Inequality · The Unwinding of America · Trump · US Politics

Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology

This is a summary of an article on Vox called Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology by David Roberts.  It’s pretty much the best thing I’ve read about the new American populism anywhere.  You can read the entire article here.   The original article is very long.  I hate to say it but it is seven million words long.  It took me a couple of days to read  it.  But still,  I think it is really worth reading.  It made me realize that the whole Trump thing is about much more than just Trump in the White House which, with a little luck, we will probably survive.  The really worrisome thing may be whether America survives or not.  Really.

If you don’t know David Roberts, you really need to get to know him.  As he says at the head of his page on Vox, he “writes about energy and climate change.”  He is pretty much my go-to guy on climate and global warming and energy right now.  Everyone of his articles is just tops.  He recently wrote a piece called California is About to Revolutionize Climate Policy…Again, which is long and time consuming but absolutely essential if you want to understand how California is actually implementing  world class climate change policy right now.  Here is that article.

And here is David Roberts main page.  I’m there almost every day.  I more than highly recommend him.

Even though Roberts is essentially an energy / warming / ecology writer, he has really branched out in his recent articles about Trump and populism and especially in this Tribal Epistemology piece.  The main theme of the article is that “Journalism cannot be neutral toward a threat to the very conditions that make good journalism possible.”

Roberts says that in November of 2009 Rush Limbaugh devoted a segment of his radio program to what he called “Climategate.”   Here, he began talking about the conservative hacking of emails of a climate research institute.  You probably remember this big hullabaloo.  The emails got hacked and some very trivial sentences got taken totally out of context in an attempt to prove that scientists were conspiring to spread  lies about climate change so they could influence the American people about their supposedly evil and false ideas about global warming.  All of this ended up poisoning the media’s take on climate change in spite of the fact that five separate investigations completely cleared the scientists of any conspiracy or wrong doing.  As usual, once the story got out, the damage couldn’t be be stopped, no matter how completely it was disproved.  Right wing media consumers had already decided that scientists are evil conspirators in the corruption that they saw as existing between media, government, academia and science.

Limbaugh said, “Science has been corrupted.   We know the media has been corrupted for a long time.  Academia has been corrupted.  None of what they do is real.  It’s all lies.”  He called these institutions–government, academia, science and media –the “Four Corners of Deceit.”

According to Limbaugh, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemable corrupted by an alien enemy.  In essence, Limbaugh was saying that:

“We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.”

So all in one fell swoop, Limbaugh managed to convince much of America that government, academia, science and media were all a totally corrupt conspiracy to take over America for their own evil purposes.

Basically Limbaugh was claiming, without really realizing the implications of what he was saying,  that America has devolved into two tribes, Us and Them. And Them, the liberals are all evil while the  Us are all moral and possess The  Truth.   Over time, says Roberts, this has led to what he is calling tribal epistemology.  Knowledge that is based on tribalism and not on a common standard of evidence.

And now, he says, tribal epistemology has spread to the white house.  Trump is assaulting almost every American institution.  Trump is trying to deconstruct the administrative state.  But the Trump cohorts are most hostile to the media.  Bannon calls the press “The Opposition Party.”

Roberts says that for a long time now a large swatch of the American public has rejected the core norms and institutions of US public life.  And now, he says, it is finally time for journalism to take a stand.  It has to pick sides, to fight not for any one political party but for the conditions that make real journalism possible.

America has unfortunately been sorted into Left and Right.  Many have begun to call this The Big Sort.  And even worse we are sorting ourselves into two different cultural bubbles which neither side can find their way out of.  We seem to be not only sorting ourselves politically, but even by personality.   We seem to be sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically / ideologically similar people.

Globalization, among other factors, seems to have spit the US into two countries: one country is  more urban, economically booming, secular, and Democratic. The other country seems to be more rural, religious, economically stagnant,  declining and Republican.  The less than 500 counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election represent 64% of America’s economic activity.  Trump won 2600 counties that represent just 36% of the nations economic output.

Roberts says that the sorting of America into left and right camps has not been symmetrical.  From Regan onward ,the polarization of the right has far more extreme than that of the left.  He says that this story has been very extensively told in a book called Asymmetric Politics by David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann.

It seems that the left and right define politics in quite dissimilar ways.

“On one side [the left] is what we might call the classic liberal democratic (small-l, small-d) theory of politics. In this view, politics is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over interests and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms. Inside that fence is “normal politics” — the subject of legitimate political dispute. Outside that fence is out of bounds, in violation of shared standards.”

On the left, the game of politics is defined by specific rules (the constitution), which are enforced, more or less, by neutral referees (the courts).  But implicit norms also have a role.  Roberts says that politics “is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society. These latter institutions are referees as well, but their enforcement power operates not through law but through trust. Their transpartisan authority exists solely because participants in the game agree it does.”  These implicit rules are what really keep politics from turning into violence and or illiberalism.  And “That’s how democracy — indeed, any framework of cooperation among large numbers of diverse people — works. Institutions and norms provide structure and limits, the shared scaffolding of cooperation.”

However the right doesn’t understand politics in the same way at all.  “There has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.”

The right thinks of politics in almost exclusively these terms.  There is very little diversity in the views of the right compared to the Left which consists of many different groups. Over time the right’s base has become very similar.  Most of the Republican base are increasingly white, non-urban, and Christian, traditional, and believe in zero-sum values.      And Republicans tend to fear change, want clear  answers, and strong leaders.  And over time this has hardened into a preference of authoritarian leaders and what is often described as tribalism.

Roberts says that if you haven’t already, you should read Amanda Taub’s “The rise of American authoritarianism.”   Taub is another Vox commentator who sees authoritarianism increasing it’s hold on the American people.

Robert’s says that all of this is why Trump supporters see no problem in Trump’s outrageous and previously unthinkable actions in the White House.  He says, “Trump’s core supporters do not mind when he threatens the media, denigrates the courts, attacks intelligence agencies, dismisses the Congressional Budget Office, and treats the office of the presidency as a brand marketing opportunity. They have rejected the whole framework within which the two parties used to compete. They want to burn it all down.”




This article is still in progress.  It will be finished soon.  This job is forth on my list.

Green Dory and Dock, On the Maine seacoast.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography. 

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