by Mindy Clegg
The election of 2016 represented a new salvo in the American culture wars. Trump’s campaign began with an incendiary speech against immigration from Central and South America, intended to fire up the far-right wing of the GOP. His victory rested in part on a backlash against Secretary Hillary Rodham-Clinton, the center-right Democratic candidate. Trump spent his one term in office stoking the culture wars to new heights, spinning up his base at the expense of any sense of national unity across political lines. Even the still ongoing global pandemic became fodder for the supposedly existential struggle being waged by a “beleaguered” white evangelical Christian minority. Most people point to the Clinton era as the original source of these culture wars. Newt Gingrich and other far-right conservative politicians supported the Ken Starr investigation into President Bill Clinton’s personal history, eventually resulting in a time and money wasting impeachment. This was also the era of the rise of right-wing media, starting with toxic radio host Rush Limbaugh. Although the tone and themes of the modern culture war have some origins here, the concept goes back much further. Here I want to examine some of that history.
It seems obvious, but not everyone agrees on what we mean by culture. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to a definition of culture as laid down by Clifford Geertz. According to Nasurllah Mambrol, Geertz called culture a “construable sign” and a “context… within which [social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes] can be intelligibly… described.” In the modern world, the nation-state became a primary organizing principle for much of our cultural life.
As Benedict Anderson argued, the nation-state was built on a shared identity expressed via cultural production underwritten by the state.1 The narratives built around state institutions tend to contribute to the building of a shared imagined community of national identity. In this definition of culture, the normative aspects of national culture dominates. The rural peasants of France are remade into Frenchmen, for example.2 Culture became a way for the state to mark territory and decide who belonged and who did not. But clashes occurred within the ruling institutions, such as with the kulturkämpf (or cultural struggle) in the early unified Germany state in the 1870s. The power of the church had been on the wane in Europe since the Reformation. German unification created new tensions among new German citizens. Some argued that these anxieties were expressed primarily as an anti-Catholic crusade.3 This kulturkämpf fit in with a longer history of church and state struggles in Western Europe. As such, this was more about creating a modern, secular state and a national identity focused on a shared ethnic identity rather than through religion. But faith was still a major marker of identity during this era and often ran up against these secularizing aims.
In his recent book, writer and poet Hanif Abdurraquib noted that “a country is something that happens to you.”4 From the start not everyone agreed on the meaning of a national identity, but still had it imposed on them. As a result, challenges arose to the state-centric view of culture and identity. Karl Marx argued that workers shared a cultural identity across national boundaries. His interpretation of the changes unfolding across Europe and the United States rested on the way the capitalism reformed the old class system. The workers, once peasants, were being exploited in similar ways wherever they lived. This shared experience of exploitation created a transnational workers culture in his view. Other challenges to the nation-centric identity emerged in the twentieth century. New types of transnational identities came from mass media and culture. One new social category in the post war period was the teenager.5 Among others things, the consumption of pop music gave rise to transnational youth culture centered around the consumption patterns of teenagers. Michael Kramer argued that a globalized identity built around rock music emerged in the 1960s.6 Punks carried on that tradition into the 1970s and 1980s, forging a still thriving translocal punk community that ignored national borders. 7 Religion also continues to challenge national identity, as individual religious groups continue to identify with each other across national boundaries—think of the Catholic Communion or the Islamic Umma. But some transnational religious communities took on darker overtones in recent years.
Over the modern period, popular culture became an especially fertile ground for a variety of struggles. In the modern (or perhaps postmodern) American context, religious groups were eager to claw back power from secular governments by promoting a shared identity via mass culture. The modern American evangelical movement gained traction in the mass media era. Sister Aimee Semple built an evangelical empire on her radio broadcasts, arguable building one of the nations first mega-churches. Since the days of Sister Aimee, evangelicals have embraced the power of mass media to get their messages out. The Catholic Church got into the game in the television era with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s program Life is Worth Living, which ran for over a decade. He was followed on air by protestant Evangelicals like Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson, who built the Christian Broadcasting network empire. Their brand of evangelical Christianity eventually dovetailed with the aims of the John Birch Society, an archconservative movement that believed communism lurked around every corner. Since the 1970s, groups like the Moral Majority honed in on the growing access to equal rights for racial minorities, women, and the LGBQT+ community as a direct attack on a “God-centric” nation they hoped to build in America. To further that goal, the conservative movement has sought to carve out its own set of subcultures, complete with their own mass media. But the reason for that was less about creating spaces for themselves and more about wrestling back control over an American culture that increasingly looked more diverse and secular. Culture became their core battleground, rather than politics, though that was the ultimate goal. As they took over the Republican party, the GOP moved away from promoting solutions to the problems faced by all Americans, and re-centered on the “existential crisis” of them sharing power with those who did not look or think like them.
More worrying, these evangelical culture warriors have eagerly aligned themselves with more explicitly violent groups looking to impose their views on family, race, and identity on others—the white nationalist movement. The modern Republican party has had a serious problem with racial dog whistling going back to Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. Pioneered by Lee Atwater, this infamous strategy sought to peel away white working class voters from the Democrats in 1968 by using coded racist language. That continued into the 1980s with Reagan and his talk of “welfare queens” and being tough of crime. One of the most famous of the genre was the Willie Horton ad of the George HW Bush campaign in 1988. One political figure who would more explicitly invoke racism was Pat Buchanan, whose career stretches back to the Nixon administration. Much like Tucker Carlson today, he actively embraced white supremacist ideology, dragging it into the mainstream discourse. Buchanan even appeared on white supremacist media outlets. He has played an important role in pushing the current culture wars into a central position in the modern political landscape. Trump’s hardcore followers regularly invoke language used by Buchanan, such as in one speech he gave at the 1992 Republican National Convention. It’s all there—the focus on abortion as a crime against humanity, the fearmongering around gay rights, attacking women in prominent roles, and casting immigration from the global south as a nefarious plot to replace “real” Americans (defined as white Americans, especially Anglo-saxon protestants) with “foreign” elements (meaning non-white). Buchanan topped off his screed with a racist interpretation of the events of the LA Riots (freed up from the longer history of racism and police violence). The MAGA movement leans hard into all these tropes in order to dehumanize people of supposedly “different” cultures.
The modern republican party has brought together a constellations of toxic subcultures: white supremacist, anti-feminist, anti-LGBQT+, anti-secular, and anti-democratic. This was driven in part by the collapse of the liberal consensus and the rise of a more subcultural America since the 1970s. A new level of toxicity has emerged with these subcultures since the end of the Cold War, even outside of politics. Back in 2014 and 2015, Gamergate exploded into the public consciousness. Though at the time people debated what it was all about, many today understand the phenomenon as an attack on women in spaces that many believed to be “male” spaces (specifically gaming). Writing at Vox, Aja Romano noted the terroristic nature of the attacks during Gamergate. Romano correctly notes how little was learned from that episode. No doubt much of Trump’s online support came from the people who cut their teeth in Gamergate. Trump’s online supporters were able to weaponize the “ironic” tone that gamergaters deployed to deflect from criticism. That irony was a poison pill for the greater mainstreaming of extremist views that have largely colonized the modern Republican party—members of whom disrupted the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021. While each party has their own real problems—especially with dark money flowing in and shaping legislative agendas—something darker and far more sinister has descended upon the modern GOP thanks in part to the rise and expansion of these culture wars. We do well to remember that these “struggles” only distract from the real work of promoting human progress that benefits all of us.
4 Hanif Abdurraquib, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, (New York: Random House, 2021).
7Alexander Lalama, “Transnational Punk: The Growing Push for Change Through a Music-Based Subculture,” Lux: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2013.