In most of history, in most of the world, tribalism has held the upper hand over liberalism, or liberalism hasn’t had any presence at all. Liberalism’s foothold in the US is weakening, with Donald Trump as the latest example.
I’m not talking about Democratic vs. Republican politics. By “liberalism,” I mean valuing tolerance, freedom, and reason rather than orthodoxy, authoritarianism, and tradition. It prospers when people who may disagree on important matters recognize that peaceful communication is better than attempts to silence each other. It can be passionate and angry communication, but it at least tries to make a point rather than simply demonize the opposition.
Tribalism divides the world into “us” and “the enemy.” People fall easily into this mindset, and the despised other can have a lot of different names. In the US right now, a popular enemy is people from south of our border and their children. Trump recognizes this and is playing on it. He isn’t as dumb as he acts; people don’t get rich that way. If his statements are incoherent, it’s because he’s pandering to irrationality. Yesterday I saw a Google+ comment saying that people born in the US to illegal immigrant parents should “go back where they came from.” There’s no way to make sense of such thinking.
He’s also playing against the irresistible target which progressivism (not liberalism) has painted on itself by taking offense at anything that differs from their worldview. That’s itself a tribal approach, one that invites attack the way an angry bull invites a red cape. If you can’t win by being the most offended, you can win by being the most offensive, and Trump has made a specialty of being as offensive as possible. Maybe that’s the real reason for his popularity, that he’s facing down the modern Victorians.
Does this mean he’s the new Lenny Bruce? Maybe. Albert Goldman said that Bruce would “take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated.” Sounds a lot like a Trump speech.
A Lenny Bruce leading the presidential polls for one of the two big political parties would be really scary, though, and Trump isn’t getting people to talk about taboos the way Bruce did. The thought of President Trump is nightmarish; even his handing Clinton the election would be preferable. Trump as a stand-up comedian would have been preferable, but either way, the politics of taking offense created an irresistible market for his kind of reaction.