Trump’s tribal appeal: Us vs. Them

The narrow margin in the 2020 presidential election underscores a now-familiar question: how to explain the enduring and stable support for Donald Trump, even in the face of economic distress, scandals, and global pandemic? Part of the answer lies in how he has crafted his political appeal over the last four years, but with an institutional cost. As approached by political communication researchers, traditional issue framing contests involve partisans promoting policies that deserve political support in a deliberative arena, supported by political institutions and the journalistic routines that map onto them. But the press has been under attack, particularly during the last several years, and these contests are in disarray – resistant to conventional argumentation, freed from norms of restraint, and fed by a climate of weaponized misinformation. Trump has both helped create and exploit these conditions, while pursuing a strategy that hardened a remarkably stable base.

Reflecting on the 2016 election results, I argued in this report that Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) slogan-frame was a logical xenophobic extension of the foundation laid by former President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (GWOT). But I anticipated that voters would eventually recognize Trump’s inability to deliver on his hyperbolic promises to restore the old mythical ways. But his failure to do so hasn’t dented his appeal to nearly half the electorate, who perceive he speaks for them. Indeed, if anything he has gained support, with an identity-based appeal that taps into something primal, allowing him to ward off the usual political consequences for his many transgressions (including impeachment). If the GWOT encouraged a fear of the non-U.S. “other,” geo-political security threats have been downplayed under “Trumpulism” in favor of more local fear-based appeals around immigration and border walls. Underlying this strategy and built into MAGA was an appeal to preserving the general order of things, among those who feared it being taken away. Thus, the GWOT became turned inward toward the domestic political other. Social justice movements and their wide-spread recent protests were cast as threats to law and order, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy when, following its “protest paradigm,” delegitimating news coverage served to attract militarized responses from police and right-wing militia groups.

So, what now is the organizing principle that, as I’ve put it before regarding issue framing, helps to “meaningfully structure the social world”? Trump has aligned himself with certain policies (e.g., abortion, trade, deregulation), that can be located within conventional political narratives, but more powerfully encompassing is Us against Them. The tribe and the leader are the principle. Invoking political scientist Robert Entman’s widely-cited framing elements, Us vs. Them makes the very existence of the other side the problem definition. In addition, the frame carries an often-explicit moral evaluation. (Trump, for example, declared Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris a “monster.”) And it implies a causal interpretation, that electoral defeat means the loss of a way of life. The treatment recommendations are obvious: not only must the unworthy other side be defeated politically but destroyed (or at least “locked up”).

That approach may have made Trump’s base impervious to erosion these last few years, but it has come at a great cost to civic health and the machinery of governance, the traditional institutions designed to mediate conflicts over social visions. Such a polarizing and Manichean framework yields an asymmetrical contest, where one side, convinced of an existential threat against it, is willing to cast aside traditional norms (losing means the process was illegitimate, by definition), and encouraged to do so by a self-reinforcing counter-institutional media willing to do the same. Institutions require commitments, trusting that the overall interests of the community will be served, even if those of the tribe are momentarily not. Us vs. Them opposes these commitments.

The pandemic has helped further reveal that schism, with even the simple act of wearing a mask becoming politicized and a visible symbol for the divide. Like institutional commitment, masks reflect concern for others, protecting them against one’s own transmission, but to be effective the entire community must embrace them. No wonder they have become a tribal marker; they don’t fit an Us vs. Them, anti-institutional mentality. Trump has attacked the value of expertise and the press, rendering him and the country ill-equipped to effectively respond to this public health threat, an enemy he couldn’t humiliate or completely deny. And yet his base remained intact, as Trump attempted to declare victory by executive decree: “We’re rounding the corner.” The tribalist strategy was effective for Trump up to a point, but failed to win over a majority while taking a toll on the national political infrastructure. No matter the electoral outcome there would have been major repair work needed in the years to come.