On the Great Seal of the United States we can read the Latin words “e pluribus unum.” From many, one — words expressing America’s fundamental idea. An idea to which schoolchildren make a vow every morning from an early age in many states of the U.S., when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance with hand over heart, as they do during the national anthem. A thought that represents, as written in the pledge, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
To see American children express loyalty to the idea of one integrated nation, of a new homo americanus, descended from the “melting pot” of people of every possible origin, is a moving experience. Only at present, the question would occur to the observer: And what about your parents, children, what’s their situation? Do they speak with their neighbors, and do they yet feel at all at home, like they would in their own country?
In reality there’s not a lot of reason to feel so touched by the endearing patriotism of American children. Adult America, you see, is split and torn by argument and resembles a united nation less and less. To insist that the current president, Donald Trump, is to blame would be unfair, a bit of “fake news.” Trump entered when the process was already in motion. But the fact remains that he subsequently became an extraordinarily effective catalyst for further splintering.
Yale law professor and political scientist Amy Chua describes this in her new book. Forget about the myth of the melting pot, stop talking about a single “American identity,” because America is currently a “tribal society,” she writes in “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.”
Chua is famous as an original and provocative author not only in the U.S., but also in the Czech Republic. Her 2011 book, in which she defended raising children in a style that is strict in American — or more generally Western — terms, even a bit militant (in which a child is not taken as an adult in a small body and accorded freedom of decision, but obeys its parents’ wishes), was published in Czech under the title “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, or How I Taught My Children to Win (and Was Defeated in the Process Myself).”
It Started before Trump
Chua’s present book indeed summarizes things since Trump’s arrival on the scene, i.e., since his electoral campaign in 2016. It’s well depicted. His rise and triumph were a revolt, an expression of disillusionment, frustration and the rancor of “white, predominantly male, working-class America.”*
Of an America in which two-thirds of white Americans employed in manufacturing think “that discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” And in which more than half of Trump’s adult voters in the present-day U.S. feel like “foreigners in their own land.”
Whereas the other part of the country — the America of the big cities on both coasts (along with urban nests in the interior) — not only doesn’t understand, but also refuses to admit that it should take notice of those people, of those relics of the past (“white trash”), who can just wither and fall off like a vestigial organ. Trump may have won the election while exploiting the last convulsion of a decaying world, but you can’t stop progress!
Between these enemy “tribes,” as Chua writes, there are such great differences and such negligible interaction that it can be considered its own brand of ethnic division. "The Left believes that right-wing tribalism — bigotry, racism — is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism — identity politics, political correctness — is tearing the country apart,” writes Chua. She adds to her own words: “They are both right.”
It’s no coincidence that she writes in the book about just such a tribal arrangement and about ethnic division. Indeed, as she explains, she originally began to write about something else. About how Americans again and again get into wars abroad while lacking knowledge of the conditions into which they’re going.
From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Libya — the societal divisions in these places have always eluded them. Tribal, ethnic and religious. As a concrete example, Chua says that the U.S. could have solved an array of difficult problems in Afghanistan if it had at least tried to educate itself on the history of coexistence and rivalry between the country’s Pashtuns and Tajiks.
But before Chua could finish the book, along came Trump, and she turned her gaze from overseas to internal U.S. issues. The book itself suffered for it; the seam between the two parts is rather rough. But the common theme flowing through the entire book is a sharp, penetrating insight by the author. In describing the problem and its cause, Chua does not swerve for anything — neither from the left, nor from the right.
In other words, although she herself lives and works among the East Coast elite (she lectures at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where she also lives), she decidedly does not take their side. She strives to present an independent view, i.e., not to disdain the other, conservative, “reactionary” America, and she sees the problems on both sides.
White working-class America is trying to mentally process the immigrant influx of recent decades, because of which it will sooner or later become a minority. It’s afraid economically and culturally, fear which is being remolded into a feeling of being threatened in one's own land and, at the extremes, into intolerance and expressions of racism.
