My third reason is that Trump is prone to act like a tribalist — a tribal chieftain or warlord — who is intent on tribalizing others. This was most evident during the campaign — just look at his rallies. It was less evident lately, while he focused on personnel and policy matters. But it was on display yesterday in his very tribal (and tribalizing) inaugural speech. And now that he is in office, it may not take much to trigger his penchant for tribalism, setting Americans against each other and against outsiders. Indeed, to offer an allusion to Trump’s slogan, if he keeps arousing malignant tribalism, far from making America “great”, he will instead make it “grate” again.
Americans are not used to thinking in terms of tribes, tribalism, or tribalization. Mostly we use other words about how people get divided up — words like race, ethnicity, and identity, or words like partisans, factions, gangs, and fans. These are good words too, but once you get the hang of thinking and analyzing in terms of the tribal form, the T words become more illuminating.
I write a lot about the tribal form — tribes, the “T” form — as a result of coming up with the TIMN framework about past, present, and future social evolution. So maybe I should say a little to clarify that, before applying it to Trump’s psyche.
Reminder about TIMN theory:
In brief, TIMN theory finds that, over the ages, people have come up with four cardinal forms of organization for constructing their societies: tribes (or the T form), hierarchical institutions (the I form), markets (M), and information-age networks (N). Each form of organization has different purposes and uses, along with different philosophical and strategic implications. Each form also has both bright and dark sides, and can be used for good or ill; societies can get them wrong as well as right, in ways that affect their usage of the other forms.
For various reasons, these forms have arisen and matured at different rates and in different eras — tribes (T) took shape first, hierarchical institutions (+I) were next, then markets (+M), and now information-age networks (+N) are increasingly on the rise. Societies progress according to their abilities to add and combine these forms (and their resulting sectors of activity). How people manage to use and combine these forms, their bright and dark sides, pretty much determines what kind of society they have. Advanced societies depend on people’s abilities to use all four forms in a coherent, well-balanced, well-functioning whole.
In notational terms, this means that societies have evolved across the centuries in a preferred historical progression: from monoform (T-only), to biform (T+I), to triform (T+I+M), and now potentially to quadriform (T+I+M+N) types of societies. For example, Russia today is still mostly a biform T+I society — for it lacks much of a true market system, and suppresses NGO networks. Liberal democracies, with their advanced capitalist economies, equate to triform T+I+M societies — indeed, only +M societies can become liberal democracies. Some, notably our United States, are just beginning to evolve into a quadriform T+I+M+N society (though it remains unclear what +N will bring).
Thus, according to TIMN theory, when matters go well, societies advance by adopting and using these forms properly and in progressive stages. When matters do not go well — for example, if leaders make a mess of the institutional (government) and market forms, or if people cannot find places for themselves in the institutional, market, or emerging network sectors — then many people revert to organizing and behaving in terms of the tribal form, often in dark ways.
Nature and recognition of the tribal (T) form:
No society can do well without the tribal form evolving properly. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging. It is initially expressed best in families, clans, and classic tribes; later in community spirit, civic clubs, patriotic nationalism; as well as in positive group identities about religion, ideology, and ethnicity, and even through being fans of sports teams and commercial brands — all exemplars of “togetherness”. The tribe is the first and forever form behind social evolution, the bedrock of all societies.
TIMN thus recognizes the crucial importance of the tribal form and its bright sides — the beneficial tribalism manifested in thriving families and communities. It undergirds all societies and their prospects for evolutionary progress. In the TIMN sense, tribes and tribalism per se are not a bad thing; some is good and necessary. But TIMN also explains that dark sides — malignant tribalism — may show up too, as in violent urban youth gangs, organized crime gangs, sectarian militias, partisan cliques, millenarian movements, charismatic cults, hate groups, etc.
For decades, ever since I became aware of the importance of the tribal/T form, the usage I used to see most often for matters here at home was synonymic. Tribe-related words cropped up as substitutes or synonyms for words like partisanship, faction, incivility, polarization, and divisiveness, not to mention identity politics. Words like tribal and tribalism were tossed into write-ups and talks more as flourishes than as concepts about distinct patterns of thought and behavior. Tribe-like words seemed weighted with ancient anthropological baggage; few analysts saw merit in applying them to modern society.
Over the past few years, however, the usage of these terms has become more systematic. As I will specify in a later post, prominent journalists and op-ed writers writers are increasingly recognizing that a distinct form of organization and behavior is at work, and that American society is becoming more tribalized. I see this in opinion columns in the New York Times and other newspapers, in magazine articles I happen across or that colleagues point out to me, in a handful of recent books, and in a bunch of blogs I follow. Comprehension of the T form is growing, albeit slowly.
President Obama too has warned about tribalism several times in recent months, seeing it as a reaction to globalism and a cause of Trumpism. During a November 2016 press conference in Athens, he said: “I do believe, separate and apart from any particular election or movement, that we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.” He surely does not have TIMN in mind; but his recognition of tribalism adds to my argument here.
No Republican politicians have voiced similar concerns. Yet the conservative movement has been rife with tribalists for years, and the Republican party is now largely split between tribalists and institutionalists (the Establishment). As marks of their tribalism, the former constantly dwell on the nature of identity — what it means to be a conservative, what conservatism stands for, why “us” are different from and better than “them” — even as they deride liberals and progressives for playing identity politics. Republican “rules” (e.g. the “Hastert Rule”) that no Republican shall speak ill of any other, nor shall any negotiate with a Democrat, are more than partisan — they are tribalizing. Indeed, many litmus-test issues that social conservatives keep bringing to the fore — like immigration, marriage, abortion, religion, gun ownership — pertain more to T than to any other TIMN form. Trump’s rise as a kind of charismatic warlord with tribal appeal reflects this.
