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Trump, Roy Moore, and the tribes we cling to


Donald Trump may not have squashed the Affordable Care Act yet, but he and his supporters are doing plenty of damage.

In the past couple of weeks alone, the president has ramped up his threats against North Korea, eroded women's access to birth control, and prepared to decertify the Iran nuclear deal.

The Justice department is arguing that federal civil rights law doesn't protect LGBTQ Americans from employment discrimination. The EPA's Scott Pruitt is repealing a key greenhouse-gas emissions rule.
Roy Moore, who believes the Bible supersedes US law, easily won the Alabama primary. And encouraged by Moore's victory, Steve Bannon is spearheading an effort to get more right-wing extremists elected to Congress.

Faced with this, the Republican leadership seems intimidated and powerless. And while Trump's base support has eroded a bit, many of the Americans who elected him seem perfectly happy.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Gerald Seib recalled a conversation he had with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, nine months before the 2016 election. Emanuel, Seib wrote, predicted that Trump would win.
Emanuel's reasoning, Seib recalled: "With this blue-collar, screw-you appeal he has, why should anybody assume that Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan are safe for Hillary?"

Much of New York State outside of the cities responded to Donald Trump's appeal, too. All around the country, people packed the airplane hangars to cheer him, and then elected him president. Crude comments about women, insults of war veterans... none of that turned them away, and they're still cheering him.
Roy Moore may be a sign of things to come.

Where's all this leading? I found a particularly troubling assessment in Andrew Sullivan's New York magazine article, "America Wasn't Built for Humans."

Sullivan says he has sometimes wondered what it would be like to live in a "tribal society," and he cites places like Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, Beirut....

"Even in successful modern democracies like Britain and Spain," he writes, "the tribes of Scots and Catalans still threaten a viable nationhood."

The Scots and the Catalans, he writes, "have been full citizens of their respective nations, but their deepest loyalty is to something else."

We don't have to speculate about what it would be like to live in a tribal society, though, Sullivan says. "Because we already do."

And then comes his warning: "The project of American democracy — to live beyond such tribal identities, to construct a society based on the individual, to see ourselves as citizens of a people’s republic, to place religion off-limits, and even in recent years to embrace a multiracial and post-religious society — was always an extremely precarious endeavor."

The success of this country's democracy, Sullivan writes, has always depended on "an 18th-century hope that deep divides can be bridged by a culture of compromise, and that emotion can be defeated by reason."

The Civil War almost ended our democratic experiment. "And here we are," he says, "in an equally tribal era, with a deeply divisive president who is suddenly scrambling Washington’s political alignments, about to find out if we can prevent it from failing again."

"Tribalism, it's always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience," Sullivan writes. "It's the default human experience."

If that's the case, it will take a lot to pull us together, especially given the seemingly unrestrained anger erupting in this country. Sullivan does think there's a way out, if we can learn to value one another as unique individuals, and if we can learn to forgive one another for perceived and real faults. "No tribal conflict has ever been unwound without magnanimity," he writes.

It's hard, though, to imagine this deeply divided country embracing magnanimity and coming back together. Hard to imagine it, too, when things like racism seem to be part of the nation's DNA. Strong leadership, in multiple quarters, seems essential. And there, we're in very short supply.