Ross Douthat is mistaking the new American cultural revolution for a mere culture war. In a New York Times column under the headline “Trump’s Empty Culture War,” Douthat accuses the president of engaging in the bad kind of culture war, in which “attitudinizing, tribalism, and worse-case fear-mongering float around unmoored . . . without a single issue being clarified or potentially resolved.”
On the contrary, the fight Trump has joined is not a culture war but a cultural revolution. And it could not be more replete with significance. Instead of debating the controversy over NFL players taking a knee for the national anthem, Douthat would rather we were arguing about how we can rein in police abuses and reduce prison sentences without endangering public safety.
But why are we not having that conversation, or any rational conversation on many other issues of pressing importance to our divided nation? It’s not because of Donald Trump. It’s because one side of our national divide doesn’t want to have a conversation, or an intellectual argument, or even a culture war.
What they want instead—and are doing their best to enforce with every possible tactic, from tweets accusing white players who don’t take a knee for the national anthem of white supremacism, to brutal physical attacks by Antifa brownshirts, to college students hounding their professors out of their jobs Red Guard–style, or chanting “speech is violence”—is for everyone who opposes their positions on these issues to be entirely shut up.
One Side Isn’t Aiming For Compromise But Dominance
Actually, it’s worse than that. They want their opponents to be shamed or bullied into recanting and forced to parrot the party line, as in a Mao-era self-criticism session where the humiliated and broken accused admitted to inadvertently betraying the revolution and his comrades. Or, as in the press conference at which Army Ranger veteran Alejandro Villanueva—widely remarked to have been the only football player trotted out to apologize for his actions during the anthem—confessed to “unintentionally” throwing his teammates “under the bus.”
Except for the absence of the two-foot-high dunce cap with the Chinese characters on it, we might have been in the People’s Republic of China circa 1971. Thank heavens, defying our own cultural revolution costs Americans nothing more than self-respect, or at worst their job or business.
The president has been accused of infringing the players’ First Amendment freedom of speech by using his bully pulpit to say that NFL players who don’t stand for the anthem should be fired. The controversy does seem to mark a new low in the public discourse. Would I prefer to hear Calvin Coolidge making his deliberate case in defense of the Constitution against the original progressive attack on its principles? Wouldn’t we all? But here we are.
Identity Politics Aim for the End of America Itself
Gallup reported last year that 69 percent of college students now believe their schools should restrict “intentionally offensive” speech. The campus rape controversy and successful prosecution of Christian bakers and florists are other indications of a disturbing development: the abstract principles enshrined in the Constitution, from freedom of religion to the rights of the accused, are weak sauce compared to other principles with more visceral appeal. The thirst for justice and the hunger for respect outweigh people’s commitment to abstract rights. So can race and other categories of what we call “identity.”
But the genius and the miracle of America was that our identity as Americans was once inextricably tied to abstract principles about the rights of all human beings. To identify as an American was to believe in the Bill of Rights. To be an American patriot was to defend the God-given equality of all men as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
The rights the American revolutionaries fought for were an inherent part of themselves, always referred to as “the rights of Englishmen.” It was identity politics, but fought for an identity bound up in natural rights, one that could eventually be adopted by every American of every national origin, ethnicity, and race.
That American identity is what the cultural revolutionaries are determined to replace with their very different identity politics. That’s why they’re defacing statues of Christopher Columbus and attacking Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as slave-holders. We’ll sorely miss that visceral American identity when it’s gone, not least because it’s the safeguard of the universal rights and the other civilizational achievements we benefit from.
Is there a way out of the newly gelling mutually hostile tribal identities that are replacing it? Can we ever climb back into an e pluribus unum identification with all Americans as members of one tribe? Unless we can, the substantive debates Douthat and other truly thoughtful pundits want us to have will be impossible. And as hard as it may be for them to see, reforging that American identity seems to be what Trump is trying for: “We are all Americans first.”