Donald Trump represents the first candidate for whom success could only come after a culture war apocalypse.
A candidate like Donald Trump should be impossible. A loud, unscripted, hard-edged reality show-style candidate with exceedingly flexible positions on many hot-button issues would be laughed out of contention for the Republican nomination in other years. A man whose serial gaffes and willingness to stick his thumb in the eye of the gatekeepers of good taste would be cooked before he stepped onto the debate stage. An utterly inexperienced politician, who describes our rights and privileges as particular to us as Americans rather than universal moral mandates, would be rejected by both parties at any other time in the modern era.
But in Trump’s case, these supposedly disqualifying positions and attributes have proven to be the basis for unexpected success. Why? In part, it is because he corrects massive ideological failures by the Right, which have enabled unmitigated cultural overreach by the Left, eliminating the social and cultural basis that permits a Western liberal order to exist.
For decades, the institutional Right has ceded American culture to the Left, in spite of many voices who pointed out ample areas where the Right could carve out a countercultural movement against leftist domination, or even co-opt some of modern culture for itself.
The cause of this is partially a denial of how swiftly the culture has moved Left, leaving the institutional Right under the false impression it is still fighting the culture war of the 90’s and early 2000s. The Right’s obsession with 90’s-era battles over sex, drugs, and rock and roll is more than just an anachronism: it represents a self-inflicted wound that ignored how the Left used the culture to repeatedly make the case for their vision of an ideal society. We now know the Left won that war, and in this context, Trump represents the first candidate for whom success could only come after a culture war apocalypse.
The Right of the ‘Young Fogies’
The culture wars permitted the Right to be taken over by what Jeffrey Hart—Richard Nixon speechwriter, sometime National Review editor, and all-around conservative giant—described as “young fogies.” Hart describes the phenomenon in an essay titled “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to a Modern American Conservatism,” in which he envisions as a dialogue between himself and a younger woman of the era. Here is Hart’s warning:
A lot of my students are not sold on conservatism.[…] They think conservatives are preppies who are against sex. […] In some visible cases, the main content of ‘conservatism’ seems to be a refusal of experience. We have more than our share of young fogies. I could name some names, but what the hell. In my view, young fogie American conservatives…place an altogether disproportionate emphasis on sex and sex-related moral questions. […] Some conservatives appear to confuse Victorian morality with the Western tradition, and even with Christianity.
Hart wrote those words in 1982, when candidates like Ronald Reagan were still winning young voters. But the “young fogie-ism” Hart warned against was already becoming a significant portion of the Republican brand, one that extended through the anti-video game, anti-rap, anti-sex, anti-sideboob, anti-violence handwringing that became an integral part of the Republican persona over the next two decades.
Trump is many things, but a fogie he is not. On the surface, Trump’s gold-plated lifestyle is nothing like the old Hollywood-style glamour of the Reagan White House. But for an era where most Americans have moved far beyond the culture wars of the past, where reality stars are our new tastemakers and Kim Kardashian is an icon mothers encourage their daughters to emulate, he offers an aspirational vision of wealth and accomplishment that appeals to the same combination of glitz and celebrity.
The Left Turns the Market Against the Right
Obsessing over the lost culture wars of the past is an error for the Right. But the real problem is that even if the Right hasn’t moved on from its previous losses, the Left has moved on from its previous victories. They remain focused on advancing their vision and building on their victories, to the point of eradicating any opposition from the public square. As a result, the character of the Left has fundamentally changed in a way that today’s Right seems quite incapable of grasping.
Hannah Arendt once quipped that the fiercest revolutionary becomes a devoted conservative after the revolution. This is certainly true of the Left, which has, since its culture war victories, co-opted much of the dogma of earlier conservatives and poisoned it. The old Left cast itself as transgressors against mainstream morality. This Left enforces and controls mainstream morality. The old Left championed transgressive free speech. This Left despises it.
Most importantly, the old Left cast itself as outside of capitalism. This Left is thoroughly corporatist, and only occasionally pretends otherwise. As a result, conservatives have stood by, oblivious and helpless, as the Left began to turn all our best weapons—especially the free market—against us.
This brings us to a second point: the inadequacy of the institutional Right at anticipating and explaining free markets. Conservatives and libertarians have been warning of capitalism cannibalizing itself since at least 1942, when Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter opened his book “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy” with disturbing news for his free market-sympathetic peers.
