A long simmering culture war is back in full effect across the United States — and has spilled over into other parts of the world, including Canada. It’s a culture war that has been long festering, known well to those who perceive themselves to be on the losing end of this culture war — cultural conservatives — as well as their victims — largely, anyone who wasn’t a straight, white Christian (and sometimes male). And surprisingly, most lower and middle class white people are at the losing end of this war, but continue to support the movement.
There have been ups and downs in this war, and territory ceded. Most American conservatives care less and less about women being kept out of the workplace and politics, or their sexuality, though these are nowhere near won battles. However, the great fronts of core cultural identity remain — gender, race, and religion.
To truly understand the inception of this cultural war, one has to understand the currents of an extremely business-focused conservatism that realized that they could only gain widespread support by clinging on to the racist atmosphere that permeated the U.S. in the 50s and 60s.
In the 1950s, the New Deal, introduced after the Great Depression, had become normalized, creating not just jobs and social safety nets, but also establishing a political consensus that the worst excesses of businesses and individuals had to be reined in to create a livable national community. This included business regulations and taxes.
This upset a select group of severe economic conservatives, who were proud initiators of a verbal warfare that continues today, calling this political consensus “socialism,” and working to establish that as a verboten word and idea. Their major problem, however, was its popularity, even amongst much of the business class.
Their big break came, ironically, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending segregated schools. The president at the time sent in American troops to maintain the peace. Conservatives jumped on this. In rhetoric that would be worthy of Brietbart, they equated this action with hard-working white people paying for lazy Blacks who couldn’t pull themselves up. This would only be the beginning.
The KKK used this as a rallying call to boost membership. It was discovered that poor white people in the U.S. south, who generally were very supportive of the New Deal, could be brought around to this brand of cultural conservativism by focusing on the racial aspects.
This trend has never gone away — with the majority of welfare recipients under Reagan being white, or the majority of Obamacare recipients as well — politicians discovered they could appeal conservatives to go against their own welfare if it would hurt their black neighbours more.
By the 1960s, a cultural revolution was underway, as Black activists, Native American activists, feminists, environmentalists, the LGBTQ community, and others came to push for a new vision of society. The reaction to protests then was as swift as it is now. They were quickly condemned as “special interests,” an ironic term that somehow encapsulated the vast majority of America. Nixon needed more than just racism to win him support, deeming his side the “silent majority” against the noisy, protesting special interests.
Today, they might be referred to by the same forces of cultural conservatism as “snowflakes” or even “cucks.” It’s the same idea as ever — there is only one true America, and the only real identity is as a Christian American who supports unfettered capitalism.
Cultural conservatives fully completed their wedding of racist and exclusionary values with economic goals under the Reagan administration. Some will remember his portrayal of the Black welfare queen, who subsided off of government largesse and poor life decisions, as his archetypical strawman. Against this enemy, whose greed and immorality was dividing and destroying the country, there could only be one response: tax cuts and deregulation. Oh, and blindingly white American patriotism.
The rhetoric worked, for a long time. Conservatives got what they truly coveted — the ability to let corporations get rich off the sweet high of government non-intervention and low tax rates, cloaked in a rhetoric of restoring America to some lofty greatness that only existed in the minds of rich, white men. Corporations responded in-kind, with financial support for politicians, and tacit support for cultural conservatism.
That system largely remained intact until Trump. While Trump has wholeheartedly adopted the dog-whistle signalling of racist words and values, relying on support from neo-nazi groups and publications, the world has shifted around him.
For one, many Americans, both left and right, have become increasingly skeptical of the special favours the government has paid to businesses. This extends to free-trade deals, once considered the darling of the right, and widely supported by big business. Trump sees them, or claims to see them, as hurting America — by which he presumably means jobs, as economic productivity by a number of measures has gone up with them. He campaigned on taking the U.S. out of these deals, and somehow getting a better deal. This is unlikely, even if highly popular.
