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When Trump flounders, he plays the tribal politics card. Here’s why that’s terrifying.

Sen. Jeff Sessions Sworn In As Attorney General At The White House Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

It is striking President Trump picked Thursday, May 11, to 1) sign an executive order establishing a commission to investigate voter fraud; and 2) have Attorney General Jeff Sessions announce that federal prosecutors will seek maximalist penalties for criminal prosecutions.

Future historians may note that these actions came just two days after Trump’s sudden and unexpected firing of FBI Director James Comey, which in turn came just days after Comey had requested more resources to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, provoking a firestorm of criticism in Washington and in the press.

The gambit should be obvious. Every time it looks like the walls are starting to close in on Trump, he plays the tribal politics card. He reminds his supporters of the stakes for the fight over national identity, and gives our us-against-them lizard brains a new charge.

Remember how back in late March, after the health care repeal effort had fallen apart, the Trump administration whipped out an announcement on “sanctuary cities.” Sessions told reporters that if cities failed to cooperate with federal law enforcement authorities to deport illegal immigrants, the federal government would withhold funding.

Now, in the wake of the Comey fiasco, the Trump administration is again rushing to prime the tribalism pump by reminding supporters about the dark, racialized threat of voter fraud. Here’s the subtext: Comey who? A mere distraction. Don’t forget: Illegal immigrants are going to take over our country through MASSIVE VOTER FRAUD.

A sure tell that the executive order on the commission was rushed into action is that although it established a 15-member commission, only the chair (Mike Pence), the vice chair (Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach), and five additional members were announced.

But no matter. Kobach is especially beloved by the ethnonationalist right. He has been among the most aggressive and forceful advocates for restrictive voting laws and harsh anti-immigration policies. When Ann Coulter was asked whom she most wanted to see in a Trump administration, she replied: ““Kris Kobach, Kris Kobach, Kris Kobach. Have I mentioned Kris Kobach?”

Trump is “identity politics for white people”

As Perry Bacon Jr. noted in a recent piece, the Trump administration is pushing an approach “akin to civil rights for the Trump coalition” As Bacon writes, “Trump and his team are focusing on defending different groups: Christians, police officers, victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants, and people who fear Latino immigrants are taking their jobs or redefining U.S. culture, among others.”

Or, as Hans Noel put it succinctly, Trump is “identity politics for white people.”

So every time Trump seems to get into trouble, he only needs to make a tribal politics reminder announcement. And so far, his supporters keep sticking with him, because he’s on their side. What matters is having the right enemies.

The us-versus-them tribal approach to politics is terrifying, because it brokers no potential for compromise. It pushes us further into our separate tribal epistemologies, further challenging the already marginal sense of institutional legitimacy necessary for democracy to function.

It also makes it very difficult to hold Trump accountable. Tribal war demands overlooking any corruption on your own side, because there is always a greater enemy: the other side. So as long as the battle lines are clear, Trump can get away with an awful lot.

Is the slide into tribal politics inevitable?

Shortly after the election, Brendan Nyhan wrote what looks like an increasingly prescient column, “Is the Slide Into Tribal Politics Inevitable?”

Nyhan noted (correctly) that “an ethno-nationalist style can have significant electoral advantages.” That is, by making identity politics more salient for a sizable group of working-class whites who don’t see anything like “white privilege” in their own lives (and therefore resent the phrase, and everything that comes with it), Trump made obvious gains in Rust Belt states with large numbers of working-class whites. If he (and Republicans) wants to keep winning in those places, he needs to keep those loyalties salient.

As a result, Nyhan also predicted that “Trump may … shift the political debate toward questions of national identity, immigration and culture.” These are areas where he has considerable power, both because of the rhetorical centrality of the presidency and because he can advance these aims through executive orders far more than he can accomplish tax or health care reform.

But is it inevitable?

Here’s what worries me: Trump will continue to be embattled. Questions about Russian interference ain’t going anywhere. Trump is impulsive and incautious. He will continue to fire people, pick intemperate fights, say stupid things that get him in trouble. That’s who he is.

And each time he gets stuck, he’s got one card to play: the tribal politics card. Remind his supporters whose side he’s on, and what the real stakes are.

And so far, it’s worked. In a politics with only two parties and therefore two sides, you’ve got to pick one.

And each time Trump does this, he continues to redefine what it means to be a Republican. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell come along. The conservative media comes along. And the slide continues just a little more.

Impeachment is a political decision that can only happen when Republicans in Congress decide it’s politically advantageous for them. Which will only happen when Trump’s supporters abandon him and his popularity plummets. Which will only happen when they no longer think Trump is on their side, fighting for them. Which is why he will keep dialing up the identity politics.

The more embattled Trump gets, the harder his administration will play identity politics. Because that’s all they’ll have. And the deeper we’ll slide into tribal politics. It’s hard to see how this gets better before it gets even worse.