“I felt it my duty to take, and to inflict upon the reader, considerable trouble in order to lead up effectively to my paradoxical conclusion: capitalism is being killed by its achievements,” Schumpeter wrote. Much later on in the book, he observed even more cuttingly that “capitalism, inevitably and by virtue of the very logic its civilization creates, educates and subsidizes a vested interest in social unrest.”
Cultural Neutrality Is Not Possible
Schumpeter was right then, and he is distressingly right now. The cancer of leftism has spread through capitalism even further than it had in 1942. The general assumption of the American people in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the collapse and bailouts of Wall Street is that they were witnessing failures of capitalism, and the Right has done little to correct this impression.
Trump’s brazenness in admitting to past acts of cronyism is another aspect that would, for any other politician, spell his doom. Instead, it has fostered a greater degree of trust from his supporters. This is because Trump alone seems to understand that capitalism has weaknesses at all, having been a capitalist himself. The greatest of those is the fact that capitalism—and its defenders—assume it can operate from a position of cultural neutrality. It can’t.
In the latest season of “South Park,” the titular town is overrun with advertisements masquerading as human beings: soulless robots who use gentrification and political correctness (“mental gentrification,” the show wryly notes) to eliminate actual human beings from the area. This idea that a certain species of capitalism might actually drive political correctness is daring and interesting, and relatively unremarked upon by those on the Right today.
The Left Treats Race and Sex as Brands
One of the key tactics of advertisers is to make consumers feel their life is missing something without whatever product the advertiser is selling. If you look at ads that attempt to showcase the difference between, say, data packages from different cell phone carriers, you’ll often see the competition depicted as holding back their customers from the awesome data package they could have because of greed, technological incompetence, or some other abstraction that, of course, the advertised carrier doesn’t suffer from.
Once someone buys a product, you want them to feel allegiance to it, a degree of brand loyalty that can sometimes resemble political tribalism (see Apple). The aim is to make customers believe that someone who consumes that particular product belongs to a community of other buyers, who just happen to be a particularly desirable community to be a part of!
When you distill it down to its essence, the worst forms of modern leftist politics play on all of these same tactics, playing down the ramifications of policy agendas to speak to a much deeper and emotional desire to be a good person. Did you vote for Barack Obama because you wanted to feel good about yourself, but still feel life’s missing something? Vote for Bernie Sanders, and he’ll deliver on the promise to give you everything you need. Not getting the wage you could be getting? It’s the patriarchy, so switch carriers and join our feminist army for Hillary instead.
The Left treats race and sex as brands, operating with messaging and tactics that are more than just organizing techniques: they’re a brilliant technique to capture someone without the insight to see through the pitch. The Left has realized it can succeed by creating cultural turf wars among different demographics as a substitute for a policy agenda that speaks to their real needs.
The Political Equivalent of Gawker
In this, they break from the past in many respects. Bill Clinton himself revealed how significant this shift was when he challenged Black Lives Matter. Clinton was advancing a policy argument in defense of his approach to crime in the 1990s, in the face of protesters who would hear none of it. His arguments were based on the facts, where the BLM protesters’ signs were based on the equivalent of brand loyalty to a cultural movement. No matter how correct Clinton’s case was, it inevitably fell on deaf ears.
The point is that the post-culture war Left has not laid down their arms. Instead, they have become the political equivalent of Gawker: a divisive industry seeking cultural flashpoints to exploit and highlight, devoted to manufacturing mutual hate for their own benefit. They thrive on the click-war hate that pits groups against each other.
It is not enough that women face challenges within a post-feminist society—they must be told that half the country is participating in a war on their priorities. In an atomized culture, breaking down people to the elements of ethnicity, sex, and gender is the Left’s go-to method of redefining society according to their priorities.
This is a key point that cannot be ignored. Because of the modern Left’s sophisticated use of advertising techniques, they have done something with their hatemongering that the Left of the past could only dream of: they have made it profitable. In so doing, they have turned a capitalist tactic on the culture that sustains it, and thus, on itself.
The Right Needs a New Cultural Vision
The Right must fight back against that. Yes, free markets remain the best economic system ever created, and a necessary precondition for a free society, but not a sufficient one. Does this mean the state has to get involved? Not necessarily. Conservatives could use another weapon to limit the spread of this kind of poison, and that’s culture.
