Tribal cries abound: In a single unfortunate moment, Candidate Hillary Clinton offered the most famous example of the phenomenon to which we wish to refer.
In that one unfortunate moment, she stated a view of the 63 million people who would end up voting for Donald J. Trump.
Most significantly, she stated a view of 31.5 million of those people. Aside from her more specific assertions, some or all of those people were "irredeemable," she unwisely said:
CLINTON (9/9/16): You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? They're racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic–you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people—now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks–they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.It wasn't clear if all those people were "irredeemable," or if it was only some. As Clinton continued, she said the other half of Trump's supporters "are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them...Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."
This statement drew a lot of attention. It's possible to imagine that Clinton would have ended up in the White House if that statement had never been made.
(As it was, she won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes.)
If Clinton had ended up in the White House, we'd currently be enduring a nightmare of crackpot congressional investigations amid a welter of crazy charges and claims, just as we did throughout the Clinton presidency and the Gore campaign.
We'd be inside an insane asylum, as we were during those earlier years. There would have been more push-back this time, but our species' capacity for irrational conduct would have been on full display once again.
Doggone us rational animals! We're strongly inclined to stampede off in thrall to tribal battle cries—in thrall to the compelling group "fictions" Professor Harari describes in his best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
According to Harari, our species' ability to invent and rally behind such "fictions" explains the way our ancestors came to drive all other human species into extinction. We have no idea if that's true, but here's part of the way he describes it:
HARARI (page 17): But if the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction...Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers—thanks to better technology and superior social skills—so they multiplied and spread. The less resourceful Neanderthals found it increasingly difficult to feed themselves. Their population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbors.Oof. Is that what our species' ancestors did? For ourselves, we have no idea. But we'd have to say that Clinton's sweeping remark tends to fit Harari's template.
Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.
Clinton issued a sweeping statement concerning half of The Others. They weren't just racist, she said—though, like Michael Cohen last week, she started her portrait with that.
Half of The Others were also some combination of sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and/or Islamophobic, Clinton also said. "You name it," the candidate said, perhaps in a bit of a species-specific self-portrait.
On this unfortunate occasion, Clinton chose to be "grossly generalistic." "You name it," she cheekily said, to applause and laughter, telling members of her tribe that they could denounce The Others pretty much as they chose.
In Clinton's assessment, The Others weren't simply racist; as many as half of Trump's supporters were simply "irredeemable!" So it may have gone, Harari suggests, when the Neanderthals and the Denisovans were driven into the sea by our ancestors, among whom tolerance may not have been a defining trait.
Our species is strongly inclined to invent and pursue The Other. And it doesn't just happen Over There; it happens within our liberal tents too.
All across the globe, tribal groups within our species tend to invent and demonize The Other. Within our current liberal tribe, we tend to do so under the battle cry of "racism." This comes quite close to being the type of persuasive group "fiction" Harari describes in his book.
That doesn't mean that no one is "racist." It means that we love to issue this bomb, and tend to do so in a remarkably casual manner.
We love to call people racist! The term is applied in scattershot ways, with little need for careful assessment. Consider what happened during Michael Cohen's public hearing last week.
Late in the session, Rep. Rashida Tlaib accused Rep. Mark Meadows of being a racist, or at least of having committed a racist act. Storm and fury ensued, with Tlaib formally saying that she hadn't called Meadows a racist.
Along the way, Meadows accused Tlaib of committing a racist act herself. Increasingly, "I know you are but what am I?" is becoming the way our warring tribes pretend to debate.
That night, Lawrence O'Donnell stepped boldly into the fray. He started by assuring viewers that Tlaib had indeed called Meadows a racist. She had only pretended to walk her charge back for procedural reasons, Lawrence told us.
As he did, he brushed Tlaib's account of her own actions and intentions aside.
After "mansplaining" Tlaib's behavior, Lawrence led us into battle. "If Mark Meadows isn't a racist, no one is," he eventually said, specifically saying that Meadows was even worse than George Wallace.
Without any question, everyone can be seen as a racist if we want to have it that way. For one outstanding example, consider Lawrence himself.
As he teased his segment about Tlaib and Meadows, he said this about Tlaib's initial remarks and her subsequent explanation of same:
"I`ll explain why all of that happened, in the sequence that it happened, and what you need to know about the House rules that explains why all that happened. Next!"
So great! Lawrence proceeded to tell us what Tlaib had really done, brushing aside her own account of her own behavior. Why isn't that a racist and sexist act, perhaps a sign of misogyny?
The answer to your question is simple: Because Lawrence is part of our own tribe Over Here! At times like these, the heated accusations are reserved for The Others, for the irredeemable Neanderthals who can be found Over There.
Lawrence brushed Tlaib aside, mansplaining her intention. He also said that no one's a bigger racist than Meadows:
"If Mark Meadows isn't a racist, no one is. Even George Wallace eventually apologized for his racist tactics as governor of Alabama before he died."
So true! We've dealt with Hitler and David Duke, but no one's worse than Meadows! So it goes when "rational animals" expand their tribe's group "fictions."
Is Rep. Meadows a racist? Thanks to people like Lawrence, we're no longer sure we know what that term even means.
Lawrence wants Meadows to apologize for having made two comments, during the 2012 campaign, suggesting that President and Candidate Obama really did hail from Kenya. By the time Lawrence spoke, Meadows had already addressed that issue, but Lawrence forgot to say that.
It's also true that Rep. Cummings—he lives half a mile from our sprawling campus—said that Meadows is "one of my best friends" (Cummings' emphasis). Frankly, it's starting to sound like Cummings is a bit suspect too.
Is Rep. Cummings a racist? When we decide to march to war, eventually everyone is! Everyone but you and your friends, and you're no longer sure about them!
We humans are strongly inclined to behave in these slightly sub-rational ways. We'll ask the question we've asked all week:
Is it possible that this could help Donald Trump win re-election?
Tomorrow: Tomasky follows Clinton's lead; Lemon slices and dices