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Donald Trump’s Culture War


There’s an irony in a passel of Republicans standing up, during a convention that nominated a reality TV entertainer for president, to tell America our culture wars are trivial distractions from the compulsion to make more money.

Technopolist Peter Thiel said it explicitly in his characteristically unconventional speech at the convention: “fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.” Ivanka Trump did so implicitly by adopting a traditionally leftist posture about working mothers towards the only policy issue she mentioned in introducing her father.

National Review’s Kevin Williamson says the tenor of Donald Trump and the convention indicates “There is no place for social conservatives in the Trump party…unless they are very naive or very, very cynical. It is difficult to believe that as [sic] movement to reclaim the seriousness and sacredness of marriage and family is going to be led by Donald Trump.”

Throughout his campaign, Trump has treated the conventional culture wars as a sideshow, so that feel at his convention isn’t surprising. He seems essentially agnostic on gay marriage, transgender bathrooms and showers, abortion, forcing people to pay for abortions and abortifacients, drafting women, and religion’s place in the public square. The first and nearly only mention of traditional culture-war issues in Trump’s acceptance speech came in the context of national security concerns, and included his own acceptance of leftist tropes: “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology. I must say as a Republican it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that Trump eschews the culture wars. It means, instead, that Trump prioritizes a competing set of culture wars. If we define culture wars as issues that go beyond mere rational calculations of an economic cost and benefit and penetrate to the heart of a person’s deepest beliefs, along the lines of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, Trump’s critique of our economy is its own culture war. Trump frames the economy in culture-war terms.

In fact, that’s why his economic arguments are so powerful. They’re not just about dollars and cents, but about competing visions of the good life. For social conservatives, major factors in living a good life as a participant in a good society include preventing (or at least slowing) the mass murder of the elderly, disabled, and unborn; being allowed to worship and participate in the marketplace as one’s conscience dictates; and providing a stable environment for children to grow up encircled by their own biological parents. For Trump, it seems, the good life includes not being insulted and taken advantage of in international trade and national security; making lots and lots of money; and the ability to preserve our safety against foreign invaders, both illegal immigrants and would-be terrorists.

Trump’s Atypical Culture War Issues

Trump frames the problems with our economy as essentially cultural: We “don’t put America first.” We allow China to manipulate currency to give themselves unfair economic advantages, and to steal our intellectual property (a real issue that is similar in outcome to directly stealing money). We not only allow into our country with little to no enforcement of the law but also give welfare checks and free schooling to the children of illegal immigrants, some of which kill American citizens. This is a cultural issue as much as—or, given the data about immigration’s effect on the economy, more so than—an economic one.

A famous speech by Abraham Lincoln detailed how this kind of rampant disregard for the laws—even stupid laws!—negatively affects society: “if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence.” Even people who support increasing immigration must concede that the public’s perception of absent law enforcement, on this issue and many others all the way up to the FBI’s refusal to prosecute Hillary Clinton, is extremely dangerous to the body public. This is how immigration is a culture war issue, not merely an economic one, and how it inflames people’s passions so that they cannot listen to the underlying economic debate. The moral values in play here circumvent the less-important discussion about economic comparative advantage.

Trump also frames the debate over whether to admit people from Muslim-majority countries not only in terms of safety, but also of culture: “I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people. Anyone who endorses violence, hatred or oppression is not welcome in our country and never will be” (emphasis added). That second sentence clearly references prevalent values and political stances inside many Muslim-majority countries. Very few people in our infotainment complex—Bill Maher is a rare exception—will discuss the fact that majorities of Muslims in some countries hold to political ideas that simply are not compatible with a free society. One culture says let your freak flag fly. Another says people who commit adultery should be stoned. That’s a culture war—sometimes literally.

Trump also speaks of our national security issues as cultural: “Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another. One after another. We all remember the images of our sailors being forced to their knees by their Iranian captors at gunpoint….Another humiliation came when president Obama drew a red line in Syria – and the whole world knew it meant absolutely nothing. In Libya, our consulate – the symbol of American prestige around the globe – was brought down in flames.”

While he also talked about the obvious implications for national security of a foreign policy built on cowardice, Trump here again frames the topic in cultural terms, of humiliation and national pride. It may seem trivial to the cosmopolitan globetrotter with no place to call home, but national pride is an essential component of statecraft, both externally and internally. People have an innate need to be proud of what is their own—their own kids, neighborhood, people, and country. A healthy society directs that innate need into positive behaviors, such as volunteering for charitable work or military service, Fourth of July parades, and telling your kids you won’t accept Cs and Bs on their report cards. An unhealthy society tells people they’re ignorant bigots for loving their country in spite of its flaws.

The Internal Contradiction in Trump’s Culture War

Trump’s success may be in taking the central duties of a functioning government and attaching to them the passion that typically emanates from other issues elites like to label trivial. They’re called culture wars because they deal with affairs of the heart. Since these affairs of the heart can be intensely personal, they are best resolved by giving individuals the freedom to act on their deepest beliefs without impediment or coercion, if at all possible. Our culture wars are so rancorous, in part, because of a deeper trouble neither Republicans nor Democrats have meaningfully addressed since well before the age of Trump: the size and centralization of government.

Open immigration, for example, would matter far less, both culturally and economically, if the United States were not a socialistic welfare state. Democrats would not have an incentive to weaponize victimization among minority groups if they couldn’t buy votes through government handouts. If anchor babies did not secure their parents (and through chain migration, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents) welfare goodies such as food stamps, housing benefits, medical care, and pre-K through college tuition, and the whole lot couldn’t draw down debt-fueled Social Security, families would have to come and stand on their own feet rather than on everyone else’s.

