One of the standard lines about our politics these days is that we are becoming more polarized and that a kind of tribalism has taken over the conflicts that would otherwise merely be thought of as disagreements. Most honest political scientists will acknowledge that this phenomenon has been more pronounced among Republicans, as William Galston and Thomas Mann suggested with the term “asymmetric polarization.”
Right now, that is being exhibited in the overall response among Republicans to Donald Trump. At best, they remain silent about his behavior and, at worst, defend it.
It is important to keep in mind that whether we’re discussing habitual lying, possible collusion with the Russians, obstruction of justice or the leaking of classified information to a known adversary, all of these issues are self-inflicted wounds from Trump himself. As investigations over these matters progress, is there any reason to believe that there will be no additional items to add to the list?
Even those who chide the media for assuming that Trump will pivot or somehow become “presidential” often fail to acknowledge that his behavior will continue to produce these kinds of scandals, if not increase in severity. While I am often loath to make predictions, this one isn’t a stretch…that reality is almost certainly on a collision course with Republican tribalism.
Why am I so sure of that? It is because of what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes as wells as from things I’ve read by people who have a deep knowledge of Trump, like the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz. He recently expanded on what he told Jane Mayer about his understanding of the president almost a year ago. Schwartz described what Trump learned from his father, and then talked about his “survival mode.”
To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear or you succumbed to it — as he thought his older brother had. This narrow, defensive worldview took hold at a very early age, and it never evolved. “When I look at myself today and I look at myself in the first grade,” he told a recent biographer, “I’m basically the same.” His development essentially ended in early childhood.
Instead, Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made it clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration…
Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time. Having never expanded his emotional, intellectual or moral universe, he has his story down, and he’s sticking to it.
That survival mode, coupled with the things Trump doesn’t value, means that there is no capacity for reflection or change. That is why his development was stunted as such an early age—as well as why he is destined to continue his current behavior.
Later, Schwartz provides us with a powerful analogy.
Trump derives his sense of significance from conquests and accomplishments. On the face of it, Trump has more opportunities now to feel significant and accomplished than almost any human being on the planet. But that’s like saying that a heroin addict has his problem licked once he has free and continuous access to the drug. Trump also now has a far bigger and more public stage on which to fail and to feel unworthy.
Any addiction has a predictable pattern — the addict keeps chasing the high by upping the ante in an increasingly futile attempt to recreate the desired state.
Anyone who has studied addiction knows that the trajectory is certain, unless there is an intervention. That is why I can say with such assurance that Republican tribalism is on a collision course with Trump. I will refrain from trying to guess when that will happen and what the consequences will be. But there is no doubt that the day will come.