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The New Trumpism: Culture War Is Overrated
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The New Trumpism: Culture War Is Overrated

MAGA goes anti-anti-woke.

Former Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake greets supporters during an event with former U.S. President Donald Trump on April 4, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Watching right-wing populists downplay the importance of cultural revanchism is like watching communists downplay the importance of seizing the means of production.

Without that, what’s the point?

I can’t imagine Donald Trump shooing his fans away from their grievances against “wokeness” any more than I can imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scolding her own admirers for caring too much about redistribution.

But that’s the funny thing about this era in politics. Wondrous things happen routinely that one would never dream might occur.

For instance, try to imagine a former president sitting for a deposition in a lawsuit that turns on the question of whether he raped a woman 30 years ago. And when he’s questioned by that woman’s attorney, who is herself a woman, he insists that he couldn’t have raped her because she wasn’t his “type”—before adding, for good measure, that neither is the attorney. “You wouldn’t be a choice of mine, either, to be honest,” this former president of the United States informs her. “I wouldn’t under any circumstances have any interest in you.”

You couldn’t imagine such a thing happening. But it happened.

If you’re like me, you couldn’t imagine either that the MAGA movement built in Trump’s image and dedicated to owning the libs in every way they might conceivably be owned would arrive at the conclusion that defeating them in cultural disputes … isn’t all that critical, really. It’s important, sure, but many issues are “important.” It’s certainly not the most important thing the right has to worry about.

You couldn’t imagine such a thing happening. But, to my amazement, that’s happening too.

Last week America’s next vice president veered very far from her usual hyper-populist culture-war script when she tweeted this FYI to her followers.

Lake got an earful for that from some of her supporters. Undeterred, another account affiliated with her doubled down on Wednesday.

Kellyanne Conway, who may or may not soon join his new campaign, coincidentally also warned in late April that Trump’s only serious rival for the Republican nomination has his political priorities out of whack. “He spends way too much time on the culture wars, and that begins with Disney and includes many other things,” she said of Ron DeSantis. “Woke is important, but you can’t have that as a replacement for a bold, growth-centric economic plan.”

Rank-and-file MAGA chuds have also gotten the memo. “The DeSimps are trying to make the culture war the end all be all because that’s all DeSantis has. He can’t compete against Trump in any other category. Especially foreign policy and the economy,” said one. Another praised Trump’s superiority on “the economy & foreign policy” and sneered that DeSantis and his fans “resort to focusing on easy (No men in women sports!) talking points, to cover up their weaknesses, otherwise they would be irrelevant.”

DeSantis supporters have been left chortling at how similar the message is in all instances, down to the phrasing, and speculating as to how the campaign coordinated so many different friendly mouthpieces to deliver it.

But no one is confused about the motive. It’s plain as day why Team Trump has suddenly grown bearish on the culture war, no?

The governor’s fans have a theory.

Correct. Donald Trump, the modern avatar of right-wing culture war, has grown nervous that he’ll be successfully outflanked by DeSantis on cultural issues during the presidential primary. If the primary becomes a referendum on which of them will prosecute the culture war more effectively, he’s at grave risk of losing.

He and his flunkies are trying to short-circuit that referendum by insisting, with one voice, that the culture war shouldn’t have primacy as an issue set for Republican voters.

MAGA isn’t suddenly anti-anti-woke. They’re anti-DeSantis, and DeSantis is anti-woke.

I suspect it’s not a coincidence that they began their new messaging effort in earnest as Florida’s spring legislative session barreled toward its finish. Take a deep breath before reading aloud Charles Cooke’s summary of how productive it’s been for culture warriors. You’ll need it.

