In an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the enterprise crew was transporting a famous diplomat who was tasked with ending a war on a planet. When the crew asked about the origins of the war he said they have been fighting for centuries. The existence of the other side was enough. The war was tribal.
American politics has descended into tribal warfare. American politics has always been rough. The election of 1800 established what party politics would bring to America. The 1828 election was nasty by today’s standards. The election of 1860 led to the Civil War because the slave owning southern Democrats would not accept Lincoln’s election when he won without southern support.
In the modern era, Bobby Kennedy, during the 1960 election, used his influence to get Dr. King released from an unlawful arrest in the south and made it look like Richard Nixon was not only against civil rights but that the Kennedys were wholesale supporters of it, a political move older Republican operatives resent to this day.
Then between 1964 and 1972 Barry Goldwater, George Wallace and Richard Nixon transitioned southern Democrat voters to the Republican Party on the train of crime and law and order. With the Democratic Party expelling social conservative Democrats from the party in 1972 the two tribes, represented by the two parties, were set. The first of many battles occurred in the 1980 election in which Ronald Reagan prevailed. The 1980 election gave birth to the moral majority and the rise of white evangelical Christians using politics to save the American soul from the immorality of Democrats.
After the hearings over Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas 1991, Senator Mitch McConnel dedicated his political life to seek revenge and the recent confirmation battle over Kavanaugh in 2018 reflected tribal politics not normally seen in the U.S. Senate.
The 1988 election – in which Republican social conservatives used the Willie Horton ad to stoke white fears that black rapists would run wild if Democrats were elected – would not be soon forgotten by Blacks or Democrats.
The 1992 election of Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush, the scorched earth politics of Newt Gingrich (1994-2000), and Clinton defeating Bob Dole in 1996, followed by the failed impeachment of Clinton in 1999, all laid new seeds of the resentment of the base Republican voter against both the Democrats and the Republican establishment. That resentment would later birth the Tea Party resulting from a Black man moving into their White House in 2009; at least, that’s how Democrats saw it.
Which brings the election of 2016 with Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump – Trump won and the Democrats revolted and made up assertions of mass election fraud, theft, voter interference and claimed white nationalism had prevailed.
In 2018 the Republicans lost the House and after three years of asserting Trump was a Russian stooge who stole the 2016 election, Trump was impeached in December 2019.
To make matters worse, the COVID pandemic hit the world in spring 2020 – right after the failed impeachment trial – and Trump voters said COVID was a political hoax to hurt Trump. They resented the focus of liberals and Democrats on the number of people killed by the virus and asserted more people had died from the flu and more babies were killed by abortions than all the people worldwide that died from COVID. By the middle of summer, a full revolt among Trump voters occurred and not wearing masks became a symbol of their resistance to government fascism against freedom loving Americans.
In the 2020 election, the seeds and cultivation of tribal politics bore full fruit. It was a base turnout battle in which the focal point was Trump himself. To Trump voters, he is the savior of America and Western civilization from the dictatorship of political correctness elites. To them he is the symbol of America and to oppose Trump is to oppose America herself. Conservative talk radio and Fox News commentators without restraint reflected Trump voter beliefs that Biden was a pawn of godless heathens who would impose on America fascism and socialism. They would be matched by MSNBC commentators who without doubt asserted that the election was a battle against white nationalist and fascists who stole two Supreme Court seats in order to steal the election for Trump.
In the 2020 election, the tables were turned. It is now Trump and the Republicans who are whining and moaning and making up stories about mass election fraud, false ballots, and a stolen election.
Presidential politics has always been a proxy for what voters reject, not what they want. But now it is a vehicle for resistance of the other side, which is now evil per se. Read what people write on Facebook. Friendships and families decades old have broken up over Trump.
In the Star Trek episode, the parties end with the diplomate forcing both to learn sign language to give them a common ground they had to share before anything else could get done. America has no such luck.
Arthur Garrison is a professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University and author of the book, “Chained to the System: The History and Politics of Black Incarceration in America.”