Last month in the New Republic, a headline read, “Trump Wants a Culture War. Are Democrats Ready to Fight Back?” Social and religious conservatives over 50 had to smile. The story followed a pattern that began in the 1970s, when the Moral Majority, Bill Bennett, and Allan Bloom… were said to be fomenting cultural strife.
The pattern goes like this. A conservative politician or figurehead rises up to speak for family values, God and country, or Western civilization, as President Trump did in Poland last month. Liberal commentators respond by chiding them for their aggression. In their eyes, the Culture War always seems to be started by the Right. When Politico recalled Pat Buchanan’s famous speech at the 1992 Republican Convention, the essay began, “On Aug. 17, 1992, Pat Buchanan and the Republican Part declared a ‘culture war… for the soul of America.” It’s as if Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson (“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go”), Queer Theorists in the academy, and films such as Footloose, which cast conservative ministers as crazed moralists, hadn’t been waging culture war themselves.
Sometimes the one-sidedness is subtler. A 2012 CNN story described a revived culture war in America inspired by President Obama’s insistence that Catholic organizations provide contraception in employee health plans. This mandate was a shock to religious organizations, including the ones that supported his candidacy. But CNN presented Obama’s actions as simply a policy decision. The Right, on the other hand, went into full-on battle mode, reacting with “an angry, vengeful spirit” that was “channeled by candidate Rick Santorum” (referred to as “Saint Santorum” in the next paragraph).
President Trump is doing the same thing now, according to liberal journalists, when he bans transgender individuals in the military and appoints Kansas governor Sam Brownback as ambassador for international religious freedom. Somehow, President Obama’s order to admit trans- individuals into the army didn’t count as contentious, only President Trump’s suspension of it.
Conservatives rightly see this as a set-up, only half the story. It neglects the original activism of the other side. When Dan Quayle objected to Murphy Brown’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the cast and crew and the rest of progressive America treated the Vice President as if he were an obtuse scold who needed to learn that “families come in all shapes and sizes.” Mr. Quayle came off as the warrior, Murphy Brown as the figure who just wanted to be left alone.
But the Murphy Brown people pretended to an innocence that they didn’t possess. It ignored the power of prime time TV to set norms and manufacture reality, such as the way the proliferation of gay characters on TV and in films has led Americans wildly to overestimate the number of LGBT individuals in the population. Indeed, some 70 million people tuned in to the Dan Quayle episode that week. To claim that the decision to treat illegitimacy in this way had no political meaning was a disingenuous act. Brown’s choice was, instead, part of a long feminist crusade against the nuclear family. Vice President Quayle and every other social and religious conservative in America were the ones in a defensive position, not her.
Liberalism has waged combat in this way ever since the Culture Wars erupted in the 1960s. Liberals and leftists forever altered sex roles, marriage, and childrearing, changed the meaning of patriotism, and expelled religion from the public square. When traditionalists stood up and shouted “Stop!” liberals accused them of benighted or cynical gamesmanship, of ginning up another Culture War. Their own radical actions they regarded as the steady march of history, the natural advance of freedom.
The strategy is simple. Broken marriages, unwed mothers, abortion, sex change operations, all of that is normal. It’s the religious believers, the Trump voters, who are the attackers, when they identify social pathologies, and even when they simply want to be left alone.
This is classic passive-aggression. Starting a battle does not fit the liberal self-image of tolerance, and so each skirmish had to be the other side’s fault.
But the game has run its course. Too many people have felt the sting of liberal censure, and they don’t believe they deserved it. They know whom the aggressors really are, and right now their favorite recourse is to vote for Donald Trump.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things.