What I got wrong about Trump and the culture war
Pundits get things wrong. I certainly do. In February 2014, 16 months before Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, I declared Jeb Bush the likely GOP nominee for 2016. In the weeks leading up to the November vote that year, I repeatedly predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.
On the positive side of the ledger, I was bullish on Trump's prospects for winning the Republican nomination long before most mainstream pundits were willing to entertain the possibility. But even in the context of Trump's successful bid to become the GOP standard-bearer, I badly misinterpreted something that's turned out to be extraordinarily important: I assumed that Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party signaled the advent of a post-religious right. The culture war was over, the left had won, and the GOP had now moved onto other things — like attacking immigrants, embracing protectionism, and cultivating ethnic nationalism.
This was a foolish misreading of Trumpism — though in my defense, this wasn't apparent during the primaries, when most intellectual social conservatives were drawn to Marco Rubio and the bulk of rank-and-file evangelicals and Mormons gravitated to Ted Cruz or Ben Carson. As long as the outcome of the primaries remained uncertain, the religious right stayed far away from the real estate mogul from New York City who had donated money to Planned Parenthood and done and said countless things to offend the sensibilities of social conservative voters.
But once Trump won the nomination, this changed quickly — and I was slow to realize what it portended for the future shape of American politics.
The religious right once believed with Jerry Falwell that it constituted a moral majority. The religiously informed views of this majority had been excluded from the country's leading cultural institutions (the courts, the media, the universities) by the secular liberals who ran them. But precisely because they were outnumbered in the country at large, these liberals were politically vulnerable. Reagan's two terms, followed by Republicans winning control of the House of Representatives in 1994 and George W. Bush's two terms in the White House, kept hope alive that Falwell's prophesy was being fulfilled.
But then John McCain and his staunchly social-conservative running mate Sarah Palin lost to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney failed to unseat him four years later, the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right, and the Obama administration began to display outright hostility to the priorities of the religious right during its second term. All of it contributed to a swiftly darkening mood among social conservatives, who began to feel more like a moral minority being backed into a narrow corner. Some even made the case for a tactical retreat in the face of a newly emboldened and confident form of secular progressivism.
The unfolding of the 2016 GOP primaries at first looked like cause for even greater panic. Despite Trump's clumsy efforts to portray himself as solidly pro-life, social conservatives thought they saw someone far less reliable than any Republican nominee for president since before Reagan.
But once Trump had prevailed in the primaries, the nominee's campaign presented conservative evangelicals and Catholics with a deal: Throw your full and unrelenting support behind the party's standard-bearer and he will vow to be your unstinting defender. No, he wouldn't give eloquent and moving speeches in favor of building a “culture of life” in which every child is “welcomed in life and protected in law,” as President Bush had done throughout his eight years in office. But he would do something far more valuable: He would act, appointing hardline social conservatives to the federal courts and the Supreme Court at an unprecedented rate, and doing everything within the power of his office to advance the aims of the religious right on other fronts as well.
Social conservatives accepted this blatantly transactional arrangement — and the result has been striking. Loyalty to the president has translated into unceasing efforts on the part of the administration to win concrete victories for the religious right. At the state level, the support and encouragement of the White House has emboldened social conservatives to push their agenda faster and farther than ever before, especially when it comes to criminalizing and restricting access to abortion. And those restrictions will soon make their way to the nation's highest court, where the president's two appointees could well help to form a conservative majority in favor of gutting Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the landmark decisions that established a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.
On one level, this is a dream come true for the religious right — the prospect of it achieving a long-sought victory on an issue that helped to galvanize the social-conservative movement more than 40 years ago. Yet on a deeper level, it represents a retreat from the high hopes that originally inspired that movement. Those hopes were rooted in a vision of politics as a form of proselytizing. The goal was to win the war, to take back the culture by converting people of good will to the cause of defending innocent human life against the infliction of lethal violence. That would make America a more decent place, a more moral country, and a more Christian nation.
What we have instead is a different and far less decisive form of victory — one in which the Supreme Court may soon permit a dozen or so states to all-but-ban abortion outright, but also where many more states, including most with much larger populations, will move in the opposite direction, entrenching abortion long past fetal viability.
And that tells us something important about the culture war under Trump.
Rather than ending in a decisive victory for the left or the right, it has metastasized, with points of division multiplying and new fronts constantly being opened up. Immigration, guns, Israel, trade policy, violent crime, climate change, tax rates, government regulations, free speech, college tuition — seemingly every point of political disagreement has been recast as a cultural clash pitting comprehensive and incompatible views of the world against each other. It's a full-spectrum smackdown between the liberals and the fascists. The effort to hash out a compromise, to reach consensus, is over. In its place is tribal warfare, an endless series of zero-sum conflicts over inches of ideological territory.
Instead of aiming to divide and conquer, the Trumpian right seeks to divide and then divide some more — in the hope that doing so will keep its own voters maximally energized to vote and provoke the other side into overplaying its hand, rendering itself unappealing to the few who have yet to join a side.
The culture war hasn't ended under Trump. It has swallowed up everything else.