Then there really would be no justification for resentment against immigrants. It would be clear that anyone who is here is contributing. The lack of forced subsidization would help diffuse natural racial tensions such subsidization exacerbates, because while welfare programs do indeed function like a fixed pie, an economy where people only make money by delivering value helps everyone see that more people equal more employees and customers. They expand the pie. Therefore, the welfare state both Democrats and Republicans have set up has created an opportunity for Trump to activate identity politics for poor white people against the poor brown people they compete against for Medicaid doctors, schooling opportunities, police attention, and food stamps.

Trump’s culture wars also activate a primal human concern: self-preservation. In a year in which domestic terrorist incidents have spiked, people can be forgiven for tabling what may seem like secondary concerns about where people shower. You’re not arguing about showers if you’re dead. While Americans are still less likely to die in a terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning, perception, not reality, drives behavior. Our most primal need is survival.

Not coincidentally, that’s also the number one function of government: to ensure the common defense. That prime function of government seems to be getting lost amid everything else our administrative state wants to do. Rather than tailing Muslim and anti-cop extremists or incinerating ISIS into sand, it seems, Obama’s military-industrial complex is keeping itself busy buying sex-change surgeries at taxpayers’ expense. Americans have noticed.

Why the Roles of Government and Family Matter

Given that the size of our government has made it so ineffective at discharging its core duties, and the proper ordering of a government’s priorities places defense first, it makes sense for people to gravitate to Trump’s version of the culture wars. Gay marriage means nothing if ISIS sympathizers have killed all the homosexuals, or driven them underground. Yet this reality reveals yet another problem with Trump’s read on the situation. He blasts the effects of the administrative state without understanding their source. His solution is to “hire the best people,” but that buys into the same administrative-state mentality that has gotten us into this mess.

A major source of our culture wars is the growth of government. When government picks winners and losers, the losers get bitter.

The truth is that experts will not get us out of our cultural quagmire. All the “best people” already work for the Obama administration and its allies. The presidency, Congress, Supreme Court, administrative agencies, and so on are stocked chock full with Ivy League graduates who have puffy resumes, consulting gigs, and book deals. The problem is not the people, but the system that gives them power they can’t handle. Short of Jesus Christ, nobody can centrally plan an economy. Several hundred million more people shouldn’t have to die or live destitute for us to finally admit that fact.

A major source of our culture wars is the growth of government. When government picks winners and losers, the losers get bitter. When government controls how a certain sector of the economy or private life must function, it also creates an incentive for special interests to lobby for control of that power. Limited government is government partially immunized against culture wars. (Partially because government has to decide some things: it can’t not decide whether to legalize the murder of unborn children. Inaction in such cases is action.)

Trump’s version of the culture wars also does not seem to comprehend is that in some respects his culture wars exist because the traditional culture wars have not been resolved. In fact, our welfare state has helped fuel our economic sclerosis by incentivizing family breakdown. Almost never do we have public discussions of this key truth: The breakdown of the family brought on by orgified sex, serial adultery, near-ubiquitous use of chemical birth control, abortion on demand, the welfare state, coarsened behavior towards sex epitomized in de-sexed bathrooms and the gay hookup culture, and broadened divorce laws is a major contributor to today’s sclerotic economy. All these behaviors create massive personal, social, and economic costs.

Donald Trump wants to talk about trade deals and China, yet ignores that emulating his sexual behaviors has eviscerated upward mobility among America’s poor, a situation he now exploits for political gain. Just look at Appalachia: “The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a ‘stepdad’ only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on,” says the author of the new “Hillbilly Elegy.” Are tougher trade negotiations—or, to take Republicans’ ridiculous policy response, “job training for the twenty-first-century global economy”—going to do anything for kids like this? Give me a break. 

If Only Trump Were Brilliant

There are some benefits to Trump’s approach. It does reframe government in a more appropriate way, placing national defense foremost, as it should be, followed by international trade and relations, immigration, and criminal justice. You will notice that these are essentially the duties granted the national government by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. The majority of what our federal government does now has nothing to do with its actual constitutional duties. We’re now a pension system with an army, as the ruefully accurate joke goes.

If Trump were brilliant, one could argue his reframe of the culture wars into the issues the national government should be focusing on in itself could be a way to diffuse the social issues.

The problem is that ignoring the welfare state and culture wars papers over its moral and economic bankruptcy. For one thing, a major contributor to our economic need for immigration is our lack of native-born children. That’s a culture-war issue, as it deals with abortion and contraception, as well as Social Security (government pension systems reduce procreation). For another, religious liberty, free speech, and freedom of association are like national defense core guarantees of our national founding documents, and today’s culture wars aim to effectively erase them. For yet another, the reason the bathroom bills are such a big deal is because the federal government is putting its fat behind on the scale, and the existence of welfare state means it has weight to throw around. If the feds stuck exclusively to defense and foreign trade they’d have fewer bathroom bill bribery options, and we’d all be better off. But they don’t do that right now, and that situation can’t be addressed by simply ignoring it.

If Trump were brilliant, one could argue his reframe of the culture wars into the issues the national government should be focusing on in itself could be a way to diffuse the social issues. Yet for that really to be the case he’d have to actually dismantle the administrative state’s ability to interfere with all these personal affairs over which the Constitution grants the federal government no authority, starting by defunding departments and slashing unconstitutional regulations.

Unfortunately, I just don’t see that coming from a man who says the top three functions of the federal government are security, health care, and education, and whose daughter insists, for example, he will “focus on making quality childcare affordable and accessible for all.” Trump is apparently unfortunately not about diffusing the culture wars by leaving individuals more free to negotiate and establish their own moral boundaries through private transactions. He’s about transforming the culture wars into a political force that benefits his personal quest for power.