How everything became the culture war
Americans have given up on policy and turned to bruising battles over identity, said journalist Michael Grunwald. Partisans would rather score points against the opposing tribe than solve the country’s problems.
To understand how American politics got the way it is today, it helps to rewind the tape to the presidential campaign of John McCain—specifically to his effort to win back a listless crowd at an otherwise forgettable campaign event in south-central Pennsylvania in the summer of 2008. The Republican nominee had opened by promising a country-over-party approach to politics, recalling his compromises with Democrats like Ted Kennedy: “We’ll have our disagreements, but we’ve got to be respectful.” The Republican crowd sat in silence. McCain then denounced Vladimir Putin’s incursion into independent Georgia, warning that “history is often made in remote, obscure places.” No one seemed interested in that particular remote and obscure place.
McCain just couldn’t connect with the crowd, until he unleashed a garbled riff about how Congress shouldn’t be on recess when gasoline prices were soaring. “My friends,” he said, “the message we want to send to Washington, D.C., is ‘Come back off your vacation, go back to Washington, fix our energy problems, and drill and drill now, drill offshore and drill now!’” It lacked the poetic brevity of the “Drill, baby, drill” line his future running mate, Sarah Palin, would use to fire up crowds, but the York Expo Center suddenly erupted with raucous cheers. It felt visceral, almost violent, as if McCain had given his supporters permission to drill someone they hated. McCain flashed an uneasy grin, like a kid who had just set off his first firecracker, delighted but also a bit frightened by its power. He wasn’t really a drill-baby-drill politician, but he could sense his party drifting toward drill-baby-drill politics.
A decade later, McCain is dead, bipartisanship is just about dead—his funeral felt like the rare exception that proved the rule—and the leader of the Republican Party is a world-class polarizer who mocked McCain’s service while cozying up to Putin on his way to the White House. President Donald Trump has pioneered a new politics of perpetual culture war, relentlessly rallying his supporters against kneeling black athletes, undocumented Latino immigrants, and soft-on-crime, weak-on-the-border Democrats.
Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-segregated and mutually disdainful, each camp deploying the furious language of victimhood to justify its fear and loathing of the gullible deplorables in the other. One side boycotts Chick-fil-A (over gay rights), Walmart (over sweatshops), and companies that do business with the National Rifle Association, while the other boycotts Nike (over Colin Kaepernick), Starbucks (over refugees, gay marriage, and non-Christmas-specific holiday cups), and companies that stop doing business with the NRA. We live in an era of performative umbrage. Every day is Festivus, a ritual airing of our grievances about Kathy Griffin, Roseanne Barr, fake news, toxic masculinity, and those fancy coffee machines that Sean Hannity’s viewers decided to destroy for some reason. Every decision about where to shop or what to drive or what to watch is now an opportunity to express our political identities. The 24-hour news cycle has become a never-ending national referendum on Trump.
Politically, it makes sense that debates over highly technical challenges like energy and climate change have been transformed into shirts-and-skins identity issues. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Trump-loving governor-elect, recently proclaimed that he’s “not in the pews of the Church of Global Warming Leftists,” a very 2018 way of expressing opposition to carbon regulations, renewable energy subsidies, and other forms of climate action. He wasn’t disputing that the planet is getting hotter, or questioning the scientific data on the dangers of fossil fuels. He was clarifying which team he’s on, and more specifically which team he isn’t on: the team of tree-hugging scolds who look down on ordinary Americans for eating bacon and using plastic straws.
As long as America keeps sorting itself into two factions divided by geography, ethnicity, and ideology, pitting a multiracial team of progressives who live in cities and inner-ring suburbs against a white team of conservatives who live in exurbs and rural areas, this is what debates about public policy—or for that matter about the FBI, the dictator of North Korea, and the credibility of various sexual assault allegations—will look like. We will twist the facts into our partisan narratives. The self-inflicted wounds will infect more and more of our lives. And if you want something else to worry about, consider where it might be spreading next.
Politics has always been adversarial. Traditionally, though, we’ve had a fairly robust national consensus about a fairly broad set of goals—a strong defense, a decent safety net, freedom from excessive government interference—even though we’ve squabbled over how to achieve them. What’s different about drill-baby-drill politics is the transformation of even nonpartisan issues into mad-as-hell battles of the bases, which makes it virtually impossible for politicians to solve problems in a two-party system. Cooperation and compromise start to look like capitulation, or even treasonous collusion with the enemy.
