Earlier this week, the Associated Press Politics account (@AP_Politics) tweeted a photo with the caption “President Donald Trump holds notes during a White House listening session with students and parents affected by school shootings,” with a tight shot of the president’s hands and the note card. You could see a few of his talking points.

Perhaps you’ve seen the photo or the tweet or any of the thousands of comments and/or retweets of it. I was less interested in the content of the photo or what the note said than some of the responses to the photo/tweet. A number immediately took it as an opportunity to slam the president for needing notes. Others questioned why the Associated Press would be critical of Trump in this way. I even saw one that claimed the image was Photoshopped.


In a vacuum, the photo itself and its caption are completely innocuous. But it really is amazing how people will react when tribal instincts are triggered, creating a there when there is no there there.

A regular contributor to this page sent an article to me and a few others the other day, it was actually a book review in The Washington Post for Amy Chua’s new book, “Political Tribes.” I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy yet, but the review by Jonathan Rauch was, in and of itself, fascinating.

Obviously, the concept of tribalism really isn’t anything new and has pervaded society for hundreds of thousands of years. A more modern example is our allegiances to sports teams. But it can also be found in religion, social organizations, gender, race and, of course, politics.

As humans, we want to — nay — need to belong to a group. It’s instinctual.

And the science behind tribalism shows that we don’t just need to belong to a group, we must protect our group at all costs and, in many cases, hate their groups. A longtime social experiment is to randomly assign people to teams and see how quickly those teams not only bond with each other, but show hostility toward the other teams.

Go back to sports for a minute. This is why a Baltimore Ravens fan might accuse Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of being a rapist, while defending Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis from accusations from a Steelers fan that he was a murderer, and vice versa.

We do it at work and will assign blame to other departments when things don’t go as planned, even if our own department is just as culpable, and claim success when things do go well.

Researchers with the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School have found not only are our views shaped to agree with those with whom we most strongly identify, but when challenged, we’ll dig in and defend them even more strongly.

Wrote Rauch in his review: “Subjects will deny the evidence of their own eyes to agree with those around them, even if the discrepancy is blatant.”

Our tribal instincts continue to override our ability to reason, which has turned plain facts — the president is pictured holding a notecard — into political battlegrounds.

Social media certainly isn’t helping. Ironically, a medium that was designed to help people connect on a wider scale gives us the opportunity to become even more tribal, choosing who we “friend” and “follow” and leaving behind those whose posts we do not agree with. We’re building walls to keep others outside of our social circle, and we didn’t even need Mexico or Congress to pay for it.

In politics, both parties are embracing extreme tribalism. Democrats, who have long been the party of inclusion, instead of trying to appeal to all Americans as one people have instead focused on identity politics that double down on tribalism.

Ronald Reagan, the idol of most conservatives today, was a master of negotiation during his time in the White House. Yet today’s Republicans are often too stubborn, willing to die on a hill and consider “compromise” a dirty word.

Politics works best when there is rigorous debate on the issues and compromises can be reached. When both sides ignore reason and instead revert to tribal instincts, it becomes all about “us versus them” instead of just about “US.”