Since President Trump’s election, the term “tribalism” has become ubiquitous. Media outlets, including this one, used the word to explain the president’s victory. And reporters weren’t alone in their hypothesis that tribalism, and the mindset it implies, might help explain a swelling sentiment that contributed to his win. According to a forthcoming memoir by former Barack Obama aide Ben Rhodes, shortly after the election, Obama asked a group: “What if we were wrong? Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor and the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, insists that this attitude is nothing new in the American story—and that it’s not impossible to overcome, either.
At its most basic, tribalism describes the human instinct to want to belong to a group of people who are like you. For much of America’s history, Chua said during an event produced by The Atlantic on Thursday, huge portions of the population “didn’t feel the tribalism,” because the country was governed by an economically, politically, and culturally dominant group: whites. The multitude of groups that didn’t fall within the tribe of whiteness were smaller, and outside of circles of power. But today’s changing demographics—whites are projected to become a minority in the next couple of decades—are causing newfound anxieties, and fiercer divides, particularly among white Americans.