Opinion

The culture wars are all Trump has left

Democrats should be ready to enthusiastically fight them

It's pointless for Democrats to try to downplay "identity politics." In President Trump's America, identity politics will come to get you no matter what. Indeed, fighting these old culture wars is just about all Trump has left.

That's a prime lesson of Trump's surprise Wednesday morning announcement that transgender people are not welcome to serve in America's military. In making that announcement, Trump usurped an ongoing Pentagon study into the issue — apparently even catching the Defense Department off-guard — and made a naked, cynical play to appeal to the socially conservative and otherwise traditional voters that make up much of his base.

"This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue," an unidentified Trump administration official told Jonathan Swan of Axios. "How will blue-collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like [Michigan Democrat] Debbie Stabenow are forced to make opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?"

Get that? Even if Democrats want to avoid identity politics in 2018, Trump won't let them.

This ought to be clarifying. Ever since Trump won in November, Democrats have been mired in internal debates over whether they should downplay identity politics — issues emphasized by their base of ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities — in favor of a broader appeal to the "white working class." The underlying question: How much should Democrats turn their backs on the heart and soul of the party to win elections?

The debate seemed to be resolved this week when party leaders unveiled their "Better Deal" agenda to run against Trump and the Republicans in 2018. It contained some big promises — a minimum wage hike, a crackdown on monopolies, apprenticeship programs, and more — but notably skipped any issues that might seem to appeal specifically to black or brown or gay people.

Those voters noticed. That the agenda "never mentioned voter suppression, police brutality, immigration, or refugees felt like a low-key dog whistle to me," one observer wrote.

That "Better Deal" effort, however, lasted all of two days before Trump pulled Dems back into the culture wars.

"Transgender Americans are serving honorably in our military," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted in response to Trump's announcement. "We stand with these patriots."

Just when Dems thought they were out, they get pulled back in.

Good.

Why? Because Democrats can stop debating whether victory requires them to downplay strong stands for LGBTQ rights, for immigrants and against voter suppression policies that disempower African-Americans. Republicans are going to tie Dems to those policies anyway, so the party — and its candidates — might as well be forthright instead of coy about where it stands on those issues. Maybe Democrats could even trumpet their inclusiveness as a virtue.

This isn't 2004, when George W. Bush came out for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage — a plain attempt to divide voters on culture war issues. In the years since then, gays and gay marriage have become increasingly accepted. If history is any guide, today's action will help Trump shore up his base in the short term — and be irrelevant in another decade.

But for now, the culture wars will rage again. Trump can't pass a health-care bill (at least so far). Getting a tax cut looks like it might be tricky. The wall he promised looks no closer to reality than it did six months ago. There are real questions these days about whether Republicans are capable of governance.

In that climate, all Trump and the Republicans will have left are identity politics and the culture wars. It's why Trump — after promising to be a president who would protect LGBTQ rights — came out against them. It's why he spent a Tuesday night speech describing the crimes of illegal immigrants in torture-porn detail.

And it's the reason conservatives are cheering the prospect of Kid Rock making a Senate run against Stabenow; policy, these days, matters to them much less than all the "real America" virtue signalling that the entertainer provides. For Trump Republicans, that posturing is all that seems to really matter.

Identity politics aren't going away. Democrats might as well embrace it, fly their rainbow flags high, and fight back.

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