In fact, threats to put import taxes on all Mexican products, and to start trade wars with China may benefit some businesses, and retain some jobs, but will likely overall hurt American purchasers and the economy generally. Trump has even threatened U.S. companies who consider moving jobs abroad.
Increasingly too, corporate America has moved to distance itself from cultural and even fiscal conservatism. On that front, numerous companies have begun to stake their entire identity on opposing key parts of cultural conservatism, standing up for transgender rights, immigrants and refugees, environmental regulations, etc.
Cultural conservatives have responded by calling for boycotts of numerous companies (now including Target, Nike, Starbucks, even Budweiser) they feel have betrayed their racist, homophobic, or anti-immigrant values. Trump likely feels betrayed by these companies he considers allies. If so, will he go out of his way to punish them?
Republicans have long had their eyes on pushing right-to-work legislation nationally, effectively killing off union powers, one of their perceived special interests. They’ll likely try to gut environmental regulations, as well as oversight on things like food and drug inspection. Expect to see tax cuts, privatizations, and financial deregulation, though this could be opposed by some of his base.
Trump has also pledged to repeal Obamacare and social safety nets generally. Ironically, these overwhelmingly support poorer white Trump voters, but have had to be demonized as racialized services that bankrupt America, morally and economically. However, it’s likely the Republicans will find it an impossible task to repeal Obamacare and not condemn many people to death, as they themselves allude to in recently leaked tapes. This may mean we see a slightly more corporate-friendly Trumpcare. The lower and middle class white people will lose in the “winning” of this culture war.
The real question is, when Trump’s policies fail to substantially improve the lives of the white people who voted for him, what will he do to retain their support?
Sure, building all the pipelines will create a few thousand jobs for a few years, then we’re back to where we are. It’s hard to imagine a non-apocalyptic world where coal mining comes back into force, or where Trump’s threats restore millions of manufacturing jobs taken by robots. Or that allowing mining companies to pollute rivers and dairy farmers to use more antibiotics leads to some economic renaissance. American voters may prove more demanding of real economic and employment results than any president, particularly Trump, may be able to deliver.
By all intentions, there seems only a few possibilities for Trump to keep some sort of hold on any popularity. As polls show he is already disfavoured by the majority of Americans, just two weeks in, we may not have to wait long.
One is an increasing reliance on divisive identity politics and policies. Conservatives have been rapidly shedding their aversion to even the claim that they abhor identity politics. They know that this rallies their base. That Trump has already announced extremely racially divisive policies so early on — his so-called Muslim ban and the wall with Mexico — is either mollifying, or horrifying. One wonders what he’ll resort to when even more desperate.
Leaders with authoritarian tendencies, appealing to populations who feel wounded and disparaged, and whose path to greatness is only held back by select “special interest” groups — like immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, Natives, or Blacks — have always been a recipe for horrors.
The second distraction favoured by American presidents is (holy) war. The US is no stranger to inventing reasons to go to war, from the Gulf of Tonkin, wars with Mexico and Spain, to the Trump’s press secretary embellishment of a missile attack by Iran already this week. Tensions are rising with China, and, strangely, Australia. Russia has just begun pushing to take over more of Ukraine. Posturing has begun with Iran. And a notoriously thin-skinned “snowflake” of a president now commands the American military.
Already massive protests and movements are converging to combat the first threat. The biggest single day of protest in American history happened the day after Trump entered the White House. This means there are a lot of new people entering the political fray for the first time, and if organizers can work to sustain the movement, it won’t be their last. There are already discussions of a general strike, partly in response to the national right-to-work legislation. These are hopeful signs.
As the Trump administration wears on, and other politicians worldwide watch and emulate, progressive forces will need to learn these lessons from history, and fight like hell against these policies and cultural markers that seek to entrench corporatist power and throw many of our communities under the bus.
Image: Flickr/Paul Weaver
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