Just when you thought American politics couldn't get any more tribal.
Growing up, I spent every holiday down in southern Virginia with my mother’s family. Christmases, Thanksgivings, Fourths of July—all were commemorated by weekends of parties, dinners, and barbecues that were attended by every member of my extended family from first cousins to my great aunt’s weird third husband. It being the South, there were predictably some people who hated Bill Clinton and the Democrats, and some who loved him. But it was the holidays, we all loved each other (some more than others), and we put these differences aside to see our family and friends.
In the era of Trump, Breitbart, and the MAGA set, it seems as if familial cordiality is becoming a thing of the past for many. America has always been ruled by political tribalism to some degree or another, but the divisions have been kicked up to 11 since the 2016 election, with no signs of being cranked down anytime soon.
The evidence of this is (of course) on social media. On Tuesday, popular pro-Trump Twitter account @Education4Libs tweeted out, “I just saved a bunch of money on Christmas presents by sharing my political views on Facebook,” a sentiment that subsequently went viral, with more than 2,700 retweets. Obviously the original post was meant to be (at least partially) satirical, but as beloved cool guy of online @RandyGDub pointed out, it precipitated thousands of replies from @Education4Libs’s fellow Trumpers, many of whom seemed gleeful that their breathless support of America’s big wet leader has alienated them from their loved ones:
There are a surprising amount of replies like this, most of them incredibly sad. Political tribalism (particularly the “worth it to own the libs” brand of tribalism) has become so ingrained in our psyches that it seems normal to purposefully start fights with loved ones out of a misplaced allegiance to a deluded and vicious game show host who wouldn’t piss on his supporters if they were on fire.
Trickle-down economics may be a big pile of Reagan-era bullshit, but trickle-down Trumpism seems to be a startlingly real factor behind this rise in manic tribalist behavior. Trump’s identity, and his style of governance, is based on highly polarized divisiveness and outspoken feuding. In just the past few weeks, he has started extremely public fights with everyone from NFL player Marshawn Lynch to basketball dad LaVar Ball to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The unifying factor in the Trump attacks is a complete scorched-earth strategy: The NFL should enforce his suggestions or face total boycott. Ball should be thanking Trump on both knees for keeping his son out of Chinese prison. There is no room for nuance or compromise or even just not talking politics—either you’re with Trump, or fuck you. And now his supporters are bringing this philosophy into their own lives.
Now, to say this is entirely a result of Trump would be a lie—right-wing and conservative outlets have been pushing this strategy for a long time, and moguls like Rupert Murdoch and his crony Roger Ailes deserve more blame than most. But Trump inarguably accelerated this divide at a rate unseen before in our politics—a divide that seems increasingly difficult to bridge. How do you build a productive dialogue when people seem willing to throw anything they hold dear under the bus—friends, family, career—for President Big Boy?
During the campaign, Trump said, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." I used to think that statement was hyperbolic, but it seems more and more likely to be true. Fuck, he might just do it to prove himself right. (I can hear him now telling Steve Doucey he’s never even been on Fifth Avenue.) I never had many Trump-supporting friends on Facebook to begin with, but the few I did have spent the last year systemically antagonizing everyone they knew, almost challenging them to sever ties. By way of a fun example, here is the kid who sold a bunch of my friends pot in high school:
Imagine trying to have this kid (now an adult, despite the nature of the above post) to Thanksgiving dinner. How do you engage with someone who doesn’t just not care if their aggressive political stances upset you, but wants you to get upset—someone for whom “this makes people upset” is actually the whole reason to have that stance in the first place?
Conservatives are of course not the only guilty parties here —many on the left have consciously uncoupled from relatives and friends following the election of America’s Special Guy. (I personally cut ties with an old coworker who sent me a bunch of racist stuff on election night as a way to gloat.) But the gleeful attitude of some of these Trump supporters is still a hell of a thing to see. It’s supposed to be sad when we can’t bring ourselves to sit down to a meal with people we disagree with. Politics isn’t supposed to be this toxic.
So what is the way forward? How do we bring disciples of such a deluded school of thought back to the table (both literally and figuratively)? To be completely honest, I have no idea. My sincere hope is that this represents some kind of fugue state that has overtaken American society—the type of collective sadistic psychosis that could drive otherwise sane people to burn all of their most important bridges for no personal gain. Or maybe this is just what conservatism has become. I don’t know. I just want to eat dinner.
K.T. Nelson tweets as Krang.