in the U.S.

Yes, Ivin asks the right question, noted above, but her piece ultimately fails because it balks at holding poor whites accountable for being coerced into racism by the power elites; Ivin seems to see only two options: sympathy for poor whites or demonizing poor whites.

And, Ivin’s essay devolves into a Bernie Sanders plea, Sanders and his campaign a model of the ultimate failures of whitewashed socialism.

Partisan politics, like religion, is trapped in tribalism, subsets of the larger urges toward creating us versus them* in everything humans touch. Ivin and others seeking to understand angry white voters simply fail to address that ultimately those committed to tribalism (as nationalism and racism) above all else must be confronted, and held accountable.

Yes, the power elites who speak to and prime tribalism are the core problem, one that must be dismantled. Yet, to continue to sympathize with angry poor whites as if they remain more important than racial minorities is to whitewash that poor whites benefit from white racism (in the judicial system, for example), and that even though poor whites are pawns of political elites, they have the potential to assert their autonomy in order to acknowledge systemic racism and then reject racism in order to form economic solidarity.

So allow me to end with the sort of distinctions we need instead of clamoring to understand the angry poor white character.

Recently, I was confronted by a fellow academic who argued that whites voting in majorities (both men and women) for Trump cannot be called racist unless we also label as racist overwhelming majorities of blacks voting for Barack Obama.

This proves to be a false analogy if we step back from simple race to inspect the intent behind the votes. One of the most powerful aspects of Ivin’s essay is that she unpacks the racial and then racist motivations historically of many whites, again even as they are being baited by people with power.

There is much to suggest that Trump support is grounded in white fear of losing the exact privilege they deny ( a fear masked as “traditional values” and other nationalistic/tribal language); conversely, black support of Obama or other so-called progressives is a quest for equity.

“Conservative” (a tribal urge) is to keep things as the are; “progressive” is to seek change, ideally change for the benefit of all.

While demographics of  partisan political support are racial, we must confront that racial can be racist (white support of Trump) or about equity (black support of Obama).

Trump support among whites is a contemporary example of the historical pattern Ivin exposes, notably instilling fear of black men in poor whites during reconstruction: “Religious and political leaders began using a combination of fear, sex, and God to paint a chilling picture of freed angry Black men ravaging the South.”

The Lost Cause Worse Than Slavery
Thomas Nast
October 24, 1874
Reproduced from Harper’s Weekly

Trump’s dog whistles about Mexicans and terrorists, and getting tough on crime (code for policing blacks) are warmed over racism from the late nineteenth century—tactics that have worked for more than a century for political and economic elites.

Trumplandia is nothing new, and white angst need not be examined in order for us to understand it. These are all old hat for the U.S.

What would be new is an honest confrontation of tribalism in the U.S. and an honest effort to dismantle systemic racism in the name of social and economic justice.


* “Ignoreland,” R.E.M.: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true.”

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