As Election Day draws nearer, reports of violent rhetoric at rallies for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump have reached a fever pitch.
“If she’s [Hillary Clinton’s] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, told reporters from The Boston Globe. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take. . . . I would do whatever I can for my country.”
This is the kind of talk that delegitimizes the democratic process and weakens institutions. It smacks of treason. It is an effort to sew the seeds of civil war. It is unlike anything we’ve heard during a presidential campaign. It doesn’t just acknowledge the possibility of violence, it revels in it.
And if you read war correspondent Sebastien Junger’s recent book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” it also makes perfect sense.
Junger’s book is a short examination of how war creates a sense of altruism in modern societies that have moved away from a traditional sense of community and solidarity, instead alienating the individual from the collective. In turning Hillary Clinton into an evil enemy — not just a political opponent — Trump has taken a group of people who felt disconnected from society and given them a cause and an identity.
You see, Clinton made a mistake when she called half of Trump supporters deplorables. Not because she was wrong about their intolerant, anti-democratic nature, but because she gave them a name. In giving them a name she participated in the crystallization of their identity as people of the same, violent tribe.
War, what is it good for?
“We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — tribes,” Junger wrote in his book. “This tribal nature has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the the key to our psychological survival.”
Junger begins his book with the premise that modern society breeds isolation. It’s not a new thought. Sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel discussed this at length over a century ago as the industrial revolution turned people around the world from farmers in small communities into faceless masses in crowded cities.
In those cities, and in modern society, Simmel wrote in his 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Modern Life,” an individual’s life is transactional, not emotional. Goods made by unknown hands are sold to unknown customers. Anonymity makes it an intellectual, entirely unemotional transaction.
This is stark contrast to small communities where individuals know each other, make things for each other, and feel an identity as part of a larger whole. In the essay, Simmel compared modern life to ancient Athens.
War is stressful. War is painful. It keeps people on edge. It forces people to compromise their freedoms for the good of the collective. Yet, as Junger points out in his book, the pain and compromises of war can lead to that sense of being part of a larger whole. Junger pointed out that some survivors of the Balkan wars that he covered as a correspondent in the 1990s look back on that frightening period as some of the best times they lived. Suicide actually decreased in London during the terror of the German Blitzkrieg in World War II.
The common threat forced people to forget about the individual and live as a collective — a collective where people shared and cared for one another, a collective with a mission.
Donald Trump is now using a similar method to unite his followers. A Clinton presidency is the “incessant threat” Trump has created to melt away the individual and generate an emotional, unshakable loyalty among his followers. The bigger the threat, of course, the fiercer that loyalty becomes.
Of course, Trump could not have done this if his followers didn’t already feel especially isolated, left alone to face the injustices of modern society.
His mostly white, male working class supporters haven’t seen their wages go up materially in decades. They have seen their jobs sent overseas without any thought of the downside of globalization and its impact on their communities. None of the rich bankers that caused the global financial crisis went to jail.
This feeling of alienation has been well documented, and manipulated by Trump, since the beginning of the campaign.
“Cheryl Burns, 60, was on a road trip from California when she heard that Trump would be in Alabama. She turned her car around and got in line, warning people of what happened to states when liberals took them over.
‘There is no more California,’ Burns said. ‘It’s now international, lawless territory. Everything is up for grabs. Illegal aliens are murdering people there. People are being raped. Trump isn’t lying about anything — the rest of the country just hasn’t found out yet.'”
Trump has said the same kind of thing.
“We’re running on fumes,” he said during a speech in August 2015. “There’s nothing here. . . . We’re not going to have a country left. We need to have our borders. We need to make great deals.”
Talk like that not only justifies Trump’s supporters’ sense of alienation, but also offers up a righteous call to act against the forces that have alienated them. What sounds negative and terrifying actually is a way of giving people the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling they have when they watch their football team come back from behind during the fourth quarter — a sense of “tribal” unity against a vicious external enemy.
It is, without question, a high that only new-found acceptance in a community and a sense of altruism can provide. That is what humorist John LeFevre found when he went to the rally.
“Politics aside, I had a lot of fun. It really was inspiring, and I think even a person who doesn’t support Trump would have come away with a similar experience,” he wrote.
He’s wrong about anyone being able to have that experience. These rallies are not about supporting or not supporting Trump. They’re about being welcomed as part of the tribe — supporting him just makes that easier. As does being a white male, like LeFevre.
As Junger said, finding tribes is one of the ways we can save our society from the problems of alienation. But he didn’t look at the downside — that the formation of a tribe may incite violence and create a sense of otherness and division that fractures a society. This is one of those cases. Trump’s is a tribe that threatens the foundations of the republic, and it cannot be allowed to thrive in our country.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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