There’s a fascinating observation about Donald J. Trump spreading online that might be good news for Democrats and spell doom for Republicans. The idea is that Trump is a culture-war or cultural president.
A cultural president is a chief executive who ignores policy and spends his or time using the White House to change the nation’s culture. Such a notion is hardly new several presidents; including Jefferson, Reagan, Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, Obama, and Jackson, have waged culture war from the Oval Office with varying degrees of success.
The Culture Warrior in Chief
Culture war seems to be written into the very DNA of the presidency itself. The first; and most effective, culture warrior in chief executive George Washington used the presidency to change the country’s values. Washington used the presidency to set an example of behaviors he wanted his countrymen to follow.
For example, he refused to be called “your highness” and insisted on serving just two terms. Those were efforts to combat a popular inclination towards monarchy in 1790s America.
Washington also succeeded in crafting a government to his liking. That is a meritocracy of wealthy and educated aristocrats modeled on the Roman Republic. Such a government persisted throughout the 19th century, and collapsed only after the election of U.S. Senators began shortly before World War I.
Other culture warriors in chief were not as successful. Jefferson’s effort to create a republic of small farmers fell flat on its face. Jackson’s populist insurgency was hijacked by the wealthy and aristocratic elitists he despised. Teddy Roosevelt’s attempts to revive Roman-style virtue proved no match for political corruption and consumerism.
Only one recent cultural president, Reagan, sort of succeeded. Reagan’s “Morning in America” worked because it was in tune with popular sentiment and did not threaten entrenched interests.
Trump’s Cultural Revolution
Trump has given up on the notion of legislative or political change and adopted the role of the cultural warrior in chief, a number of pundits have pointed out. Politco’s Bill Scher labeled Donald “The Culture War President,” while David Brooks compared him to Abbie Hoffman; the clown prince of the 1960s counterculture in The New York Times.
“He was not elected to be a legislative president,” Brooks wrote of Trump. “He never showed any real interest in policy during the campaign. He was elected to be a cultural president. He was elected to shred the dominant American culture and to give voice to those who felt voiceless in that culture. He’s doing that every day.”
That’s a pretty fair and honest assessment of Trump and it is very good news for Democrats. Trump’s interest is changing the political culture, not in legislation or policy. This effectively makes the Republicans a leaderless party and leaves them impotent.
As a culture warrior Trump’s mission is to attack any Republican that veers from his party line not build consensus. The Donald creates an environment where Republicans either have to kowtow to him or hide; which is why Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is missing in action.
Why Trump’s Cultural Revolution will fail
Such an environment helps Democrats because they are under no obligation to pay lip service to Trump. Instead they can use him or destroy him, depending upon which course of action is more politically expedient.
At the same time, Republicans can do little or nothing without Trump’s approval. This means no GOP Senator or Congressman is going to advance a big idea out of fear of being caught in the culture war crossfire. Only those who do not care; such as U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) who is probably dying of brain cancer, fight while everybody else hides.
That brings up another destructive aspect of culture war; it empowers rival cultural warriors with different agendas. The most visible of them is McCain, who is trying to subvert Trump’s culture war in order to force his neoconservative vision on the GOP.
This environment will remind students of Chinese history of the 1960s Cultural Revolution in which the Communist Party destroyed itself in an ideological Armageddon unleashed by a popular leader: Mao. When the dust cleared in the 1970s; after Mao’s death, the Communist Party leadership was swept away clearing the path for today’s non-ideological technocratic elite.
What is the Goal of Trump’s Cultural Revolution?
The goals of Trump’s Cultural Revolution appear to be fourfold. They are to craft a new non-ideological political consensus in the Republican Party and Washington D.C., revive old-fashioned patriotism, restore White Supremacy, and rollback globalism.
To this end, Trump is trying to tear down or discredit the conservative, political, intellectual, and media establishments; much as Hoffman tried to tear down the white protestant establishment the mid-20th Century. Whether he can succeed is anybody’s guess, although The Donald seems to have movement conservatives on the run.
A major difficulty that Trump faces is that many of his allies in the Cultural Revolution do not share his goals. They want to tear down the establishment for their own reasons. For example; Libertarians support Trump in order to weaken government, conservative Christians see him as a path to seize political power, and some Leftists seem to back him as a means of opposing Big Business.
Why Democrats and Leftists Should Welcome Trump’s Cultural Revolution
Democrats and Leftists should welcome Trump’s Cultural Revolution because it is likely to backfire.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Eugene McCarthy and George Wallace succeeded in blowing up the Democratic Party and the New Deal Coalition. That cleared the way for the rise of Ronald Reagan and a neoliberal consensus in Washington. The real beneficiaries of Abbie Hoffman’s culture war were Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell; who capitalized upon it to create a new political consensus that was the antithesis of the 1960s counterculture.
Therefore the real beneficiaries of the Trump culture war are likely to be leftists – like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota). Trump has already cleared the way for them to take over the Democratic Party by knocking off Hillary Clinton and the New Democrats. He may create an even greater opening for Bernie and company by wrecking the Republican majority in Congress.
Britain’s Culture War Shows America’s Future
A forecast of things to come for Republicans might be seen in the United Kingdom. There the Conservatives having torn themselves apart in culture war over Brexit seem doomed to collapse.
Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to keep her party together. The once mighty coalition of Maggie Thatcher is unable to unify; or fill a conference hall in Manchester, New York Times’ writer Rachel Shabi noted. The Conservative Party’s last conference on October 4 was a comedy of errors. Pranksters pestered May as she spoke and letters fell off a sign trumpeting the new party slogan.
Polls show that Labour’s leftist standard bearer Jeremy Corbyn now has enough support to win a general election. Conservatives completely lacking in party discipline seem powerless to stop him.
Shabi noted that Conservative leaders; like Republicans, seemed unable to agree on what their party stood for at their own convention. May was blathering on about social justice while Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond was delivering mindless neoliberal tirades against Corbyn’s agenda.
In such an environment, even Britain’s business community seems resigned to neo-socialist Labour government. Corporate leaders flocked to the Labour Convention in Brighton to kiss up to Corbyn and other leaders, while avoiding the Conservative meeting like the plague. Businessmen were queuing up to talk to Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell in Brighton in September.
The catastrophe that has overtaken the Conservatives might be a preview of the Republicans’ future. One has to wonder if the GOP can learn from events in the United Kingdom; and defuse Trump and his populist cultural revolution, before it blows up their party completely.
This article originally appeared at Market Mad House on 8 October, 2017.