Nothing New: How Modern Tribalism Has Led to the America First Movement
Human beings are animals.
This simple statement of biological fact is often overlooked. Human beings are the most intelligent creatures on planet Earth. We have evolved from early hunter-gathers to modern city dwellers, having a world of technological resources at our fingertips. We have traveled across countries and continents via trains. We can now traverse vast distances in gas-powered and electric automobiles. We can even fly across the globe in less than a day thanks to commercial airliners. Modern medicine has cured diseases, improved the quality of life, and extended our average lifespans. We have personalized computers that now fit in our laps. And we have personalized gadgets that can instantly access information, maps, music, videos, photos, and speeches all in the palm of our hands.
Yet, despite all these remarkable achievements, human beings are still animals that resort to an inherent animalistic nature. This nature is most often seen with our tribal instinct to ally ourselves with those similar to us. We do this by both physical appearances as well as our self-determined societal roles. Go to any high school or college cafeteria and you can see this instinct in action. Students choose to self-segregate based on race, religion, or interests. Every student has a core group of friends and these groups tend to only associate themselves with other similar groups. It's why such films as The Breakfast Club or Freedom Writers tend to resonate with audiences because their premise is based on the idea that despite the fact that these groups aren't typically integrated, there really isn't that much that separates them from each other.
However, these films represent the exception rather than the rule. Because from an early age, human beings are socialized to not only join a group but to believe that their group is superior to others. This begins in elementary school, where students learn their school mascot at age 6 and proceed to consider themselves associated with this mascot for the duration of their time there. In middle school, this mentality starts to intensify as inter-school competitions begin in both academics as well as athletics. By high school, this mentality increases as students become rabid supporters of their own school, especially in competitions against the local rival school. Due to the simple factor of geography, high school students are put in a position where they believe themselves to be superior to a group of their peers simply because they are told to do so.
For many, this experience culminates at a college or university. Institutions of higher learning are notorious for their tribal mentality. Whether it's academics, Greek life, or athletics, students firmly believe their club/fraternity/team is superior to others. Campus activity fairs will have groups not only advocate for themselves but will advocate against other similar groups. Greek life will consist of members of certain organizations having not only disdain but outright hatred for other Greek organizations that are considered to be rivals. And college athletics is seen as the epitome of this tribal mentality. Students and alumni gather together, usually aided by excessive alcoholic consumption, and spent equal amounts of time rooting for their school while simultaneously shouting insults and obscenities at whichever school they just happen to be playing that particular week. All this hate and vitriol directed at complete strangers for the sole purpose of promoting your school over your opponent.
So by the time that young professionals enter the workforce, they are not only used to the concept of tribalism but it is so ingrained in them that they hardly give it a second thought. They are so used to the whole "us-versus-them" mentality that has been so prevalent throughout their formative years that it seems natural to them. Whereas this mentality focused on school affiliations early on, it eventually becomes a mentality devoted to nationalism and pride in one's country. Young professionals tend to be the ones with patriotic bumper stickers. Young married couples tend to be the ones who put up an America flag in their front yard. And young working-class sports fans tend to be the ones who show up at the local sports pub during the Olympics and chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" along with their peers.
And just like with school affiliation, this adult form of tribalism also has its consequences. Because to believe that America is superior is to likewise believe that other countries are inherently inferior. Other countries and the citizens from these countries are come to be seen as somehow less human that the people here at home. Like the college student screaming his guts out at the opposing team, these adults who see non-Americans are inferior also have no rationale for their behavior. They simply believe that their country is superior because it just feels right. And since they are the ones who have lived their entire lives believing their school to be superior, they now see no reason not to believe that their country is superior as well. The need to have that tribalistic feeling of superiority and the belief that their country is superior to all others helps address this pressing need. It is how we now have an entire movement based on the idea of America First.
The America First movement leads people to think the worst of non-Americans. They view foreign countries as inherently inferior. They see America as being the sole beacon of light in this world. This means that even our allies, countries like Great Britain, France, and Germany, are seen as second fiddle. But this belief system is even worse with countries perceived to be our enemies. These countries are seen as evil, plain and simple. Countries like China, Iran, and North Korea are vilified. Other countries with ongoing conflicts like Iraq and Syria aren't to be trusted. Even our southern neighbor Mexico should be viewed through a skeptical lens due to its ongoing struggle with cartel violence.
And because of this skewered world view, the supporters of the America First idea also believe that America is simply fine and dandy just the way it is. They don't see America as a nation of immigrants but rather as a nation of magically assimilated peoples. It is why they are so vocal in their opposition to immigrants and refugees despite being descended from one of, if not both of, these groups themselves. They see these groups as a threat to America's prosperity not realizing that they are actually necessary for America's prosperity. But proponents of the America First idea are pot committed at this point. They are insistent upon seeing American superiority even if they don't understand the root causes for that superiority in the first place.
Unfortunately, it is this tribalistic instinct that causes proponents of the America First movement to embrace racist views. They see America as being superior not because of, but in spite of the advances in civil rights for women, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community. They see these groups as a threat to America's superiority and because of that, they have reached the conclusion that these groups are inherently inferior to their own. These groups have done nothing to all to impede their progress, but proponents of the America First movement feel threatened by them nonetheless. Like the high school student yelling obscenities at the opposing team, the members of the America First movement also have never stopped to think about why they are acting they way they are.
Because to do so would blow their mind. To pose the question as to what makes someone more American than others simply would not compute for these people. They fail to see the absolute cognitive dissonance that permeates their entire worldview. They purchase a patriotic bumper sticker not realizing the website that sells the sticker is based in another country. They buy an American flag, not noticing it is being sold by an immigrant. They laud the American Olympic champion, not realizing he is a naturalized citizen. What the America First movement fails to realize is that it is all these people are part of the fabric of America that make the country great.
And that in the end, we are all on the same team.
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