In mid-November 2020 — the days of early vaccine trials, farcical, Covid-hobbled NFL contests, and Four Seasons Total Landscaping — I wrote aspirationally in another publication that, pandemic notwithstanding, the days of constant madness might soon be behind us.
Inspired by the swift coming and going of a now-forgotten micro-controversy, I made a bold prediction: that then President-elect Joe Biden would deliver on his promise of returning some modicum of “normalcy” to America, specifically by putting an end to the culture-war rhetoric that emanated constantly from his predecessor’s Oval Office.
This was, obviously, incorrect.
While Biden as president has delivered on his promise to revert the White House to a policy-making and governing apparatus after its four-year stint as a clearinghouse for cultural grievance, the rest of American politics have refused to follow suit. A disproportionate number of this year’s hot-button political stories — from “cancel culture,” to critical race theory, to the base-pleasing, antagonistic antics of House Republicans like Reps. Matt Gaetz and Madison Cawthorn — have been less substantial political debates than attitudinal ones, about the public character of American life and our rhetorical treatment of its history.
The Biden presidency might have begun on January 20, but in nearly every other way that matters, the “Trump era” never ended.
The 45th president’s all-conflict-all-the-time mode of politics has stuck around past his administration’s expiration date because, for one, it turns out that it just works. Consider Glenn Youngkin’s come-from-behind victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election, driven by animus over local school curriculums and hyper-cautious, blue-state attitudes about Covid restrictions, or the massive fundraising hauls of GOP hopefuls still largely following Trump’s playbook of cultural grievance. Conservative media has continued its dominance by way of a series of ephemeral cultural skirmishes, over everything from Dr. Seuss to an imagined ban on hamburgers. “Let’s Go Brandon,” the thinly-veiled anti-Biden epithet, became a common sports arena chant and cultural phenomenon. Debates over Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates long ago left the realm of the scientific, continuing to rage this year as a proxy for longstanding cultural disagreements.
The stubborn persistence of these conflicts reveals Trump’s definitive political innovation. He didn’t, of course, invent the concept of culture wars or grievance politics; city-vs.-country animus is almost literally as old as civilization. But where past standard-bearers in American politics would politely downplay that aspect of American life (while, yes, nudging and winking at the activist base it most intensely mobilizes), Trump placed it gleefully at the center of his political project, smashing the big blue Culture War Button on his iPhone until they eventually took it away from him.
So consider this an act of — to borrow the term coined by the Washington Post’s David Weigel — “pundit accountability”: To predict a return of milder, early-Obama-era cultural politics was less sagacious analysis than an act of nostalgic wishcasting. But it was also understandable, given the lack of distance from Trump’s presidency available at the time. Although probably not for the reasons he intended, history will deem Trump a transformational president. In breaking a taboo which other politicians had mutually agreed to leave alone, he gave Republicans a powerful political tool — and by doing so, ensured the caustic, divisive cultural politics that defined his presidency would long outlive it.
Trump’s inflammatory, cavalier attitude toward progressive norms and mainstream niceties is his political signature. But it’s taken on a full and uncontrollable life of its own: Look no further than his recent conversation with conservative YouTuber Candace Owens, who (gently) sparred with the president over his vaccine advocacy. In Republican politics, to contradict Trump is to invite almost certain harassment or political ruin. But the anti-“establishment,” folk-libertarian cultural ethos that fuels the anti-vaccine movement is such an ingrained part of the conservative base’s identity that it resists such laws of political nature.
That Frankenstein-like phenomenon took shape in real time during the early months of the Biden administration, as conservatives tried a series of premises on which to wage Trump’s culture war without him. There were the aforementioned controversies over Dr. Seuss and (literal) red meat; the endless Fox News segments about “cancel culture”; even 1990s-style pearl-clutching over a rap music video. Finally, a previously-anonymous political entrepreneur named Christopher Rufo devised, in his own words, a “brand category” under which conservatives could neatly lump all of liberals’ “various cultural insanities”: critical race theory.
This year, Rufo’s strategy was put to a de facto road test — all stock disclaimers about thermostatic politics and off-year elections aside. Beyond pedantic debates about the definition and origins of the term “critical race theory” itself, the contest in Virginia tested the power of conservative reaction to the collection of liberal values artlessly lumped under that umbrella: pandemic-era risk aversion, shifting views on race and gender, and more broadly, the authority of government bureaucracies in defining and imposing those views. It’s pure sophistry, but Rufo’s rhetorical strategy accurately identified a sea change in liberal cultural attitudes over the past decade-plus and galvanized the movement to resist it.
There’s an obvious peril in over-learning the lessons of a single election — just ask forgotten contenders like Randy “IronStache” Bryce or Amy McGrath, who tried and failed miserably to persuade voters that Democrats could match the overheated working-class affectations of the Trump GOP. But what happened in Virginia’s gubernatorial election is a revealing test case for how cultural issues are keeping their place at center stage in American politics.
Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate and now Virginia’s governor-elect, was a mild, Mitt Romney-like private equity maven who emerged victorious from a party nominating convention glutted with Trumpian rivals who split right-wing activist support. After a decade during which Virginia seemingly transformed into a reliably blue state, it seemed he was likely to befall the same fate as its last crop of Republicans. Through late summer and early fall, polls consistently showed him trailing Terry McAuliffe, the state’s once and would-be-future governor and a veteran Clintonite.