Take infrastructure spending, which was once reasonably uncontroversial, at least in principle. Today, many conservatives portray it as a liberal plot to siphon rural tax dollars into urban bike paths, subways, and high-speed rail boondoggles that unions will build and Democratic city slickers will use. The Trump administration actually changed the rules of the most prominent grant program for local transportation projects so that it explicitly favors rural projects, infuriating liberals who now see it as a slush fund for sprawl roads to nowhere serving out-in-the-boonies Trump voters.
Policy skirmishes tend to metastasize into cultural battles when they involve identity issues, and after spending time on the campaign trail recently, I got the sense the next big Republican culture war will be a war on college. For generations, the notion of higher education as a ladder of opportunity for everyone has been an anodyne nonpartisan talking point, even if Democrats and Republicans disagreed on the appropriate levels of federal funding and regulation. But Republican attitudes are changing. In Ohio, I heard them talk about taxpayer-funded school bureaucrats who trick kids into believing that expensive and often useless liberal-indoctrination universities are the only way to get ahead in life, siphoning students away from vocational programs that could prepare them for well-paying jobs.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this shift is happening at a time when college-educated voters are trending Democratic and non-college whites have been Trump’s most reliable constituency. Policies that hurt colleges, like policies that hurt cities, are policies that hurt Democrats. To listen to pols talk about college these days is to watch a wedge issue in its embryonic stage, as substantive questions about the cost and relevance of higher ed, the burdens of student debt, the adequacy of worker training, and the power of political correctness on campus start to morph into red-meat attacks on pointy-headed elitists who look down on ironworkers and brainwash America’s youth.
At a campaign event hosted for Congressman Jim Renacci, who narrowly lost his Senate bid in Ohio to Sherrod Brown, I saw hints of the looming campaign against higher education. It was reminiscent of Gov. Scott Walker’s red-meat attacks on the University of Wisconsin as an ivory-tower bastion of left-wing professors ripping off hardworking taxpayers. The underlying theme was that liberal elites have rigged the system to funnel Americans into colleges that look down on the kind of white working-class families who supported Trump. Speaking to a group of staunch Republicans at a northeast Ohio soybean farm, Renacci told a story about an opioid addict he met who fell in with a bad crowd because an uncaring taxpayer-financed educational establishment told him college was the only plausible path to success. Renacci said the addict plaintively told him: “I didn’t want to learn trigonometry.”
“We need to stop pushing everyone into college,” Renacci said. “Let’s get this stigma off our backs: You can live the American Dream without college.”
Renacci’s event was supposed to be about trade, but none of the local farmers expressed any concern about the beating they’re taking from Trump’s trade war. What they expressed concern about was illegal immigrants who commit crimes and demand handouts, the deep state, Democrats who want to steal from Medicare to fund Obamacare, and antifa thugs. Even though their party controls Washington and Columbus, they believe they’re under siege; one 60-something farmer told me he’s afraid to speak out because “radical Democrats will burn your house down.” When I said that seemed unlikely in the rural expanses of Ashtabula County, he said I should check out the angry leftist Millennials he’s seen when he’s visited the Ohio State campus, “wearing boots and backpacks and shouting stupid slogans.” I asked him whether he supports government spending on higher education for those Millennials, and he shot back: “I’ll tell you what I don’t support: free college for illegals and higher taxes for me.”
Donald Trump was not the first Republican president to exploit America’s divisions. Think of Richard Nixon rallying his “silent majority” against bra-burning, free-loving, acid-dropping hippies, or even George H.W. Bush running against flag burning and Willie Horton. And Trump didn’t create the so-called Big Sort of Americans into two ideologically polarized, geographically and racially segregated, mutually suspicious partisan camps. The rift between the mostly white camp of gun-owning, evangelical-church-going Fox News watchers who live relatively spread out and the more diverse camp of Whole Foods–shopping, funky-café-going NPR listeners who live closer together has been widening for decades.
So the culture war is not all about Trump. But Trump has a destructive genius for exploiting it. Trump’s entire Make America Great Again theme was always a cultural call to arms, deeply rooted in nostalgia for the supposedly good old days of the 1950s, before the messy disruptions of Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, before the steel industry had to worry about global competition or the coal industry faced limits on pollution. And since he’s abandoned his populist promises to crack down on Wall Street, build $1 trillion worth of infrastructure projects, and get every American good health care, he’s doubling down on his racial and cultural messaging to his white working-class supporters, betting his attacks on the intelligence of LeBron James and CNN’s Don Lemon will overshadow his efforts to strip protections for pre-existing conditions and gut oversight of financial rip-offs. So far, it seems like a good bet. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.
The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.
It’s not clear how a fight like that would ever end.
Excerpted from an article that appeared in Politico.com. Reprinted with permission. ■