What Trump’s Victory Tells Us: The Culture Wars Continue, But There’s a New “Wedge”

Trump used economics as a wedge issue in a novel way for the GOP, while submerging the old social issues.

Theo Anderson

At the RNC in 1992, Patrick Buchanan famously said that the election was a struggle for the “soul of America.” Trump’s victory was the latest, most stunning development in that ongoing war. (Photo by Mark Reinstein/ Getty Images)

At the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland this summer, what was most haunting wasn’t the rage of some of the speakers, or even the fascist edge of Donald Trump’s infamous I am your voice” declaration. It was the seeming reasonableness of his supporters when they talked about Trump.

"In our drawn-out struggle for the 'soul' of the nation, both sides have been in this place of deep, gathering dread more than once. On one side: conservatives whose ideal society prioritizes freedom and individualism against the common good. On the other side: progressives who believe that investing in stronger societies fosters healthy individuals and that true freedom derives from a robust public sphere that is equally available to everyone."

One soft-spoken woman from Kansas stands out. She wore a shirt with the logo of Kansas City’s baseball team and as we stood near the stadium of the Cleveland Indians, she chatted about life in a small town. She was conflicted about Trump, she said, but would vote for him anyway. She liked his know-how as a business executive. And all the rest of it, the bombast and vulgarity? That was all just for show. Just politics.

This was before we knew everything we now know about Trump. But we knew enough. We knew about the lies, the authoritarian impulses, the racism, hate and vast emptiness of the man. I noted at the time that it was stomach churning to think of him possessing the reins of power. Yet here we are.

What stood out at the convention was Trump’s cynical but deft use of an issue usually associated with the Left — trade deals — to tighten his bond with supporters. It was the most powerful theme of the campaign, speaking to people across the swing states that were decisive in Trump’s win, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But it was never, for Trump, primarily about trade. The issue surely helped him with workers in states across the deindustrializing Midwest, but his target audience wasn’t only the white working class. And his message wasn’t just that trade deals had killed” American industry, as Trump put it.

This election was a battle in a war. We heard little from Trump about the culture-war issues so prominent in previous campaigns. But the policies of our political leaders on trade became, for Trump, a shorthand for all the ways the political class had betrayed certain people over the past few decades. It especially fed into conservative Christians’ sense of being mocked by and driven out of establishment institutions, and of living in an alien country that had rejected their once mainstream social values. That sense of betrayal has been simmering for years among evangelical Christians. Trump absorbed and channeled it in a new direction.

The fact that many of Trump’s claims are flat-out lies has been pointed out many times. So has the irony that evangelical Christians rallied behind him. But what I learned in Cleveland over the summer and what felt haunting was that Trump’s supporters ignored the lies and responded to a certain truth he told about their status. That truth moved the mild-mannered people I encountered outside of the RNC convention hall to walk inside and cheer the rage of the speakers. Economics and trade deals were part of it, yes. But the central truth that drove Trumpism was that the America they knew is disappearing before their eyes — an America that was mostly white and mostly Christian, and where (in their mythical vision) the rules were clear, most people played by them and the nation was great.”

At the RNC in 1992, Patrick Buchanan famously said that the election was a struggle for the soul of America.” Trump’s victory was the latest, most stunning development in that ongoing war. He moved it to a different field of battle, using economics as wedge issue in a novel way for the GOP, while submerging the old social issues. The vast majority of the polls suggested that it wouldn’t work: that Trump and his version of the GOP would be defeated. And his history suggested that he would linger on as one of key players in the opposition — never admitting defeat, and leading a galvanized, ferocious opposition. And yet: Trump and his party now possess virtually all the federal levers of power: the presidency, the Congress and soon the Supreme Court.

This loss feels especially devastating. But in our drawn-out struggle for the soul” of the nation, both sides have been in this place of deep, gathering dread more than once. On one side: conservatives whose ideal society prioritizes freedom and individualism against the common good. On the other side: progressives who believe that investing in stronger societies fosters healthy individuals and that true freedom derives from a robust public sphere that is equally available to everyone.

The two sides are really two different accounts of how to build a better future and what is moral and true. There is, at the moment, little room for compromise between them in our politics. How progressives will navigate the era of Trump remains to be seen. But we know that the stakes are high. If there is no solace in that, there is, at least, reason enough to keep fighting. 

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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