Trump, Polarization and the Culture Wars
There’s a strange parlor game out there among pundits where any time Donald Trump or some other polarizing figure says or does something outrageous and stokes up a big old culture war backlash, that it will all somehow play into Trump’s hands. Steve Bannon says he’d love to argue about Confederate monuments or flags! The liberal media got suckered into siding with unpopular elites like rich football players and that will just play to Trump’s base!
To this I say: No. Stop it. Now.
The argument goes something like this: Trump said and did so many awful things during the 2016 campaign and was rewarded for it in the GOP primary and then during the general election. Therefore, taking the cultural bait and responding to some Trumpian outrage is just going to rile up that old “Silent Majority” who don’t talk to pollsters but who will stick it to the Establishment and shock the elites at election time.
It’s certainly true that Trump survived the sorts of gaffes that would kill off other candidates. But that’s more a testament to his refusal to ever back down. Trump’s base would rather be “strong and wrong”. Pissing off the right people and never apologizing is taken as a value unto its own.
The problem here is that George W. Bush did the exact same thing, got the same short-term benefit by rallying the “base”, and then…ended up losing it all by 2006. Why? Because there is a diminishing return to playing culture war games. Eventually, reality catches up.
So let me offer three reasons why I think the concern about “playing into Trump’s base” is wrongheaded.
1. Trump is actually terrible at playing culture war politics once the heat of the campaign is gone. A big reason is his utter lack of discipline. Remember two weeks ago when all we talked about was Civil War monuments? A whole cottage industry was ready to spring into action to “defend” these monuments, with t-shirts, marches and fiery talk radio monologues. But then Trump managed to change the subject. Unlike Karl Rove who could ride a culture war horse (anti-gay marriage) all the way to the bank, Trump has already moved on to another flashpoint: NFL players and the national anthem. And the pattern will continue. By next week, the national anthem protest issue will be forgotten and Trump will find some new point of faux outrage. Whatever rallying effect he may have gained fighting one culture war, he likely lost when he moved to the next one. The ones sticking with him all along were the 25% of Americans who never abandoned him in the first place.
2. Culture war battles are ethereal. Substantive fights over health care or North Korea or taxes have staying power. In the midst of this fight over kneeling protests, the GOP Congress just consummated the worst legislative failure since the Democrats botched health care reform in 1994. ACA repeal truly died, at least legislatively. Puerto Rico is facing a genuine humanitarian catastrophe, and while the US Navy seems to be doing what it can to help, the public is getting no information about what is being done. And nobody thinks tax reform will be any easier. Voters really do pay more attention to these things, which happen to affect their daily lives, more than the latest hot button culture war issues.
3. Trump has reinforced the cultural left while yanking the cultural right around in circles. Seeing normally conservative NeverTrumpers come to the defense of NFL players kneeling is pretty amazing. They now see through what the GOP has used to rally its voting base for decades. Meanwhile, a REAL “silent majority” – mostly women, of all races and ages – is coming out in droves to organize in opposition to Trump (who do you think led the fight against TrumpCare?), and in taking back legislative seats in special elections (Dems picked up two more last night – 8 Dem pickups to 0 for the GOP this year). Defending basic values of equality, justice and fairness is not just morally right. It’s good politics.
So don’t get fooled into believing that Trump’s stoking of culture wars is some elaborate trap. After all, trying to tamp down “excessive PC” (even where I think it really has gone too far) is not going to cool things off. The Breitbart noise machine will keep looking for some obscure media or academic figure to blow up and play on constant feedback loop. By all means, criticize genuine illiberal excesses, like violent assault against speakers. But don’t pretend that the Trump base will be salved.
The most important thing for everybody else to do is to promote the values that Trump is trying to wreck every day. And to promote policies that actually help the most people and not wealthy donors. And to show up in every single county in America and let the real silent majority appalled by Donald Trump know that they are not alone, no matter where they live.