Charlie Sykes
The Bulwark Presents
Morning Shots with Charlie Sykes

Is Trump Losing the Culture War?

NASCAR, renaming the forts, and the politics of kneeling.
June 11, 2020
Featured Image
The NASCAR Series flag flies alongside the old Confederate Stars and Bars battle flag during the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Primestar 500 race on 9 March 1997 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Allsport/Getty Images)

Until now, Trump has seemed to have an almost reptilian instinct for tapping into the Zeitgeist. Amid his crudity, he has been able to read the darker impulses of the culture to exploit simmering, even dormant, frustration and fear.

He rode those cultural anxieties to the White House and hopes to stoke them again. So his campaign is essentially: Cry havoc and let loose the tweets of culture war. Play the usual cards of racial anxiety, patriotism, law and order, caravans, rapist immigrants, China, deep state, antifa, the media, and socialism.

But has Trump lost the narrative here? Is he able to read the room? Or is he merely content to create his own room and populate it with MAGAites?

For a candidate who has thrived on cultural conflict this is not a trivial question: is he suddenly losing the culture war?

Consider three scenes from the battlefront: NASCAR, the forts, and the politics of kneeling.

In February, Trump was the grand marshal of the Daytona 500. These are his people. The applause was thunderous. On Wednesday, NASCAR banned confederate flags.

The move comes amid social unrest around the globe following the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis. Protests have roiled the nation for days and Confederate monuments are being taken down across the South — the traditional fan base for NASCAR.

Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lone black driver, called this week for the banishment of the Confederate flag and said there was “no place” for them in the sport. At long last, NASCAR obliged.

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR said. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Even as NASCAR made its move, Trump was doubling down on his defense of the Confederate legacy, by refusing to allow the renaming of U.S. military bases that honor defeated southern generals.

As the New York Times reminds us:

  On April 11, 1861, Brig. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, commander of Confederate forces in the Charleston area, demanded that Maj. Robert Anderson of the Union Army surrender his command at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Anderson refused. Beauregard opened fire. And the Civil War ensued.

Today, Beauregard has a U.S. Army base in Louisiana named after him. Anderson does not.

What side of the political divide would you like to be on this one? The Lincoln Project was quick to jump on this issue:

And then there is the NFL.

In September, 2017 Trump thought he had stumbled on a potent wedge issue. Speaking in Alabama, Trump called on team owners to fire players who took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired,'” Trump declared.

He relished the fight. In his book, Team of Vipers, Cliff Sims quotes Trump gleefully predicting that the NFL protests would be a potent issue in his re-election bid.  “The Democrats – you watch – they’re going to nominate a kneeler,” Trump says, “2020 will be fun, that I can tell you – a lot of fun … the kneelers! Just watch”

This week, he sounded the note, when he lashed out at the conciliatory remarks by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

So Trump is still convinced that going after the “sons of bitches” in the NFL who knelt in silent protest was a winning issue for him.  But how will it actually play this November?

All of this comes at a moment when public opinion sees to be undergoing a tectonic shift. Look at these numbers from the NYT: “Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.”

While Trump appears fixated on the playbook of 1968, there is more evidence that the public is moving in the opposite direction. Polls show nearly three-quarters of Americans say they support the peaceful protests that have spread throughout the country since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. As the Wapo notes: “he recent demonstrations have bipartisan appeal, with 87 percent of Democrats saying they support them, along with 76 percent of independents. Among Republicans, the majority — 53 percent — also back the protests.”

The same poll found that 61 percent of Americans say they disapprove of Trump’s handling of those protests, with just 35 percent saying they approve. “Much of the opposition to Trump is vehement, as 47 percent of Americans say they strongly disapprove of the way the president has responded to the protests.”

Trump’s instincts tell him to keep firing up his base, which is already en fuego. He’s bringing back the rallies. He’s going to recite the snake poem; he’s going to play the hits. He won’t move to the center or try to heal. Instead, he’ll do what he always does: turn up the volume of chaos and hope that the Democrats will self-destruct.

But here’s the problem: no matter how aflame MAGA World is, it is not big enough to win the election; and the more he indulges his id, the harder it will be to appeal to the rest of the electorate.

And at the moment, he appears remarkably tone-deaf.

It was one thing to vote for a candidate who would “burn it all down,” but it’s very different to find that you are the one on fire, with the arsonist in chief eagerly passing the kerosene.

2. So, Some Things Do Matter After All

Really make sure to read Mona Charen in this morning’s Bulwark.

 The party of Lincoln has assented to the pardon of Joe Arpaio. It found nothing much to say about the smearing of Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists. When the president said an Indiana-born judge could not be fair because his parents were from Mexico, one prominent Republican, Paul Ryan, called that “classic racism.”