07 January 2021

Trump's Instinct for Arousing Tribal Impulses

Tribal impulses are at odds with the modern world. Stirring up tribal impulses is Trump's particular gift and his instinct for doing that was always at odds with the institutional norms and structures we depend on to sustain our quality of life in the modern world.

The Hatfield and McCoys were mountain people in the US who kept up a feud between each other for generations, the epitome of backwoods, backwards Americans. They showed up at the capitol yesterday.

The Dunbar number is 150. This is the number of people our brains can manage in terms of not only knowing who someone is but who they are friends or foe with, whether they'd be a reliable ally or a probable competitor, etc. Robin Dunbar argues that our brains first evolved to navigate the natural world around us and then - as that world became increasingly social - our brains evolved to navigate the social reality around us. We are social creatures and woefully unable to make it alone. Social reality is our reality and the Dunbar number defines the number in the natural tribe we're wired to feel part of.

There is a problem with a group of 150, though. It simply isn't a large enough group to allow us to live above a level of what we'd now call subsistence. 150 doesn't allow much in the way of specialization. You want the benefit of a stent that would keep your arteries open and you alive another 5 to 25 years? The team to design, test, make and sell that will involve thousands of people. When I began working with teams developing those kinds of products more than 20 years ago, typically about 10 to 20% of their work was done by another company; today it is pretty normal that about 20% to 40% is. What does this mean? Even a single step within the production of a modern product is often done by an outside company and not just a person within a company. A single step in a production process might take the knowledge and resources of an entire company, itself defined by dozens or thousands of people. Even a product as simple as a number two pencil is made with resources from multiple continents. No one company has the skills, knowledge and resources to make a product as seemingly simple as a computer mouse from raw materials. Our modern world is full of products, processes and services that depend on a vast, vast network of strangers. Our lifestyle depends on an invisible network of people, technologies, knowledge and processes that no one group of 150 could ever replicate. The Dunbar number may describe a social reality for which our brains are wired; it no longer describes our economic and political reality. This is a vulnerability we too rarely talk about.

Here is the deal, though. We are wired for 150. We all have tribal instincts. We are wired to become Hatfield or McCoy clans, wired to become a group of us who see them and square off against them. Whoever them is. And we're all as susceptible to tribal impulses as we are susceptible to the lure of alcohol, drugs, ice cream, sex, and naps. It's a very normal instinct and one easily aroused. In fact, professional sports is literally -and not symbolically - dependent on these feelings. (I was working at a big company in San Diego the year the San Diego Chargers went to the Super Bowl. One I day I heard a manager talking about guys within the company at the director and VP level as "They," and then another manager talking about the Chargers as "We," as in, "We are going to the Super Bowl!" I thought, "You work with the 'they' guys. You have never even met the 'we' guys. How weird is that?" I don't think any business has more effectively hacked our tribal instincts than has sports. But I digress. Sort of.)

Trump's appeal was simple. He hacked directly into tribal instincts. There is always a "They" available to make us feel like a special "We." They are the Chinese. Big city liberals. Muslims. Mitt Romney Republicans. And you can win elections or fans by tapping directly into that tribal impulse. The danger is, if you don't have a clue what you're doing, you go as far as Trump. How far is that? Well, you decry trade and immigration as "They" are taking "Our" jobs. That right there makes "us" smaller, diminishing our economic possibilities. You attack "blue" states that are still a part of the United States of which you're supposedly president. You attack any institution - whether the UN or even a court of law - as an abstract "they," that is not on our team. First it is court cases that are suspect (who are "they" to judge us?) and then entire elections. You continually undermine the very institutions on which our modern world depends because they - too - are peopled by strangers who think or live differently.

The good news is that selling a message of Us! and Them! has a big and easily excitable market. The bad news is that it leads to the erosion of - often an attack on - the very institutions upon which we depend for our quality of life. It is no coincidence that so many of Trump's supporters are the survivalists who love the notion of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world in which all those institutions and norms have broken down. The modern world is too abstract for them; by contrast, this world of tribes actually makes sense.

Yesterday the Hatfields and McCoys stormed Congress. These were the mountain people who love the way that Trump awakens the tribal instincts that make a confusing, abstract world real and visceral.

Trump ability to arouse tribal instincts and his disdain for institutions is the exact opposite of the skills that have taken us from the feuds and poverty of isolated mountain people to the peace and prosperity of modern city folks. Progress comes from the ability in entrepreneurs and political leaders to create a bigger us, to make us part of a vast network of people, processes and knowledge that dwarfs what any group of 150 could accomplish. We know what the America Trump is trying to create looks like: it looks like the unruly mob who yesterday attacked the institution that struggles to create the laws and agreements that makes us part of a country with 330 million others (millions and millions of whom are VERY different from us) - part of a world of 7.5 billion people. That world is an endless struggle to maintain, manage and expand. It is vulnerable in so many ways and yet our quality of life depends on sustaining and even expanding that world of abstractions and institutions, laws and processes. (And my writing about abstractions and institutions makes your eyes glaze over in ways that appealing to tribal impulses never does.) And among its various vulnerabilities, perhaps the most obvious and scary is the one Trump represents: an appeal to tribal instincts that sees as foreign the odd and abstract institutions that allow us to collaborate with strangers to create peace and prosperity.

We are not out of the woods yet - there is still a chance that we could descend fully back into the world of the Hatfields and Mccoys - but with Trump gone in a couple of weeks, we might yet avoid becoming the poor white trash of the developed world.

No comments: