This post first appeared at The American Prospect.
In a world and a country beset by complex problems — to name just one, millions of Americans in Puerto Rico have essentially been blown back to the 19th century by a storm — the man with the nation’s most challenging job spent the weekend complaining about the NFL.
There are many explanations for what’s going on in Donald Trump’s head — one of my favorites is that it’s about personal resentment, since after he lost a bid to buy the Buffalo Bills a few years ago, he has been intensely critical of the league for growing “soft” and caring too much about the safety of its players. But at bottom, this is a political and not just a personal project. Donald Trump is enacting a presidency devoted to the culture war, more so than any president in recent history.
It’s always questionable to assume that Trump is undertaking anything like an intentional strategy when we see what comes out of his mouth or his Twitter fingers. But his impulses have patterns, one of which is that regularly — but particularly when he experiences some kind of political setback — he turns back to the white identity politics that got him elected.
The latest eruption started Friday, when at a rally in Alabama, Trump’s stream of consciousness wound its way to Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who kneel during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘get that son of a bitch off the field’?” Trump said to cheers. Then he continued ranting about the NFL on Twitter and threw in a jab at NBA star Stephen Curry, who had said he wouldn’t be joining his Golden State Warrior teammates at the traditional White House visit after a championship (though the team now won’t be going at all). “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Trump tweeted, showing all the high-minded class we’ve come to expect from him. That led to LeBron James calling Trump a “bum,” whereupon Trump went back to urging NFL owners to fire any player who makes a silent protest during the national anthem. Which they’d have an awfully hard time doing even if they wanted to, since practically the entire league made some kind of protest in response to Trump on Sunday.
This is not an argument Trump is likely to win, but winning isn’t really the point. Maintaining the culture war is its own justification, a way of ensuring that the divisions that Trump rode to the White House don’t fade. If Trump weren’t an avatar of cultural rage and resentment, what would he be? Just the most incompetent and ignorant president we’ve ever had. If, on the other hand, he’s using his bully pulpit to lash out at the people you hate, then his value for you is undiminished.
When I say that Trump is uniquely devoted to the culture war, what I mean is that drawing divisions among Americans between “us” and “them” is the central theme of his presidency. Culture war politics have always played out in an endless cycle of progress and backlash: Some social advancement takes place because of the urging and efforts of liberals, and their success is followed by a reaction as the right tries to roll back the gains that have been made and restore the social order to the status quo ante. Trump is all backlash.
He campaigned by telling his audiences that he’d build walls to keep out Mexicans and ban Muslims, by pouring misogynistic contempt on his opponent, and by railing against the “political correctness” that supposedly keeps you from telling people exactly what you think of them. And he summed everything up in the evocative phrase “Make America Great Again,” which no one misunderstood. When was America great? When women knew their place, when uppity black athletes didn’t make their political opinions known, and when there weren’t so many immigrants around. It was when your culture was the culture, to such a complete degree that you didn’t even notice the primacy you’d one day lose.
Early on, Trump seemed ill-cast to lead a comprehensive cultural rebellion; it’s something we might associate with the puritanical, sanctimonious scolding of a Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz, someone steeped in the politics of resentment. But Trump took to it with gusto, and the culture warriors took to him. The most important reason they were not dissuaded by his personal history or obvious insincerity was that he was so plain and explicit where others were subtle. He made it clear that it wasn’t about abstractions like “opportunity” or “religious freedom” — he’d be advocating for white people and for Christians. The man who turned himself into a political figure by becoming the most prominent advocate of the racist “birther” conspiracy theory wasn’t going to pussyfoot around. His promises to turn back time were intoxicating, and the loyalty of the right’s culture warriors has barely wavered.
Yet on the scale of the whole nation, social progress is only moving in one direction and both sides know it. That doesn’t mean, however, that the politics of reaction can’t be extraordinarily powerful for a time. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently observed, a presidency as fueled by an explicit white identity politics as this one comes in direct reaction to that of the first black president — progress, then backlash.
There are ways in which Trump is delivering concrete culture war results to his constituents, like his hard-right judicial appointments or efforts to undermine affirmative action and voting rights. But that would have happened under almost any Republican president. What Trump offers that is unique is his regular squabbles with the people those constituents hate, a public display of rage and contempt that any other president of either party would find beneath them. Even if he can’t turn back time, the bile flowing out of his extraordinarily loud megaphone is music to their ears.