The nation’s foremost culture warrior is President Trump.
He wouldn’t, at first blush, seem well-suited to the part. Trump once appeared on the cover of Playboy. He has been married three times. He ran beauty pageants and was a frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show. His “locker-room talk” captured on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape didn’t, shall we say, demonstrate a well-honed sense of propriety.
There is no way Trump could be a credible combatant in the culture war as it existed for the last 40 years. But he has re-oriented the main lines of battle away from issues related to religion and sexual morality and onto the ground of populism and nationalism. Trump’s culture war is fundamentally the people versus the elite, national sovereignty versus cosmopolitanism and patriotism versus multiculturalism.
It’s the difference, in a nutshell, between fighting over gay rights or immigration, over the breakdown in marriage or Black Lives Matter.
The new war is just as emotionally charged as the old one. It, too, involves fundamental questions about who we are as a people, which are always more fraught than the debate over the appropriate tax rate or whether or not we should have a defense-budget sequester.
The participants are, by and large, the same as well. The old culture war featured Middle America on one side, and coastal elites, academia and Hollywood on the other. So does the new war. And while Trump has no interest in fighting over gay marriage or engaging in the bathroom wars, his staunch pro-life position is a notable hold-over from the old war.
Yet any of his detractors who is warning, out of reflex more than anything else, of an attempt to control women’s bodies or establish a theocracy is badly out of date. Donald Trump has many ambitions, but imposing his morality on anyone clearly isn’t one of them.
Instead, he wants to topple a corrupt establishment that he believes has put both its selfish interests and a misbegotten, fuzzy-headed altruism above the well-being of the American people.
This isn’t just a governing program, but a culture crusade that includes a significant regional and class element. It channels the concerns of the Jacksonian America that is Trump’s base and, as Walter Russell Mead writes in an essay in Foreign Affairs, “felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat.”
The revolt of the Jacksonians as exemplified in Trump’s presidency sets up a cultural conflict as embittered as any we’ve experienced in the post-Roe v. Wade era.
“If the cosmopolitans see Jacksonians as backward and chauvinistic,” Mead writes, “Jacksonians return the favor by seeing the cosmopolitan elite as near treasonous — people who think it is morally questionable to put their own country, and its citizens, first.”
This backdrop will add intensity to almost every fight in the Trump years.
Consider the president’s war with the media. Almost all Republicans have testy relationships with the press. For Trump, though, the media are something more than a collection of biased outlets; they are a particularly noxious, high-profile expression of exactly the Northeastern elite that he seeks to dethrone.
On the other side of the ledger, it’s nothing new for those occupying the commanding heights of our culture to accuse Republicans of being narrow-minded and bigoted, but the level of vitriol will be elevated to meet Trump’s frontal challenge.
His emphasis on borders, cultural coherence, law and order and national pride will engender a particular fear and loathing. It is an article of faith among the cultural elite that these priorities — despite what they consider the aberration of November’s election — are the relics of a rapidly disappearing America that can’t possibly represent the country’s future. Trump and his supporters beg to differ.
The culture war is dead; long live the culture war.