Unfortunately, what little of a cultural vision we possess on the Right is so dated as to be largely hokey and irrelevant to the experience of Americans today. Because this new Left has become the dominant culture, the Right is obliged to form a counterculture. But countercultures are no place for young fogies. Countercultures shoot sacred cows, scandalize “respectable” norms, and generally wreak havoc for the sake of breaking down the hypocrisy and weakness of the dominant culture. By and large, it’s still the young fogies who run the show, and expecting them to create a counterculture, let alone a counterculture that produces actual art, is ludicrous.
The Right doesn’t have to conjure up its own art from scratch. It can and occasionally has co-opted modern entertainment as well. After all, don’t films like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” series make the most powerful statement about the tension between chaos and civilization since John Ford? Don’t Nietzschean fairy tales like “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” or even “True Detective,” not to mention most video games, utterly brush aside the Left’s fantasies about Rousseauistic, universal human goodness? Well, yes—but once again, Hart’s warning looms large, and fogie-ism rears its head.
An excellent example of this is an article titled “A Counterproductive Alliance,” discusing the increasing friendliness to right-wing ideas among video game fans after the #Gamergate controversy. The gist of the article can be summed up as: “How will we maintain our air of moral superiority if people show up to CPAC in costumes instead of blazers and bowties?” Never mind that #Gamergate and movements like it were the most successful backlash against political correctness: for some “conservatives,” saying yes to potential allies was too much to bear if it meant hobnobbing with the sorts of people who’ve never read a Bible or owned a varsity jacket.
Beat Dominant Culture at Its Own Game
This leaves the Right in a vulnerable and very unenviable spot: the most anachronistic elements of right-wing politics have rendered us too unimaginative to create a counterculture of our own, and too snobbish to appropriate the elements of the dominant culture that could serve as building blocks.
What’s a conservative who wants to stop culture, and thus politics, from being dragged to the far Left do? Answer: He or she has to hope that some part of mainstream culture co-opts the Right. Pray, in other words, that some Prometheus comes along who’s willing to steal fire from his fellow cultural elites to give to the Right’s forgotten constituencies, even if it annoys their more refined leaders.
Perhaps, say, some titanic elite figure who knows leftist pop culture’s weaknesses from the inside, and is willing to lose his cozy insider status to go at it like a wrecking ball? You know, the sort of person with enough cultural cachet to turn an episode of “Saturday Night Life” into an hour-long infomercial for his political vision, rather than a source of endless sneering gags about Republicans? The kind of person who can get away with barking orders at MSNBC hosts? That kind of person?
Oh look, it’s Donald Trump. Trump, alone among the 2016 Republican candidates, has been willing to seize the banner of the Right in the current culture war, and plant it straight in the backs of his fallen leftist antagonists. Trump did this the way countercultural warriors are supposed to win fights: he beat the dominant culture at its own game by rejecting their assumptions about what was allowed.
Hoisted on Their Own Petards
Compared to Trump at his most mocking and satirical, Gawker is tame. Compared to Trump at his most daring and impetuous, even the most ruthless of Hollywood’s antiheroes look peevish. Compared to Trump’s seemingly oblivious moments of benevolence, Upworthy looks mawkish and saccharine. Trump has made destroying the young fogies on the Right and Left the greatest thing on TV.
If the leaders of the Right are scared of Trump because he will say anything; the Left is scared of Trump precisely because he will say anything. He does not play by the rules, and that makes him less predictable and more dangerous. What Ronald Reagan and Trump have in common is obvious: an incredible capacity to use the media to captivate the American people. One learned this in Hollywood, the other in reality TV, but both deployed this skill to great effect.
There is, of course, a big difference, as well: everyone knows Reagan cast himself as a sunny, heroic figure. Trump, on the other hand, is taking his cues from his time as a pro-wrestling heel personality, i.e., a comically larger-than-life villain. But there’s a neat thing about villains, or at least well-done ones: they get to show where people’s ideas of good and evil fall flat. Trump does this brilliantly to the Left. He has taken the humiliating mockery that the media has trained so effectively on “hicks,” Christians, and Republicans, and turned it round to expose the smug, mostly leftist Babbits and young fogies of the Acela Corridor as no less ridiculous.
That’s a good start for someone who wants to make America great again, rather than letting America succumb to its eventual, leftist-driven death by a thousand clicks.
Mytheos Holt is a contributor to The Federalist and a senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty. Yes, Mytheos is his real name.