In the wake of 9/11 and with the Iraq war not yet a year old, President George W. Bush bluntly described himself as a “war president” who makes “decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind.”
President Donald Trump is a war president of a different sort: a culture war president. As the New York Times reported this week, “In private, the president and his top aides freely admit that he is engaged in a culture war on behalf of his white, working-class base … against ‘politically correct’ coastal elites … He believes the war was foisted upon him by former President Barack Obama and other Democrats — and he is determined to win.”
Who is winning this culture war presidency? Trump feeds a base that lives to thwart further liberal advancements, but starves everyone else. Democrats ponder endlessly how to win back the hundreds of seats they’ve lost across the country and regain the support of white working class voters, but are constantly drawn into cultural battles that fire up their base but can alienate those very voters. It’s a stalemate—we’re all losing this war.
When viewed from a crude, narrow, electoral perspective, the culture war makes no political sense for anyone. It dominates cable news, electrifies Twitter, revs up partisans on both sides and drives fundraising. But neither party’s presidential candidate cracked 50 percent last year, so neither can feel sanguine about the potency of their base. Our endless and escalating fights over race, abortion, guns, sexuality and now football make it hard for either party to assemble a governing coalition.
Trump may be the aggressor, but the bases of both parties are effectively demanding this culture war be fought, regardless of the political consequences. That leaves Democratic leaders trying to win back white non-college voters while remaining true to their multicultural principles. And it leaves Republicans, many of whom did not ask to be led by Trump and are privately embarrassed by their own voters, resigned to leading a party of white grievance in an increasingly diverse nation.