A divided nation: is Trump losing the culture war?

Donald Trump is in trouble, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. A Gallup poll last week found that just 38% of respondents approve of his performance as president – hardly surprising given the record number of Covid-19 deaths and current unemployment figures. So he has decided there’s only one way to win back white voters in the lower and middle income brackets whose support he needs for re-election: he must start a culture war. Hence his vile speech at Mount Rushmore earlier this month to celebrate Independence Day, in which he used “the classic methods of racist politicians” to whip up fear and hatred. His take on the movement for racial equality spreading across America, for example, was to dismiss it as part of a “left-wing cultural revolution” designed to “destroy” our “very civilisation”.

Actually, culture wars have been part of US politics for decades, said Mara Liasson on NPR.org. But Trump has escalated them: no modern president has been so aggressive a culture warrior. He announced his presidency by accusing Mexicans of being rapists. “Please don’t be too nice” when making arrests, he told law enforcement officers in 2017. More recently, he has tweeted that he’d never dream of removing names of Confederate generals from US army bases. But this time he’s misread the mood. The jolt to racial harmony created by the killing of George Floyd has led many white Americans to turn against a president who has so abjectly failed to bring the country together. Trump is even antagonising groups in his natural constituency, said Philip Wegmann on Real Clear Politics. Last week, for example, he alienated the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) by sending a nasty tweet to its only black driver, Bubba Wallace. Wallace, who recently persuaded Nascar to ban the Confederate flag at its events, had found a noose-shaped pull-down rope in his garage and voiced concern about being the target of a hate crime. When the FBI then discovered the rope had been there long before Wallace’s arrival, Trump couldn’t resist firing off a tweet demanding he apologise to his fellow drivers for “the hoax”. He is not going to win his culture war with stunts like that.

But to say Trump has launched a culture war is a bit like saying the US declared war on Japan, said Marc A. Thiessen in The Washington Post. It’s “technically correct, but it misses the point”. It’s the Left, with its cancel culture and demands that all who disagree with its views must be ostracised, that provoked the fight. Trump’s critics in the left-leaning media insist everything he says is racist. Yet his Mount Rushmore speech was the opposite. “We embrace tolerance, not prejudice. Every child, of every colour… is made in the holy image of God.” And he went on to praise great black Americans, like Frederick Douglass, Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali, declaring “only America could have produced them all”.

That Trump’s speech has invited such polarised reactions is itself a reflection of the state of our politics, said Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. It now resembles “the battle between Catholics and Protestants over control of the English throne”: anything the other side says is viewed as heretical. But instead of using his office to unite the country, Trump is concerned only with aggravating that divide. Yes, he makes grand appeals to the ideals of “liberty” and “patriotism”, but these are just dogwhistle words with which to ambush Democrats. Trump likes to depict himself as a bulwark against America’s national disintegration. But on the contrary, by turning himself into a “culture war avatar”, he is helping to tear the country apart.