Mary Ellen Klas: Trump's most successful deal? Selling tribalism

Mary Ellen Klas, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

In a meandering Valentine’s Day speech in North Charleston, South Carolina, former president Donald Trump did what he does regularly at these types of events. He appealed to the tribal instincts of his supporters.

“Every time the radical left, Democrats, Marxists, Communists and Fascists indict me, I consider it a really great badge of honor,” he deadpanned. “They want to silence me because they want to silence you … I just happen to be standing in their way.”

As the crowd applauded, he finished with a flourish of bravado: “I’m delighted to be doing it.”

To his fans, Trump’s appeal is his “extreme confidence” and willingness to speak his mind. “He believes that we believe,’’ said a Trump voter in Columbia. “And he's not afraid to say it directly.”

What Trump’s onstage bravado hid was that he was having probably one of his worst weeks since his numerous legal battles began.

He lost a bid to have one of his four criminal trials delayed until after the November election. In a New York civil fraud case, Justice Arthur F. Engoron found Trump liable for conspiring to manipulate his net worth to defraud lenders and ordered him to pay $355 million plus interest. And that’s on top of the $83.3 million he’d recently been ordered to pay writer E. Jean Carroll for defamation after she accused him of sexual assault. All told, the former president owes more than $500 million in legal judgements.

Supporters and campaign donors have been footing the bill for much of the former president’s legal costs. The day after Engoron’s decision, Trump appeared at Sneaker Con to hawk his new “Never Surrender High-Top” gold sneakers that sell for $399 a pair.

But none of his legal problems are likely to stop his supporters from voting for him. Neither his past, nor his stand on issues matter. That’s because of his ability to inflame tribal fears and use them to undermine efforts to hold him accountable. It has been both effective for Trump and damaging to the country’s institutions.

The results are evident in numerous polls. The share of Republicans who believe that Joe Biden’s 2020 win was not legitimate has risen to levels last seen before the Jan. 6 hearings. Nearly 70% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe this false claim, despite substantial evidence countering it, according to CNN polls. Americans also remain split on the significance of Jan. 6 and whether Trump committed a crime or bears any responsibility for what happened that day.

I spoke with dozens of South Carolina voters as Trump was courting them before the key state’s primary this Saturday. I witnessed his effect on them. He repeated his same lies and baseless conspiracy theories, telling audiences that Congress should “impeach Joe Biden for weaponizing the DOJ and the FBI against their political opponent.” But South Carolina voters have seen their share of corrupt politicians, and in the past were content to let justice play out in those cases. Trump has managed to convince many of them that the rules don’t apply to him.

“It just seems like most of the cases brought against him right now are politically motivated,’’ said Cole Putnam, a Clemson MBA student from Greenville, South Carolina. “I have a hard time taking those seriously — to say that he shouldn't be president because of that.”

Tina Boies, a retired teacher living in Columbia, also dismisses the indictments against the former president as “trumped-up charges.”

“I don’t trust the legal system at all, unless you were one of the chosen few — like Biden and Hunter and his whole family,’’ she said.

These voters demonstrate what social scientists have studied for decades. Humans have evolved to belong in competitive, tribal communities that demand loyalty and, in return, they confer protection to their members. As a result, human minds have been sculpted to develop cognitive biases that allow us to conform to thrive.

Tribalism can be good when leaders use it to help shape the social identity of competing groups and motivate people to achieve positive results — such as expecting the law to be followed, and embracing tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion, psychologists Jay J. Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer contend in their 2022 book, The Power of Us.

But Trump uses tribalism in the worst kind of way, playing on people’s fears, differences and resentments. He is a master at exploiting those instincts.


South Carolina State Representative Nathan Ballentine, a supporter of former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, said Trump “has a stranglehold” on his fellow Republicans, calling his “strong cult-like following really unbelievable.” Ballentine said he’s watched state lawmakers and members of Congress endorse Trump even though it was Haley who helped them in their careers.

“A lot of people are just scared,” he said. “They don't want a primary opponent. They don’t want to deal with Trump and those kinds of people.”

Trump stokes the fears of White and working-class Americans who are afraid of losing their privilege and status as the US becomes more racially and ethnically diverse and divided by socioeconomics.

Nearly four in 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnicity other than White, according to the US Census, and the country is on its way to becoming majority-minority. The portion of White people fell below 60% in the 2020 Census and the population of those under at 18 is already majority people of color. These shifts are part of what Trump is talking about with his xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country,” and “Biden migrant crime.”

Voters I spoke with, from Reagan Republicans to independents, professed an allegiance to Trump that often had little to do with his policies. They frequently described him as something he’s not, but what they want — an old-school Republican who espouses the conservative values of small government, low taxes, foreign policy dominance, and individual achievement.

But the new MAGA Republican is protectionist on trade, nativist on immigration, nationalist on foreign policy and so forgiving of deficit spending that Trump added $8.4 trillion to the national debt during his presidency.

Americans have known only two major political parties in their lifetimes and, when faced with a bilateral choice as in a presidential election, most voters default to the party they traditionally identify with, even if it has morphed into something they no longer recognize. Studies show that the emotional appeal of someone’s political party has a tribal pull that transcends how a person views facts.

Most voters I spoke with couldn’t cite specifics about how their lives were better under Trump or how it would change if he is returned to office.

A Columbia mother said Trump “did do a lot of good things for families,” such as promoting “childcare, religious freedom, and protecting children from what’s going on with these crazy people.” When asked about Trump being found liable for the sexual assault of Carroll, she dismissed it. “Almost every politician has a very dark past,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used in order to speak candidly. “It’s not fair to focus on his personal life.”

Even among Haley supporters, there was a willingness to support Trump as a second choice because of allegiance to the Republican Party.

Greenville City Council Member John DeWorken, a Haley fundraiser, told me that Haley “is the only conservative on the ballot.” But if she fails and the nominee is Trump, there’s no question, he said. “I’m gonna vote for the Republican.”

Every politician benefits from the blind loyalty that comes from innate partisan biases, but Trump poses a particularly unique threat. He isn’t running to protect his supporters from some dark force that threatens them. He’s manipulating them to shield himself from justice. Let’s hope they soon figure that out.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mary Ellen Klas is a politics and policy columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, she has covered politics and government for more than three decades.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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