EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has drawn a lot of media attention for corruption in office. But David Roberts does an excellent job in explaining how tribalism is the root source of his power and popularity among conservatives, grimly concluding, “Pruitt will have a long and comfortable career in conservative politics, where corruption in service to tribe is no vice at all.”
Pruitt and President Trump, Roberts says, “are governing on behalf of their allies and supporters, against their perceived enemies, with virtually no claims to anything more universal.” He goes on:
That kind of tribalism in politics is not new, of course, but with the Trump administration, the US conservative movement has more or less abandoned any pretense of anything loftier. Respect for mutual norms and procedural neutrality have gone well out the window.
The GOP has become, in the immortal words of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Tribalism explains Pruitt: his policies, his paranoia, his ethical and political missteps, and his eventual ejection from the Trump administration, which is looking more and more imminent.
But any notion of norms, standards, or restraints that transcend partisanship, that apply equally to all tribes, has all but vanished from consideration. That which is not explicitly forbidden by law is allowed. Mitch McConnell recently bragged that denying Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a confirmation vote — a grotesque violation of Senate norms and procedure, the latest in a string orchestrated by McConnell — is the “the most consequential decision I’ve ever made in my entire public career.”)
It turns out, by the time Trump took power, what was left of the conservative establishment was ready, nay, eager to be freed from remaining norms. The GOP has rolled over for Trump like a puppy. His naked corruption and overt authoritarian tendencies do not occasion any oversight or even objection, because they are deployed on behalf of the tribe. When you are involved in zero-sum warfare, the ends justify any means.
Roberts also makes the important connection to the religious right in the GOP’s drift toward corruption-excusing tribalism:
Pruitt is a pure creature of this new hyper-conservative GOP. He came up in Oklahoma conservative politics, where alliance with fossil fuel industries and hostility toward federal regulators are taken for granted and the only serious political threat is from the right. Liberals and environmentalists mostly exist as grotesque caricatures on the conservative media that dominate the airwaves.
Pruitt has lived his life in a conservative bubble, and much like Vice President Mike Pence, his intense religious convictions, his naked political ambition, and his industry-friendly policy agenda are in perfect alignment, with nary a hint of cognitive dissonance. God called on him to deregulate the fossil fuel industry. The more power he gains, the higher he rises in politics, the more he can carry out God’s will.
The scary, dangerous result:
A cosmopolitan-minded person might approach environmental policy and say, “okay, we agree that we should serve the public interest, but our tribes just disagree how best to do it. Let’s come to a compromise.”
That kind of talk is gibberish to a tribalist, just one of the pious bits of nonsense people in the opposing tribe use to impress one another. The tribalist does not begin with a pluralist conception of the good and work backward to policy. The tribalist begins with the good of the tribe and works backward to policy (and to everything else, including truth).
For the tribalist, there are only opposing tribes and the battle between them. Pretense to the contrary, appeals to any sort of trans-partisan standards or restraints, are merely a ruse, a gambit in the endless war.
Pruitt is there to serve his tribe, i.e., resource industries….
Pruitt views himself as operating within occupied enemy territory. Washington DC and the federal bureaucracy are dominated by enemy tribe. The Dems in Congress pressing him for information are part of it. The media that is covering these scandals are part of it. The people who yell at him in big-city airports are part of it.
He is surrounded by enemies who will, in his words, “resort to anything” to get him. That’s why he needs so much security, avoids unstructured encounters the public, and sleeps in a lobbyist’s condo or at home in Tulsa. He has no interest in encountering the enemy.
It is Pruitt’s undisguised tribalism that seems to shock even previous GOP EPA administrators — the unwillingness or inability to even go through the motions of propriety, much less broad consultation and transparent policymaking.
There’s quite a bit more, all worth reading. And an excellent companion piece is Roberts’ May 2017 piece, “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology.” Put it all together, and it is clear that we are dealing with a radical right that cannot be dealt with via rational argument and persuasion. Nor can it be dealt with through appeals to the common good. Those who recognize the gathering storm of destruction and care about the future of life on earth have but one choice, politically: vote out every single Republican until the party repents of its anti-life extremism and is ready to face reality rather than live in a made-up world of alternative facts. That world is false, and living as though it is true is destroying the future of civilization on the one real world we share with all of creation.
Photo: Caricature of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Creative Commons license; credit DonkeyHotey.