Zero tolerance for truth: On tribalism, trances & Donald Trump

“Oh what a tangled web we weave…”


Oh what a tangle web we weave

When first we practice to deceive

~Sir Walter Scott, “Marmion” (1808)

The mainstream media calls the mask-averse crowds at Trump’s rallies his base. It’s more accurate to think of the unwavering 40 percent under his spell as a tribe at war. A war against the liberals and progressives Trump demonizes as “socialists”, yes. But it’s ultimately a war against truth.

In this war, facts are viewed as weapons in the arsenal of the enemy. Zero tolerance for reality (“fake facts”) is an iron rule. 

A political base is typically the product of enlightened self-interest—people choose a party or candidate based on factors like income, occupation, tax fairness, affordable health care, educational opportunities, and the like. Issues such as environmental protection and legalized abortion are important but not definitive for voters behaving as rational actors.   

What then explains the trance-like hold Trump has over his followers? How does a public personality become a cult figure and leader of a multimillion-member tribe?

Donald Trump has parlayed a life that is part legend and part lie into a cult based on a legendary lie. In his telling, he is a self-made billionaire. An art-of-the-deal prodigy. And a “very stable genius.” He likes to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln (as he did, again, during the last televised debate).

He has also pretended to be a man of religion. This past summer he awkwardly held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church during the protests over the police killing of Floyd George. On December 20, 2019, he tweeted: “No president has done more for the Evangelical community, it’s not even close”—move over, Jimmy Carter.*

Trumpism represents a great leap backward to a tribal stage in the evolution of modern society, a bygone world without nation-states when political power was based on kinship ties—families and clans. Tribes were then a higher stage of political organization. “Tribes” and “nations” are terms that are often confused and are used interchangeably.

The formal recognition of nation-states in international law came with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). In other words, it dates back only to the mid-17th century. As such, it was a major step AWAY from tribalism toward a higher form of organization based on principles and laws. 

Make no mistake: If Trumpism triumphs, the United States faces the prospect of a return to the kind of tribalism that still tears countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria apart. And don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you Trump has burned his bridges and has no path to victory on Nov. 3.

Trump’s narcissism is a turnoff for a majority of Americans who will vote for Joe Biden. But his anti-intellectualism, blue-collar populism, and taste for Big Macs endears him to 40 percent of voting age adults in this country—a minority that, magically, can turn a popular majority from winners to losers in the Electoral College. 

It’s all theater, of course. All an act. For Donald Trump, the White House is not so much a bully pulpit as a stage. In the famous scene across from Lafayette Park, the church was part of the set; the Bible was a prop. He was playing to a particular audience—his flock. 

Many of Trump’s followers clearly view him with a kind of adulation normally reserved for saints or a savior. Many are evangelical Christians who see Trump as God’s instrument  sent to redeem a sinful society and world. Not a few are xenophobes disdainful of immigrants (especially from Mexico and Central America) or—if not unapologetically racist—folks who at least sympathize with white supremacists.

The legendary liar in the White House is a victim of his own practiced deceit. He’s the tragic reality TV president who can’t escape his own unreality—the fictional character at the center of a fictional success story he created.

He will one day—perhaps soon—take his place among the most spectacular cases of self-deception at the pinnacle of  power in recent history. Among the world’s long list of petty demagogues with zero tolerance for the truth.

*The story that Trump claimed he has “done more for Christianity than Jesus,” is not true, according to Snopes. It is based on a satirical piece that appeared in the Babylon Bee on December 23, 2019.   


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