American Tribalism

Gene Autry

I see a lot of really bad Internet memes and blog posts come down the pike, but an especially egregious one that caught my eye recently invokes the spirit of that great political philosopher and sage prophet… Gene Autry. Yes, that’s right: the Great Singing Cowboy, according  to this titanically silly article, “eerily predicted everything Trump is saying in 1942”. Really? Everything?  Like “I am the greatest at everything, including things I’ve never done” or “Nobody has been more persecuted than me” or “Hillary is a crook?”

Well, let’s assume that they’re using a little poetic license here, and when they say “everything”, they really mean “a couple of things”. In which case, there is sort of a half grain of truth to the caption (but that’s just about the only truth you’ll find in the entire post).

The allusion to Gene Autry involves a song called “Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You”, which he sang in the film The Bells Of Capistrano. Released when the U.S. was embroiled in World War II, the jingoism of lines such as these is understandable:

If you don’t like your uncle Sammy than go back to your home over the sea, to the land from where you came, whatever be its name, but don’t be ungrateful to me!

But even that is a far cry from what the current White House Occupant and his cult following would have you believe: namely, that (a) dark-skinned foreigners are causing a great many of our problems, and (b) anyone who says otherwise is un-American.

You get a very good inkling of this from the very first sentence of the article:

Patriots, if you ever hear a liberal complain about our country, then just sing them a song.

Notice the very first word: “patriots”.  The piece is supposedly addressed to patriots, but it’s actually addressed to Trumpsters. In the mind of the author, the two are one and the same.  The implication is that everyone who supports the current White House Occupant is a patriot, and anyone who doesn’t is a “liberal” and hates the whole country. This is an old tried and true propaganda tactic called flag waving, which we’ve examined more than once.

What’s really exceptional about this piece of Internet propaganda is that it is constructed almost entirely of straw men. (Please read the previous examination of that propaganda technique if you haven’t already done so.) Herewith is a sampling of the straw found therein:

…we see more and more liberals complaining about our great nation.

There are immigrants who come to our country only to complain about it.

…they tell us how we should live…

Under eight years of Obama, we had a president who did not care about our veterans.

Obama hated our country so much that he literally ignored the pleas of our veterans.

Why does the Left hate our military so much?

Do the Democrats understand that if it were not for our great veterans, they wouldn’t have a platform to spew their awful hatred?

We need to hold the media accountable for ignoring our veterans.

The Democrats love government spending, except when it comes to keeping America safe.

The Left loves wielding the Hollywood sword to try and cut us down, but we have smartened up.

And not that the author has “smartened up” enough to actually care about getting facts straight or anything, but he also has it backward about which party and which politicians have treated veterans most shamefully.

What this article does, in short, is advance the cause of tribalism: the schism of society into clashing ideological or sociological divides. And it is far from the only example. You will hear it over and over and over again from the Cult Of Trumpery: “Liberals hate America”; “Liberals are evil”; “Liberals are stupid”; “Liberals want to destroy you”.

The distinct impression you get is that the main reason, if not the only reason, that a great many of them voted for 45 was simply to “pay back liberals” for some imagined offense or other.  Some have said something like, “Well, we suffered for 8 years under Obama, so now it’s your turn to suffer.”  (To which someone penned an excellent response in an effort to get to the bottom of the “suffering” under Obama.) It doesn’t seem to have occurred to these folks that in their obsession with making “liberals” suffer, they are making everyone suffer, including themselves — for the present, and quite likely for generations to come.

Tribalism defies all reason.  And while it has always been with us, and is perhaps inevitable, what’s really different now is the extreme, deliberate crusade that one particular tribe is waging to make the rift broader, deeper and more toxic.

As it happens, I recently saw another old movie, for the first time in years: Tribes, a film made for TV in 1970. (It’s been sadly neglected and forgotten for decades, despite winning 3 Emmy awards and distinctly influencing later military flicks that are better known, such as Full Metal Jacket and Heartbreak Ridge.) It deals with a hippie (Jan Michael Vincent) who is drafted into the Marine Corps and butts heads with a rock-ribbed drill sergeant (Darren McGavin).