The rest has already passed into political folk history: Youngkin transformed himself from a central-casting moderate Republican into a full-throated culture warrior, pouncing on McAuliffe’s tone-deaf remarks about parental involvement in schools and promising to champion the interests of Real Virginians over imperious liberal elites. Yes, the typical backlash against the ruling party in an off-year election was a factor — as shown by Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy’s close call in New Jersey — but Youngkin’s stunning reversal of fortune over the course of his campaign revealed the power of culture-war politics absent Trump’s uniquely off-putting qualities. (For more on this, see Ryan Lizza’s post-game interview in this magazine with Youngkin strategists Jeff Roe and Kristin Davidson — who protest the sordid “culture war” label, but credit for their victory the very issues that lit up Fox News chyrons for weeks leading up to the election.)
And it isn’t just the red-meat, rank-and-file Republican voter who has recalibrated their political philosophy for the culture-war era: The intellectual ecosystem of nationalist conservatives that’s sprouted up over the past several years to add much-needed ballast to the Trumpian political project has taken its own approach to meeting liberals on the battlefield. In a wide-ranging profile for The New Republic that introduced its readers to “The Radical Young Intellectuals Who Want to Take Over the American Right,” National Review fellow Nate Hochman described to a reporter how a new generation of conservatives explicitly demands “a more culture war-oriented Republican Party.”
So what would that look like not just on the campaign trail, but in policy and legal practice? Adrian Vermeule, the Harvard law professor and influential thinker on the populist right, wrote in The Atlantic in 2020 of his desire for a court-imposed “common good,” defined by a “respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality.’”
The new-school national conservatives have their own (many) internecine disagreements, but no one is going to mistake the erudite conservatism of Hochman and Vermeule for the endless stream of Fox News segments about Mr. Potato Head or the “War on Christmas.” And the social conservatives eager to wage these conflicts often find themselves at odds with a far more culturally libertine Republican base. But the flourishing of a new, culturally assertive strain of right-wing politics that doesn’t simply take the pre-Trump, McCain-Romney-Ryan status quo as a given reveals how much the former president expanded his movement’s horizons. For arguably the most anti-intellectual president of all time, Trump has in his own strange way let a hundred flowers bloom by breaking the cultural truce tacitly agreed to by his GOP predecessors.
Liberals, for their part, find themselves in an untenable and undesirable position on the other side of the trenches. More than a decade removed from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — the inescapably radical nature of which he aggressively downplayed, to the tune of almost 400 electoral votes — the Democratic Party has undergone its own Cultural Revolution. In the wake of weaker-than-expected 2020 election results in many areas for Democrats, especially among minority voters, analysts like David Shor and Liam Kerr have persuasively argued that the uber-progressive cultural messaging of the party’s donor class is far out of step with America’s mainstream, multiplying the effectiveness of the Trumpian approach. But whatever one’s place on the ideological spectrum, without the true believers, there’s no party apparatus, making moderation easier said than done.
Still, Democrats hold the levers of power with a trifecta in Washington, allowing them to overcome any sort of cultural “branding” deficit they might suffer in practice by delivering the legislative goods. Right? Well … not necessarily. Political scientists Lee Drutman and Meredith Conroy recently wrote about the body of research showing how in the immediate term legislation and governance have quite little effect on the electorate, only revealing their influence years later when voters have the opportunity to pass judgment on day-to-day life in the world those policies have created. In other words: Even as Democrats have passed their long-awaited, popular infrastructure bill, and aim to pass another largely popular social spending bill in 2022, they’re more likely to be judged next November and in 2024 by voters’ intuitive evaluation of a society built by legislation passed years, even decades ago.
It’s not an optimal position to be in for a party whose cultural vanguard is far outside the mainstream, and who doesn’t have the benefit of Fox News’ grievance engine backing them up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But if there’s any solace for liberals and anyone else who might lament the seemingly-never-ending Trump era, it’s this: On both sides of the conflict, the number of true janissaries is quite small. Biden won his narrow victory by identifying this, and correctly betting that a broad coalition of suburbanites, non-white voters and persuadable independents all sick of Trump’s inflammatory approach would be enough to take him over the top.
In that light, the ultimate test of Trump’s theory of politics might be his hypothetical 2024 re-election. Many pundits, myself included, have argued that Trump was a sui generis political phenomenon, his personal repellence and chaotic approach to the office being the key factors that united the Biden coalition. The Youngkin win and the close call in New Jersey, then — as well as apparent weakness from far-left Democrats elsewhere — reveal the power of a culture-war-fueled GOP, even or perhaps especially absent its idiosyncratic standard-bearer.
If Republicans make their expected big gains in the 2022 midterms and Trump runs his scorched-earth strategy again in 2024 and loses to a similarly-configured electorate, it would be even more persuasive proof that it’s not the strategy that’s defective, but the man who invented it. In exposing his personal weakness at the ballot box even while re-invigorating the modern GOP with his transformational, combative approach, Trump might end up having notched one more “unprecedented” accomplishment before the end of his political career, at least by his own standards: to do something that benefits others above himself, however unintentionally.
Republicans are making hay in his absence, but they still face the tension of balancing a largely socially conservative activist and intellectual class with a live-and-let-live Trumpenproletariat that has little appetite for Moral Majority-style politics. Consider Florida’s Gov. (and Trump-heir-in-waiting) Ron DeSantis, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of the GOP’s national pro-life base and an unpredictable, swing-y home-state constituency. The cultural cross-pressures in Democratic politics, meanwhile, become more glaring every day — Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona recently blasted his party for the use of unpopular progressive jargon like “Latinx” on his way to a potential primary challenge against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Meanwhile, the looming Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade threatens to reconfigure half a century’s worth of cultural and political loyalties.
With last year’s failed prediction in mind, I’ll refrain from making another one here. After all, it’s not really necessary: To look back at 2021, Trumpian cultural politics are no longer the ticking time bomb, or untested electoral strategy, or dangerous hypothetical that requires a more skilled analyst than myself to game out. They’re just the way we live.