In the space of just three months, Governor DeSantis and the Republican supermajority have created the largest school-choice program in American history, banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, made Florida the 26th constitutional-carry state in the nation, forced unions to abide by the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, cut taxes by $2 billion, banned sex-change operations from being performed on minors, barred DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives in universities, expanded the use of mandatory E-Verify in the state, achieved a previously unthinkable collection of tort reforms, declared driver’s licenses issued to out-of-state illegal immigrants invalid in Florida, prohibited state and local governments from considering ESG (environmental, social, and governance) factors in their contracting and investing decisions, extended last year’s Parental Rights in Education law through twelfth grade, made it illegal for financial institutions to discriminate on the basis of “religious, political, or social beliefs,” and prevented credit-card companies from tracking their customers’ gun purchases.

DeSantis will stand onstage at a future Republican primary debate, possibly with Trump looking on and possibly not, and claim that he’s fulfilled the promise of Trumpism. During the last Republican presidency the right got a watered-down “Muslim ban,” a watered-down ban on transgender soldiers, less than 500 miles of wall on the southern border, and not much else. Meanwhile, under DeSantis’ leadership, Floridians are seeing new anti-woke laws passed at a clip of seemingly once every 30 minutes.

“Do we want big unfulfilled promises or do we want results?” the governor will ask, reminding viewers of his margin of victory in last November’s election. How will Trump answer?

He’s worried enough about the question, it appears, to try to change the subject preemptively.

That probably also explains some of the curious positions taken recently by members of the Trump family. In mid-April, with populists cheering on DeSantis’ latest escalation with “woke” Disney, Trump fretted over economic consequences from the feud: “Disney’s next move will be the announcement that no more money will be invested in Florida because of the Governor – In fact, they could even announce a slow withdrawal or sale of certain properties, or the whole thing.” Around the same time, Donald Trump Jr. broke with right-wing orthodoxy on boycotting Bud Light for sponsoring trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. “I’m not for destroying an American, an iconic company, for something like this,” he complained, uncharacteristically. 

It was assumed that Trump Jr. was thinking about his father’s and the party’s respective bottom lines when he said that, as Anheuser-Busch is a major Republican donor. But in hindsight I wonder if it was part of the push by Trump surrogates to downplay the salience of the culture war ahead of the primary. If Team Trump can steer Republican voters away from obsessing over LGBT issues and toward nostalgia for the national economy of 2019 or hostility to aiding Ukraine, they hold the high ground.

If instead they’re forced to fight on the question of who’s more anti-woke, they have a problem. Feast your eyes:

Trump currently leads DeSantis comfortably in that poll among Republicans who say that challenging woke ideas is “very important” but that’s largely a function of unfamiliarity with DeSantis’ record, I’m sure. As the governor introduces himself and begins educating voters on what he’s achieved, some “soft” Trump support on the right is destined to shift.

And a lot of his support in that poll is “soft,” it turns out.

Republican voters are so invested in anti-wokeness that even the so-called third rail of American politics fails to electrify them to the same degree. A recent Wall Street Journal poll asked them which is more important, fighting woke ideology in schools and businesses or protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits from cuts. You’ll recall that Trump has made DeSantis’ past as an entitlement-slashing, Paul-Ryan-admiring Tea Party congressman a key plank in his attacks on the governor, priming the GOP base to treat entitlements as the more important issue.

But it hasn’t worked. Republicans say fighting wokeness is the more important priority by a two-to-one margin, 55-27.

The coming primary might, then, end up as a supreme test of Trump’s ability to redefine the content of right-wing politics in ways that suit his personal electoral needs. He’s mainstreamed isolationism, protectionism, and spiteful authoritarianism to various degrees among a voter base that claimed to champion free markets and small government as recently as 2015. This time, to get a leg up on DeSantis, he intends to mainstream the belief that … the culture war is overrated.

We’ll see. The next six months will tell us whether there’s even the slightest bit of meaningful ideological commitment left among the voters of this party or whether they’re truly willing to take dictation from Trump on what they should and shouldn’t care about.

But in the meantime, we should make a small concession to Trump’s messaging effort. When he and his cronies hint that populists generally and DeSantis in particular are too wrapped up in the culture war, they’re, well, right.

Recently right-wing megadonor Peter Thiel was asked what he thinks of DeSantis. He’d make a terrific president, Thiel replied, and he’ll have my full support if he becomes the Republican nominee.