In addition to being a powerful drama well worth watching, Tribes is a thought-provoking rumination on the problem of tribalism, which we thought was bad in 1970, but is arguably worse now. At one point, the hippie draftee says, “We’re from different tribes, sergeant. Two completely different worlds. You don’t understand mine, yet you force me to accept yours”. To his credit, the sergeant actually does try to understand the other side of the divide. But another sergeant (Earl Holliman) has nothing but hostility for the young man. He embodies, in other words, the attitude of Trumpsters — talk about “eerily” prescient.

When they were “suffering” under Obama, they were full of rage and loathing. Now that (they think) they are getting everything they want, they are… full of rage and loathing. Perhaps even more so. It’s hard to reason with people who seemingly just live for rage and loathing.

We previously listed some strategies for overcoming the plague of Trumpery, and among them was the importance of trying to “cross the bridge” — i.e., the gap between ourselves and those on the other side of the ideological divide. (Back  in the era when Tribes was made, for example, I recall reading about a softball game between hippies and police.) Unfortunately, you may find that’s an uphill battle when you’re dealing with people who are obsessed with blowing up the bridges and building higher walls.


  1. It’s truly hard to fathom the anger and vitriol that one attracts when simply pointing out that something like the Oregon petition project is a deceptive study concerning the scientific consensus that supports our knowledge of the existence of human caused global warming. One can point out the shoddy methodology that required only a signers own word that he or she possessed a degree in science–be it a BS, Masters or a PhD, and that such assumptions are contrary to sound science because the signers were not verified and we have only their own words to vouch for the level of their expertise. And, when one points out that only 12% of the signers were in the Earth Science fields, (and that many signed under suspicious names like Perry Mason), as evidence which seriously calls into question the legitimacy of the petition, one often finds that he has not only defied someones preconceived notions, but in the process has apparently made a blood enemy of the other guy as well?

    I think the basis of tribalism is rooted in our evolutionary and genetic history which has served to preserve and protect our own primitive societies. By utilizing the natural paranoia present in all things in nature which are different from each other—this reaction is really the basis of our instincts to survive—and we were we all not automatically on edge when seeing some threatening animal seeking to devour us, and later extended that fear to human beings who are not from our own lands, and have different skin pigmentation or facial characteristics than ourselves, then our own small groups may have been exposed to annihilation.

    After a few million years of struggling for survival and and quite a few millennia of creating complex societies, we still have a gut level reaction of fear and avoidance towards the
    social intrusions of “others.”

    We are supposed to know better and should know better, but when boarding an airplane, while standing in line with an agitated looking person of Arabic decent, and then regarding that person suspiciously, or when in a room full of white people we are quick to note the presence of one black man, the same primitive instinct is still at work. We notice differences because the awareness of differences in general, keeps us safe and bonded us to those of our own tribes. But, since we are now becoming aware of the many limitations and divisive results that occur when our instinct to survive eclipses all inklings of higher understandings, we are now beginning to see how negative this evolutionary tenancy can be.

    I often wonder what would happen if, in the midst of a debate,one actually tried understanding where the other is coming from and why he or she thinks the way they do— (possibly eliciting the same effort from others) and whether we would then actually begin to communicate!—something that is really quite possilble but has rarely been experienced by me. However, when the instinct towards tribalism makes us believe it is only in our best interests to lie and antagonize, that is a very hard obstacle to overcome.

    I am often struck by the many science fiction movies in which an overpowering alien force travels thousands of light years in order to exterminate mankind, and then uses incredible violence to achieve that end. Whether this action woiuld truly be the path chosen by a highly evolved and intelligent life form is doubtful—more likely this fictional and unlikely event, is an attempt to assure us of our own abilities to overcome incredible odds by fighting along side of our own kind.

    Think of it! Why would any alien race intelligent enough to travel faster than the speed of light and having technology so advanced that it might seem like magic to ourselves, also be so emotionally debased as to engage in a universal, (survival of the most fit) kind of strategy? Would such a debased view of others, make them any more advanced, compassionate, or loving than the most infamous members of our own “Earth’s Tribes,”

    I think eventually the human tendency to react with fear, antagonism and selfishness, will come to an end, but when that actually happens is completely unknown. In the meantime just being aware of the futility and folly inherent in our present tribalistic attitudes towards “the other,” and what the consequences of what our own evolutionary school of hard knocks deals to us, will eventually provide us with some answers.

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