We agree with the WaPo assessment, and in fact, we've been concerned about the rise of tribalism in U.S. society long before recent events in Montana. In fact, we wrote a post on the subject last July, based primarily on the trial of former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
If a divisive trend is percolating, you can bet it will manifest early on somewhere in the Deep South. Before we look at conservative tribalism in Alabama, let's examine the WaPo take on Greg Gianforte's win in Montana, even though Gianforte reportedly body slammed a journalist from The Guardian on election eve. Did that bother voters in bloody red Montana? Nah, not much. From WaPo:
Greg Gianforte admitted to attacking a reporter and apologized during his victory speech Thursday night, as he kept Montana's sole House seat in Republican hands. Now he and his party's leaders are trying to move on.
On the eve of the special election, the wealthy technology entrepreneur flipped out when the Guardian's Ben Jacobs asked him about the CBO's score of the health care bill. He now faces misdemeanor assault charges for reportedly throwing Jacobs to the ground and breaking his glasses.
"I made a mistake," the congressman-elect said at his party in Bozeman. "Not in our minds!" yelled a supporter. The Post's David Weigel, who was there, reports that some in the crowd laughed.
A few yahoos in the Montana outback are the only ones who seem unconcerned:
After [Gianforte's] comfortable six-point victory, Republican congressional leaders are making clear there will be no meaningful consequences for his behavior. "Elections are about choices and Montanans made their choice," Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement Friday morning. "Rep.-elect Gianforte is an outsider with real-world experience creating jobs in Montana. He will bring that experience to Congress, where he will be a valuable voice in the House Republican Conference."
Never mind that Gianforte likely avoided a felony charge only because reporter Ben Jacobs escaped serious injury. Jacobs' glasses were broken, and journalists from Fox News reported that Gianforte threw several punches. Had one of those punches landed cleanly and caused, say, a broken nose, the GOP would be happily sending a likely felon to Congress:
The Montana donnybrook quickly became a Rorschach Test that highlighted the divide within the conservative media between the serious and unserious outlets. It also showcased how many prominent figures on the right reflexively rally behind Republican politicians, whether the president or a House candidate, even when they are very clearly in the wrong. This is part of a growing tribalism that contributes to the polarization of our political system.
Tribalism has been apparent in Alabama for years, as we noted in our reporting on the Hubbard case:
Conservative Tribalism, to a great extent, is at the heart of the legal difficulties that my wife, Carol, and I have experienced for roughly 16 years and gave rise to this blog.
What do we mean by tribalism? Here is one of the most useful definitions I've seen:
Tribalism is the state of being organized in, or advocating for, a tribe or tribes. In terms of conformity, tribalism may also refer in popular cultural terms to a way of thinking or behaving in which people are more loyal to their tribe than to their friends, their country, or any other social group.
For our purposes, the key element is this: Members of a tribe are more loyal to that unit than to most anything else, including their country and its laws, constitutions, and governing concepts. In our experience, tribalism has been particularly evident among those who identify as conservative. But I have little doubt that liberal and moderate tribes are out there as well.
To many of the defense witnesses in the Hubbard case, the former speaker was "a dear friend," despite overwhelming evidence that the speaker was a crook:
How was tribalism on display at the Hubbard trial? Remember all the businessmen -- Jimmy Rane (Great Southern Wood), Rob Burton (Hoar Construction), Will Brooke (Business Council of Alabama), and more -- who testified that they gave Hubbard "things of value," not because he was Speaker of the House but because they considered him a friend.
What were the business executives saying when they declared their undying friendship for Mike Hubbard? They were essentially saying this: "We are all part of the same tribe with Mike. We do favors for him, he does favors for us, and we all get rich from that arrangement. Alabama statutes might say Mike's actions were criminal, but that's not the case at all. We have the kind of tribal friendship that goes beyond business and politics."
The business execs did not see anything wrong with Hubbard's behavior because . . . he was one of them, a member of their tribe. And because of that, he should not be subject to following the law in the same way that you and I would.
That is precisely how a significant number of Montana voters viewed the Gianforte case. Some, either in the press or among voters, have suggested the reporter deserved to be smacked around. From WaPo:
Michelle Fields, the former Breitbart News reporter who Corey Lewandowski grabbed when she tried to ask Trump a question last year, believes some Republicans "have put party over civility." "From the age of the Gipper to our era of the Groper, the state of our politics has declined drastically," she writes in an op-ed for the New York Times. "It's hard to imagine the late, great William F. Buckley cheering on a politician who assaulted a reporter. But Buckley's nephew, Brent Bozell, did just that on Twitter in the aftermath of the Jacobs's incident." Bozell runs the Media Research Center:
Brent Bozell tweeted: Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I'm not surprised he got smacked.
"Had Ben been attacked by a Democrat, many on the right who are refusing to believe the assault occurred - or outright praising it - would be hailing him as a victim of liberal rage," Fields adds. "Had Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, rather than Mr. Trump's, grabbed my arm, I would not have been abandoned by many of my friends and mentors at Fox News, or my employer, Breitbart News. But I was inconvenient to their political narrative."
Michelle Fields adds hard-won insight to this discussions, but I would slightly correct one point that she makes: Republicans have not just put "party over civility," they have put "party over the law."
If Donald Trump and dozens of his associates wind up being indicted in KremlinGate, it will be a classic example of conservatives putting "party over law" and "party over country." Tribalism does not get much more extreme than that.