Trump and tribalism:
Around the world, time after time, people exhibit similar patterns of thought and action when they turn darkly tribal, no matter their religious, political, ethnic, or other group affiliations: They divide the world between “us” and “them”. They tout group identity, loyalty, unity, and solidarity. They extol honor, pride, dignity, and respect. They flash totems and slogans. They claim purity for their side. They vilify and demonize opponents. They readily turn combative and uncompromising. They call for revenge and retribution, often as payback for past humiliations, insults, and grudges. They force people to take sides, without question. They shun and demean moderates once on their side. They engage in magical and conspiratorial thinking about their prospects. They believe it’s morally okay — maybe not politically correct, but tribally correct for sure — to lie to, and about, outsiders. And of course they accuse the other side of excessive tribalism.
I’ve made these points for years, and many now seem to apply to Trump, his surrogates, and his “movement”. Trump also behaves in additional ways that signal his tribalness: He amplifies resentments that his supporters hold about their identity and place in life. He dismisses and deflects blame for alleged misconduct or shortcomings, using theatrical reactions that further divide and tribalize (see my “scoundrel’s script” post). He seeks to delegitimize mainstream (i.e., less-tribal) media, in favor of tribalized media that show devotion to him (e.g., Fox News). He decries political correctness — but then clamors for what amounts to tribal correctness. He urges a unity of all Americans, but it sounds like unity in tribal terms where people are either for “us” or against “us”, and it’s unclear what “Americans” and “our people” mean. He voices a xenophobic, populist, even nativist kind of nationalism and patriotism.
Again, this angry tormented divisiveness fits a key TIMN proposition: When people feel disconnected from and distressed about what’s happening with the +I and +M forms (not to mention +N), many people revert to thinking and acting in terms of the T form. That is, they turn tribal — and some become extreme tribalists, bitter and nasty in all sorts of ways. What is going on today in America conforms to this TIMN dynamic. America is becoming newly tribalized.
And what may be the implications if Trump continues this way?
Well, here’s what often happens to societies and their governance systems when tribal values prevail over institutional and market values? They turn corrupt and corruptible, rife with nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism, along with secretive kickbacks, payoffs, and sweetheart deals. People engage in factional divisiveness. Demagogues and dictators are hard to resist. Media fragment into bubbles and black-holes. Duplicitous hypocrisy becomes a norm. Political theater displaces factual truth. Free thinking succumbs to memetic addictions (what Russian info-war theorists term “reflexive conditioning”), often in the form of push-button sound-bites and doctrinaire catch-phrases. What should be science and religion give way to pseudo-science and pseudo-religion. What once was deemed class conflict gets riddled with tribalized conflict. Et cetera.
It’s one thing for such tendencies to exist in underdeveloped undemocratic societies where the tribal form remains quite strong, as in parts of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia (in TIMN terms, societies that are designed around T+I with bits of +M). It’s another matter for these tendencies to grow in America and Western Europe, where the tribal form has long been subdued and most people focus their lives around later forms of activity, especially the market form (in TIMN terms, advanced liberal democratic societies designed around T+I+M with an emerging potential for +N).
As to what may be next if the tribalization of America deepens and hardens, here’s a list of what else may go hand-in-hand with malignant tribalism: A sharpening of identity clashes. A further distortion and shrinkage of liberal democracy. If there’s political order, then a turn deeper into patrimonial corporatism (a system that authoritarian tribalists often like). If there’s political disorder, then a turn into some kind of information-age fascism. Meanwhile, a further growth of public and private domestic security forces, plus a further growth of public and private surveillance and censorship. In many settings, factionalism between doctrinaire tribalists and principled institutionalists.
Those are easy points to list. Most have been made by many analysts and commentators. In my view, these points are consistent with TIMN theory — but with a difference: While other analysis normally refer to an array of political, economic, social, and cultural factors as the underlying explanations, TIMN treats the relative appeal and content of the tribal form itself as a key explanation. For TIMN, it is simpler, more systematic, and makes better sense to do so.
Those then are some worries about Trump’s ascension, based on TIMN. In closing, I’d add three more points that are rarely made but derive directly from TIMN:
— From a TIMN perspective, the reasons for “American exceptionalism” lie mainly in our approach to the T form. We have welcomed immigrants and found ways to enable people from all backgrounds and orientations to live together. Trumpish tribalism will undermine that basis of American exceptionalism, especially if he and his cohorts claim to be restoring it.
— TIMN implies that malignant tribalization will make our society far more vulnerable to information warfare. The ultimate goal of strategic information warfare at the societal level, whether waged by foreign or domestic actors, is to tribalize a society, the better to divide and conquer it.
— According to TIMN, America is moving into a new/next phase of social evolution — it’s evolving from a triform into a quadriform society. Just what the addition of a +N sector will mean is far from clear, and this is not the place to elaborate. But I do want to note that Trumpish tribalism, if it doesn’t abate, seems likely to imperil the prospects for getting to +N for years to come (though I can also see opportunities arising in some respects).
Well, I’ve rambled on long enough, and begun drifting away from Trump’s psyche. So I shall end this post, with apologies for not writing as well as I used to.
Sources: Publications and blog posts about tribal forms of organization and behavior, notably In Search Of How Societies Work: Tribes — The First and Forever Form (2007), plus blogspot posts on “We face a turmoil of tribalisms, not a clash of civilizations” (2009), “Q’s & A’s about “TIMN in 20 minutes” (1st of 7): TIMN as a set of narratives” (2012), “Why the Republicans lost: excessive tribalism — a partial TIMN interpretation” (2012), “The problem is preternatural tribalism, more than Islamic extremism — a reiteration” (2015), and “The NRA in light of STA:C and TIMN (Part 1 of 2)” (2016).
Short summary version posted on my Facebook page on January 21, 2017.