How to Jujitsu the Culture Wars
It’s time to make Republicans regret that they ever posed as anti-elites.
Let’s take it as a given that the right wing’s culture wars are, overwhelmingly, a ruse. Taken together, they amount to a bad-faith attempt by cynical political wolves to lure in the rubes, appealing to lowest-common-denominator fears and ignorance as a way to distract from the substance of what the Republican Party is actually doing. Nowhere is this more nakedly apparent than in the laughable bleatings of Republican power brokers against the “elite.” Donald Trump’s “blue collar billionaire” con is now being pushed by less gifted con men against the idea of corporate “wokeism” — a thing that does not, in fact, exist. Yes, this is all shallow and actively harmful political maneuvering, none of which should be taken seriously.
So can we get anything good out of it?
I think so. We can say with great confidence that these culture wars will continue, because they work. Let’s set aside for a moment the Critical Race Theory panic and neo-book banning frenzy and focus on one specific variety of these culture wars: The fake Republican embrace of the working class. This is the sort of thing embodied by Marco Rubio’s March 2021 halfway-endorsement of the union drive at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, because, he said, “companies like Amazon have been allies of the left in the culture war.” It is the sort of thing embodied by Fox News host Tucker Carlson inviting Amazon Labor Union leader Chris Smalls on his show for a sympathetic interview in a (failed) attempt to get Smalls to trash Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It is the sort of thing that motivated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare war against Disney, one of his state’s biggest power brokers and stalwarts of Republican state politics, because the company criticized an anti-gay bill.
All of these moves are motivated by a calculation on the part of these right wingers that the benefit they will gain by appealing to their base’s hatred of any manifestation of liberalism will outweigh any risk they might have traditionally felt about alienating big corporate donors. Trumpism has mixed up these dynamics enough that Republicans feel more free being what is politely called “populist,” but what is really just a return to good, old-fashioned racism, or at least a close cousin — xenophobia, scapegoating of immigrants, creating an “other” to hate, as a way to unify an in-group. Old stuff.
Republicans are doing this because they are opportunistic. But their opportunism is based on an assumption that nobody will ever call their bluff. The Republican Party writ large figures that it can insult corporate America as unconscionable woke elite liberal scum out of one side of its mouth and still enjoy the political and financial support of corporate America on the other end, because the people that control things understand that this is all theater and that the Republican legislative agenda is still resolutely pro-capital and anti-labor.
One acute risk of this dynamic — indeed, something that is already happening — is the possibility that Democratic strategists will see this moment as an opening to further cement the Democrats as the party of good corporate citizenship, the responsible people who won’t interfere with all the nice companies, and lean even harder into neoliberalism as a way to try to reposition where corporate political support flows. This is the version of opportunism that appeals to D.C. strategists. This is not what I’m talking about.
There is another, much more promising opportunity: To drag the Republicans into an extremely uncomfortable position by acting as if they mean what they say. When Ron DeSantis declares that he is stripping Disney of its privileged legal position (which will likely never come to pass, which would be his ideal outcome), the Left must stand up and say: Yes! We hate corporate welfare! A rare bipartisan moment of agreement! When Republicans lazily rail against Wall Street and Big Tech and the Ivy League because those institutions dared to pay the cheapest sort of lip service to liberal values while fueling inequality and monopolizing data for the purpose of increasing revenue and fostering an insular ruling class that never changes, we need to recognize that the right wingers have miscalculated. They have gotten themselves out of position. In the same way that a boxer must attack when an opponent misses a punch and falls off balance, now is the time for the Left to lean in and push these points, hard.
Why yes, now that you mention it, we agree with you that the unaccountable corporate elite is out of control. That is why we are ready to stand with you, evil lying fascists, and pass consumer-friendly regulation of financial markets to rein in the big banks, and break up the Big Tech monopolies, and unionize everywhere, because we like regular working folks and despise those fancy elites, just like you do. Yes! We could not agree more! We must show the Republicans that they have fucked up by playing our game. Agitating to smash the powerful? We invented this game. Why stop at just attacking some corporate tax credits, or whining to Ben Shapiro about Harvard kids booing your speech? Hell, let’s bulldoze all of Disney World and Harvard University and repurpose the land as housing for homeless veterans, who served their country. We’ll meet you at the gates, with the bulldozers fueled up, and 100 reporters watching! You aren’t scared, are you?
Republicans aren’t built for this. You want to give a speech on the Senate floor decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as a bad person for being woke? We will introduce a bill to order that his wealth is confiscated, loaded into cargo planes as pallets of cash, and dumped over abandoned middle American factory towns. We’ll put every billionaire to work in fast food restaurants! You like to make fun of Starbucks as a pretentious bastion of elitism? We’ll do you one better — we’ll unionize the whole damn company! We’ll unionize Goldman Sachs! We love this game. Don’t just speak about it, you Republican poser Ivy League grads masquerading as salt-of-the-earth populists. Be about it.
Republicans think they can win on some rhetorical battleground. They’re not prepared for what will happen when we take them at their word. Never let a good opportunity to pour gasoline on the class war go to waste.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.