“Whites,” objectively speaking, are still better off economically and socially than “blacks,” but subjectively they don’t feel that way. To the contrary, they see that compared to their parents, their economic growth has slowed and gotten stuck, in contrast to what they’d expected and what society had promised them. They feel that minorities are favored at their expense — at the expense of whites.
Which, on the other side, arouses fears that Trump’s supporters and the president himself question and wish to re-evaluate where the United States has come in recent decades, since the mid-1960s, in terms of racial and civic equality. Liberal America incredulously asks: Do they really want to go back? Do they really want to dismantle laws, rules and hard-won norms that we now take for granted?
The Age of Tribal Identities
One can understand that liberals and minorities are sounding the alarm. But at least one part of the liberal left, as Chua points out, had itself earlier stirred up the fire under the melting pot when it transitioned from fighting for general rights to safeguarding group rights.
Within the framework of this identity politics, liberals began to divide society further into new tribes, e.g., according to sexual orientation, during which time this very category spread to the following row of letters: LGBTQQIAAP. You can find the meaning of the individual letters on the web; defining them would take up too much space here.
All these groups, or tribes, as Chua writes, “have exclusive rights to their own histories, symbols and traditions.” They jealously guard everything in their tribal identity. And if they feel they’re not respected, they label it as incivility, insensitivity, if not downright racism or sexism.
“As a straight white male, I'm the worst thing on Earth,” says Christian Lander, author of the satirical blog "Stuff White People Like," quoted by Chua in her book. With that title, Lander does a good job of describing the state of mind that liberal-left identity politics has currently left white men in.
“While black Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans, and many others are allowed — indeed, encouraged — to feel solidarity and take pride in their racial or ethnic identity, white Americans have for the last several decades been told they must never, ever do so,” Chua writes.
Lander himself evidently maintains a humorous aloofness. But he is rather exceptional in that — others feel indeed elbowed out by society, and in Chua’s view that’s the basic problem. Every force causes a counterforce. A feeling of injustice and frustration has accumulated on the side of whites. And the advent of Trump unleashed it. In the most dangerous form, in demonstrations of white nationalism and racism, as America saw, for instance, during the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
In ordinary, everyday reality, according to Chua, white Americans maintain a nostalgia “for a time when minorities were not so loud, so demanding, so numerous — a time when minorities were more grateful.”
White Americans, Chua writes further, “love the story of America as a land of freedom and opportunity — but they are starting to fear that when minorities become a majority in America, the story will change. History books will be rewritten to depict America as a land of oppression, racism and imperialism.”
One tribe fears the other, which is precisely the situation where neither wants to budge from its position. And both are more likely prepared to counterattack. The reaction of a considerable portion of liberals to Trump and to the “white awakening” of his supporters will be a further shift to the left. Which will in turn confirm the other side in the belief that the left wants to drive it into a corner, culturally speaking … and so on.
“We’re in a vicious circle. Is there any way out?” writes Chua in the conclusion to her book.
Lamely, more out of obligation than anything, she tries to give an optimistic answer; that it doesn’t have to be that bad if people will strive to work from below, for a patient strengthening of a civil society. From the ties of one person to another to a more general bridging of the moats.
But unfortunately, she sounds more realistic when she also warns: “The increasing belief on the left that [the American ideal] was always a lie, or on the right that it has always been true — and has already been achieved — are two sides of the same coin.” She says, “Today’s purveyors of political tribalism, on both left and right, may think they are defending American values, but in fact they are playing with poison.”
A poison that in the Trump era continues to be present in the American melting pot. According to a study published by the Pew Research Center last week, a majority of Trump voters believe that they do not share the same values and aims as those who view him critically. And it’s the same from the other side, only the mirror is turned around. Trump’s critics are mostly convinced that his supporters are somewhere else when it comes to values.
The tribalization of American society — in live coverage.
*Translator’s note: This quotation, accurately translated from the original, could not be verified.