President Trump is expanding the culture wars, launching new attacks against institutions that he views as liberal, elitist or both.
With his agenda stalled in Congress and his poll numbers sagging, Trump has kept his base engaged and the left inflamed by escalating feuds with key figures in sports, entertainment, tech and media, effectively dragging politics into every corner of public life.
Trump’s aim is straightforward: To convince voters that there is a privileged class that scoffs at their patriotism and cares more about political correctness and diversity than ordinary Americans, their traditions and their economic plight.
The president’s allies say he’s guided in this fight by the same instincts that got him elected. Trump’s relentless attacks, they say, cut to the heart of Trump’s appeal.
“The reality is that, to the average American voter, esoteric policy is not very digestible,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide. “But culture is policy and the president understands that.”
Democrats argue that the president is doing lasting damage to the country by needlessly stoking divisions at a time of extreme political polarization. They believe time is on their side as older, white voters give way to a more diverse and socially liberal electorate as millennials come of age.
“If he is scoring political points off these culture war issues in the short run, it's only with a base that is now starting to crack,” said David Brock, a top Democratic operative. “Exploiting these divisions is both wrong and, in the longer run, a losing proposition politically given that the broader electorate is more tolerant and diverse.”
Past presidents have similarly stoked cultural divisions. Former President Obama waded into high-profile police brutality cases and once complained about people who “cling to guns or religion.” Former President George W. Bush leveraged anti-gay marriage sentiment among evangelical voters to boost turnout on his way to reelection in 2004.
But Trump’s culture wars differ from his predecessors in both their ferocity and frequency.
The president stirs the pot on a near-daily basis at rallies, from the Oval Office and over Twitter, attracting accusations from his critics that he’s obsessed with winning empty fights with celebrities because he’s been unable to achieve meaningful legislative reforms.
And the unabashed ferocity with which Trump has gone after his targets is evidence to his critics that he doesn’t care if he alienates or annoys large numbers of Americans, as long as his base sticks by him.
Over the past week alone, Trump and his allies have kept the fires burning with fights against the NFL, ESPN, Facebook, late-night comedians and the news media, provoking retaliatory remarks from athletes, anchors, rappers and comics.
Following Trump’s lead on the issue, Vice President Pence staged a walkout at an Indianapolis Colts football game because players kneeled in protest during the national anthem.
Some in the media credited Trump with a culture wars victory when, days later, NFL chief Roger Goodell said in a memo to players that he believes they should stand.
Trump took a victory lap on Twitter, but the NFL quickly pushed back on the president’s claim that the commissioner had demanded players stand for the anthem.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, a top Trump donor and supporter during the 2016 election, accused Trump of muddying the issue and called him a “divider.”
NFL players initially began kneeling for the national anthem out of protest of racial injustices and police brutality, but Trump has effectively turned the debate into one about patriotism and respect for the country and the troops.
While polls show the public does not approve of Trump’s handling of the issue, most agree that players should stand during the national anthem.
The NFL has seen its ratings decline as the controversy has grown. But the sports league is only one of several weakened or unpopular cultural institutions that Trump has recently targeted for attack.
Trump has reignited his feud with ESPN, which had already seen a ratings decline as consumers cut the cord, after the network suspended anchor Jemele Hill, an African-American woman who had called Trump a white supremacist.
Trump called Hill out by name to his 40 million Twitter followers, saying that she’s the reason ESPN’s ratings have “tanked.”
That came during a week of escalating and increasingly specific threats against the news media, an industry that polls dismally. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that it’s “disgusting” that the press gets to write whatever it wants. The president also threatened to pull NBC News’s broadcasting license for publishing a story he claimed was false.
On Friday, Trump again dived headlong into the culture wars at the Values Voter Summit, a yearly gathering of Christian conservatives in Washington, D.C. There, he accused “politically correct” liberals of waging a war against American traditions, like the celebration of Christmas.
“We’re saying Merry Christmas again,” Trump said.
Now, Trump has Facebook in his crosshairs, accusing the social media giant of being biased against him. Facebook is in the midst of a massive public relations crisis and has attracted the ire of lawmakers and liberals alike over allegations that Russians used it as a tool during the election to spread fake news and negative ads about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE.
Tired of being mocked on late-night comedy shows, Trump has demanded equal airtime from “unfunny” comics. And Trump’s sons have accused hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert of burying the exploding sexual assault scandal around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic donor.
To many on the left, Trump’s culture war instincts stem from his vanity and the effort to ensure that his core supporters stay energized.
“Somewhere along the line the president recognized that he only wants to be popular with his base,” said Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a columnist for ThinkProgress. “He’s notoriously thin-skinned and egotistical and knows his supporters will stomp and go crazy when they hear things like this. I don’t know that it’s a win for him in the real world, but in Trump World I guess it’s a win.”
But some Democrats are wary of a president who has successfully capitalized before on liberal and media blind spots.
They say they’re not underestimating Trump’s ability to turn hot-button social issues into political gains, even as the president struggles with a historically low approval rating and Washington Republicans express frustration over the never-ending controversies and distractions.
“I’m not one to attribute some grand strategic design to Trump or [former White House chief strategist Stephen] Bannon and I don’t assume they know more than we do, but a little bit of humility is warranted on the left and by the political establishment,” said Gara LaMarche, the president of the Democracy Alliance, a leading network of liberal donors.
“At every point we thought Trump couldn’t win this election and he did. You would’ve lost a lot of money betting against Trump’s instincts in that respect. I think in general his views are held by only a minority in American society but he’s good at controlling the conversation. By design or by instinct, it’s possible he’s resonating more than we think.”