In their 2014 book The Triple Package, Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, argued (controversially) that certain racial or religious minorities in America—including Mormons, Jews, and East Asians—did better than other groups, largely due to a combination of a sense of superiority, a (motivating) insecurity, and a resilience in the face of adversity. In her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Chua argues that identity politics and tribalism, and the way they feed off one another, are weakening America.
Unlike some analysts who see identity politics as a function of the left or the right, Chua—whose previous books include Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother—believes both sides have been infected. As she notes, “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism—bigotry, racism—is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism is tearing the country apart. They are both right.” Chua grounds her critique in foreign affairs, arguing that just as Americans, in her estimation, are blind to tribalism when meddling overseas, they are now blind to the tribalism that has helped bring us Donald Trump.
I recently spoke by phone with Chua, a professor at Yale Law School who studies ethnic conflict. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her experiences with political correctness at Yale, whether she “tiptoes” around the sensitivities of Trump voters, and just how steep the cost of identity politics really is.
Isaac Chotiner: When did you realize your background in studying ethnic conflict could be used to examine American culture and politics?
Amy Chua: Actually, very late in the game. This book started off very differently. It’s actually funny. I had written two books on nationalism and ethnic conflict before the Tiger Mom thing came out, but there were all these nasty tweets about “Why does the Tiger Mother think she can be talking about nationalism?” I thought, this is it. People don’t even know that I’m a professor, that I have these areas of expertise in foreign policy. So, I decided about three years ago that I wasn’t going to write a popular book. I was just going to go back and explore some of these issues about our greatest foreign policy disasters abroad.
“Identity politics has always been there, it was just that we’ve always had a dominant identity that superimposed itself on the whole country.”
And it was only two months after Donald Trump got elected, when I was teaching this class that I’ve taught for 20 years called International Business Transactions, where I talk a lot about these political dynamics and group dynamics. And I’m making this point, which is that the reason we screw it up all the time is because we are not familiar with the political dynamics in other countries, because our dynamics are so different. I was saying, “Because in these countries, in these developing countries you often get populist movements spurred by a demagogic leader with no political experience who [rises] to power on a racially tinged platform, scapegoating minorities,” and I just stopped, and everybody looked at me and said, “You’re describing the United States today.”
It makes sense that we would have more difficulty understanding Vietnam or Iraq than America, but it seems that you’re saying people here, especially those you identify as elites, really have trouble understanding their own country.
Completely. People describe it as “two Americas,” but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The reason there’s so much turmoil right now is because there’s always been all of these group identities and tribalism underneath, but we never heard about them because for almost 200 years the country was dominated economically, politically, and culturally by a white majority. And that is a very stable outcome—often invidious—but it’s stable, and all these other smaller groups are just suppressed, and you don’t hear about them until it feels like, “Oh, there’s no tribalism here, only now are we getting all this tribalism and identity politics.” But it’s always been there, it was just that we’ve always had a dominant identity and a dominant tribalism that superimposed itself on the whole country.
So now with the browning of America and whites about to lose their majority status, we have a new situation for the first time in our history where every group in America feels threatened. A study shows that two-thirds of working class [white] Americans feel that whites are more discriminated against than minorities. And Christians feel threatened. And when groups feel threatened, that’s when they go insular and tribal.
You argue in the book that one of the things driving white Americans crazy, and driving their own identity politics, is liberal identity politics. But you are also saying that white identity politics has always existed. So which is it? Is this Trumpian white identity politics always present, or do you think that right now it’s largely a backlash against liberal identity politics?
When there’s all this talk about white supremacy and white racism, I think it just muddies the water, because another thing that’s happened in addition to the browning of America is that class and educational differences have really split the white majority. So, the white-on-white resentment, the white-on-white hate in this country, is as intense as any other tribal divide right now. It’s a misnomer, but the kind of coastal elite—they obviously also live in Chicago and in Atlanta, and they’re not elite in the sense that they’re not necessarily all wealthy, but they are educated, they’re all the people that you and I know. They view themselves as the Enlightenment, which is supposed to be anti-tribal, and these people, who also happen to largely dominate Silicon Valley and Hollywood and Wall Street and much of the Washington establishment—this group of whites are now viewed by a lot of people inside the middle of America as traitors. As in, “These aren’t real Americans. They love minorities. They love foreigners better. They only want to bring in immigrants. They like the poor of Africa better. They don’t care about real Americans.”
Wall Street gives more donations to Republicans than Democrats, and Wall Street has just embarked on a huge PR campaign for Donald Trump’s tax cuts—with the vast majority of the tax cuts not going to poor white people—
So why are these things not engendering resentment? And is it fair to talk about the financial elite as being Democrats and liberals?
I think there’s a lot of confusion. The elites are always like, “How could these working-class, blue-collar whites not see that Trump is not one of them?” He is culturally more similar to [them], or, at least, he has succeeded in portraying himself, the way he talks, the way he gets in trouble for everything he says. He’s always being called a racist. He goes to WWE wrestling games. He stuffs himself on McDonald’s, and the glitz and all this stuff.
Americans in the heartland, or the working-class Americans, actually don’t hate wealth. They hate this idea that the system is rigged. There are studies that show that a lot of the white working class actually resent professional elites more. These pointy-headed professors and journalists and CNN people and lawyers. Ironically—talk about tribalism—it’s the progressives, it’s the liberals, it’s all my students, it’s me, it’s the people you and I probably know who are criticizing capitalism, who support Bernie, who say, “We need to fight inequality.”
A lot of poorer Americans of all races love the American dream. So, everybody where I teach is accurately pointing out that the American dream is a sham in many ways. That it’s really not true that people have access to it, but in doing that, they actually really turn off [voters].
OK, but what is it that you think bothers these voters so much more about a college professor making some comment about immigrants or cultural appropriation, as compared to their social safety net being gutted and being given to Wall Street via a tax cut?
First of all, there is a racial dimension, and I’m so frustrated with this debate after the election. Was it racism or economic anxiety that drove Trump to the presidency? It’s such a waste of time for smart people to do it either/or. Obviously both factors played a role in this.
On the coast, every time Trump says something, and we’re like, “Oh, that’s so racist or sexist. That’s going to take him down. He’s dead.” But instead that just misunderstands tribalism. He has successfully messaged himself. A lot of people seek him as part of their tribe, their cultural tribe. So every time he gets called out for being racist or sexist, instead of turning on him, they just feel he’s being picked on because that’s happened to them so many times in their workplace, always being called out for being … And to be fair, the left’s got to let go of some of this vocabulary policing.
If these people don’t want to be called racist, they should start by not supporting a racist president.
I may agree with you with that. That’s a different point.
A lot of people feel like, “I can’t even talk anymore.” I teach at Yale, and I’m so up to date on the latest vocabulary, and all the gender terms, and it…