“It is culture stupid”: Trump and Cultural Analysis

It was James Carville, the strategist behind President’s Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, who coined the famous expression “It is the economy stupid”. Carville wanted the campaign to be single focused — avoid all distractions and concentrate on jobs. For many Democrats, 2017 requires the same focus: Trump succeeded, the argument goes, because he tapped into the frustration of traditional blue collar democrat supporters who were frustrated that the American dream was no longer obtainable. Some sort of populist agenda — Medicare for all, taxing the rich — will bring these supporters back. Such a read of our situation is tempting but not accurate. It overlooks the way in which Trump is tapping into a deep cultural concern, which if ignored could lead to Trump’s reelection.

Any student of political philosophy will tell you there are broadly two ways you can view the state. The first is the position of John Locke who sees the state as a social contract. Each person makes a deal; we surrender certain liberties for the privilege of living under law. On this view, the state can be made up of individuals of different nationalities, cultures, religions, and worldviews provided they agree to the minimum basic rules for society. The second is the position of Frederick Hegel who has an organic view of statehood. State and culture are inseparable. Different cultures do not mix well. States work when there is a uniform language and culture shared by its citizens. There are reasons why Yugoslavia collapsed into seven countries in the late 1990s. If there isn’t a shared identity across the country, then the internal pressures are significant.

Not that he realizes, Trump is an advocate of an organic view of state. He sees protecting a “Christian” — even “Protestant” culture as a key part of his agenda. Roman Catholics are more of a problem for Trump; it is a global religion. Hence his willingness to take on the Bishop of Rome — an obvious foreign power who is an advocate of a wall-less world. From respect for the national flag in football games, to opposing “Happy Holidays”, to his resolute (and sincere) opposition to immigration in general and illegal immigration in particular, Trump sees a deep connection between a strong America and a homogenous culture.

Democrats need to tread carefully. The Lockean social contract between individuals was always naïve. The truth is states do need to acknowledge the often non-rational and powerful forces of patriotism and cultural identity. Democrats need a cultural alternative to the Trump understanding of America. The hope for the Democrats is that the cultural identity of America is complex. While protestant, white, culture is a part of American’s historical identity, there are other sub-narratives that have power. America as the “melting pot of the world”; America as the place that celebrates a freedom to be anything a person wants to be; and America as the country of generosity, kindness, and gentleness. There are all part of the cultural milieu and narrative of the country. These alternative narratives need to be celebrated, lifted up and framed as an alternative to the Trump cultural narrative of homogeneity.

The alternative cultural vision needs to speak as effectively to both urban America and rural America. It must avoid platitudes; it should evoke pride; and probably focus on the traditional emphasis of the “right” around the extraordinary gift of freedom to be whomever you want to be. The natural allies in this project are the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline protestant denominations. Both communities are deeply committed to a pluralism in America; Roman Catholics benefit considerably from immigration, especially from South America; the mainline denominations have a theology that challenges the crude binary of “saved” and “unsaved” and sees divine grace in difference and diversity.

This is not an invitation to defend the Lockean social contract, where culture does not matter. Instead, defenders of an organic state are right. We need a sense of America that unites her people. Those who want to challenge Trump need to set out the alternative cultural vision; this is the task of our moment.

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