“But I do worry that focusing on the woke issue as ground zero is not quite enough,” he added.

Nate Cohn, the New York Times’ chief political analyst, made the same point in a piece published on Friday. Until recently, Cohn wrote, DeSantis had deftly cultivated an unlikely coalition of results-oriented Trumpy populists and Trump-skeptical moderate Republicans. Populists liked his culture-war bravado; moderates appreciated his resistance to pandemic restrictions. Pro-freedom, anti-woke—that was the message that made DeSantis number two with a bullet in Republican primary polling.

Lately, though, the pro-freedom part of the equation has been given short shrift relative to the anti-woke part as DeSantis has leaned into his effort to seduce populist voters away from Trump. And he’s done that at a moment when wokeness as an issue might not carry the same weight that it did six months ago. Ironically, some of his Trump-hating moderate fans may have begun to look elsewhere because they agree with the new MAGA message that there’s more to life than winning the culture war. Cohn writes:

The coronavirus pandemic is over — at least for political purposes. The peak of “woke” might have come and gone as well: The arc of new left culture fights seems to have bent into a reactionary phase in which debate centers as much or more on proposed Republican restrictions on books, drag shows and A.P. history curriculums as on the latest controversy about the excesses of the left. Mr. DeSantis’s renewal of a year-old fight against Disney — the exact origins of which I suspect would stump even many regular readers of this newsletter — is a telling indicator that his campaign against “woke” is struggling for oxygen.

At the same time as Mr. DeSantis’s new issues have faded, the old issues have come roaring back. The Supreme Court and Vladimir Putin made sure of it. So did Mr. Trump, who attacked Mr. DeSantis for old statements on cutting entitlements. And while all of these issues make Mr. DeSantis vulnerable in various ways, there are few opportunities to attack Mr. Trump as too woke.

I think DeSantis’ strategy is broadly correct. There aren’t enough moderates alone left in the party to deliver the nomination to him, especially not with also-rans like Nikki Haley and Tim Scott each carving off a few percentage points. His only play is to try to break Trump’s stranglehold on populists and trust that, as he rises in the polls, moderates will rally to him reluctantly as the last best hope of ending the Trump era. That means going whole hog on every populist preoccupation imaginable in the name of outflanking Trump on the right and impressing his voters.

But if DeSantis has miscalculated, if Haley or Scott or some other less populist rival catches fire and starts piling up moderate votes, he may be cooked. Even if he isn’t, many of the various culture-war victories he’s amassed will become major liabilities for him in a general election. A recent Reuters poll illustrates his conundrum: Forty-four percent of Republicans nationally said they like him more because of his fight with Disney, but 73 percent of voters overall said they’re less likely to support a candidate who uses the law to punish a company for its political or cultural stances. 

Even in Florida, where he remains popular, some of the polling on his biggest culture-war achievements this session looks gruesome. One survey published in March found support for permitless gun carry at 21-77 and support for a six-week abortion ban at 22-75. Nationally, support for six-week abortion bans stands at 40 percent. And opposition to permitless carry is strong even in states as red and gun-loving as Texas.

DeSantis can and will pivot to the center if he makes it to the general election, no doubt. He won’t support a six-week federal abortion ban; 15 weeks, I suspect, is all he’d be willing to risk. On unpopular topics like permitless carry and harassing woke corporations, he might punt by asserting that those are state issues, expecting quiet acquiescence in his position from most of the right in the interest of victory. And in any other election cycle, he’d get it. Rallying around the nominee is what parties do after a bitter primary.

But probably not this time. Not with a defeated Trump hooting that DeSantis cheated him. And not with disgruntled MAGA “influencers,” who owe every bit of their influence to their willingness to carry water for Trump, amplifying his grievances against the nominee. The current griping about culture war, which most of them have spent their every waking hour waging since 2015, is a preview of the opportunism to come at the expense of a triumphant DeSantis. The cult will not go quietly. Notice is served.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.