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American Blindness, Abroad and at Home

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Amy Chua has Donald J. Trump’s number. Not literally (I’m guessing), but unlike some of her elite peers at Yale University, where she teaches law, Chua isn’t endlessly flummoxed by the president’s ability to brag about how rich and “very greedy” he is while also resonating with his working-class supporters.

As she explains in “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations,” what Trump has figured out, whether through cynical deliberation or primordial reflex, is how tribalism works. As much as progressives try to define elitism in terms of money, the establishment that Trump and his supporters rail against is culturally — not economically — defined.

“The tribal instinct is all about identification,” Chua writes. The president’s base “identifies with him at a gut level.” And it’s not as if elites get severed from their own gut feelings by their Ivy League degrees. “What these elites don’t see is how tribal their cosmopolitanism is,” she writes. “For well-educated, well-traveled Americans, cosmopolitanism is its own highly exclusionary clan, with clear out-group members and boogeymen — in this case, the flag-waving bumpkins.”

With “Political Tribes,” Chua — who is perhaps best known for “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (2011), a not entirely ironic memoir about her severe “Chinese-style” (her words) parenting methods — is on familiar terrain. All of her books revolve around culture and identity. In “World on Fire” (2003), she described how introducing free markets and democracy to a country can inflame existing ethnic divisions. “Day of Empire” (2007) posited that global powers gained strength through cultural tolerance rather than exclusion. In “The Triple Package” (2014), she and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, argued that specific cultural traits made for group success (a problematic provocation, to say the least).

“Political Tribes” reads like a return to Chua’s pre-Tiger Mother work: accessible history structured around a simple thesis. Just as American elites don’t understand sectarianism at home, she argues, they don’t understand sectarianism abroad. Members of our foreign policy establishment are so enamored of market reforms and democratization that they’re “spectacularly blind to the power of tribal politics.”

Hubris has been such a constant feature in American foreign policy over the last half century that many readers won’t find much here that’s new. Still, there’s something to be said for the organizing principle of a greatest hits album, and “Political Tribes” gathers some of the country’s most stunning failures into one slender volume.

Chua shows how a combination of racism and obsessive anti-communism made for terrible strategy in Vietnam, where Americans underestimated Vietnamese nationalism, including resentment of an economically dominant Chinese minority. Our policies in Afghanistan and Iraq were similarly obtuse. The push for de-Baathification of the Iraqi Army created a pool of “unemployed, frustrated Sunni men who owned weapons and had no marketable skills other than their military training” — and happened to be ripe for recruitment by the insurgency and eventually the Islamic State.

Chua sprints through her international material in a little over 100 pages before returning to the United States — which is where she gets stuck in a quagmire of her own making. What started out in her introduction as a shrewd assessment of our fractured political situation turns into a muddled argument about what Americans, mainly liberals, need to do next.

The first thing she advises is to be wary of the movement for economic justice, which she depicts as a fanciful cause driven by the “well educated and relatively privileged” kids of Occupy Wall Street. “Populism in America is not anticapitalist,” she writes. Her argument might have been more persuasive had she actually argued it; instead, in a bid to show elites how little they know, she provides page upon page about fringe phenomena like the sovereign citizens movement and Santa Muerte, but makes only a solitary and passing mention of the near-presidential nominee Bernie Sanders.

Her skepticism toward economic justice is joined by an antipathy toward identity politics. “Once identity politics gains momentum,” Chua writes, “it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition.” In support of her point she trots out the conservative complaint that “white identity politics has also gotten a tremendous recent boost” from the left’s “relentless berating, shaming and bullying.” Chua may be refreshingly attuned to the distemper of our times, but the annals of American history show that white identity politics has a robust record of doing just fine without any help from the left. Redlining, school segregation and minority disenfranchisement long preceded debates over whether serving bad banh mi sandwiches in a college cafeteria amounts to cultural appropriation.

Americans, Chua says, used to think of the United States as a “super-group,” with an identity “that transcends and unites the identities of all the country’s many subgroups,” because civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “captured the imagination and hearts of the public and led to real change.” This kind of gauzy sentimentality runs counter to the pointed analysis in the rest of her book. Leaving aside the sanitized reading of King, who was a more radical and divisive figure in his time than Chua lets on, she doesn’t square how the flourishing of this “super-group” ideal happened to coincide, at least in her telling, with the onset of the American foreign-policy “blindness” she so diligently chronicles.

“I have also seen with my own eyes over and over the very best of America, practically miracles,” Chua writes about unlikely friendships that have bridged divides … in her seminars at Yale Law School. She praises the musical “Hamilton” — where a choice seat costs as much as a mortgage payment, and where Vice President Mike Pence was booed — as the kind of unifying cultural touchstone Americans so desperately need right now. Considering how much she’s thought about tone-deaf cosmopolitan elites seeming hopelessly out of touch, she would have done well to heed the moral of her own book: When changing lanes, check your blind spot first.


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