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We Are Living in the Age of Total Culture War

Dog whistles are blowing constantly—but everyone can hear them. How did we get here?

Ringer illustration

On Friday, President Donald Trump praised Robert E. Lee—in Trump’s words, the “great general”—who led the Confederacy to defeat in the Civil War.

It was a tedious provocation. Trump meant to counter former vice president Joe Biden, who launched his presidential campaign a day earlier with renewed criticism of Trump’s infamous remarks about white nationalists marching on Charlottesville two years ago: “You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Trump said in 2017. Following Biden’s campaign launch, Trump told reporters he meant to describe the people who opposed the removal of Lee’s statue in downtown Charlottesville—excluding the white nationalists who chanted against Jews—as “very fine people.” The “very fine people” were celebrating a “great general.” The “both sides,” then, refers to the general disagreement among partisans about Lee’s stature.

The reasons to despise Lee, and to distrust Lee’s apologists, are obvious enough. Lee owned slaves, hated black people, and led a reprehensible war, and so he represents the pro-slavery cause more vividly than any other figure in U.S. history. In retrospect, John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis do not compare; only through Lee, the “great general,” does the pro-slavery mission become vaguely romantic and, thus, defensible in the abstract. Trump doesn’t mean to celebrate slavery or the Confederacy in any specific regard. It’s hard to imagine Trump knowing enough about Lee to credit him with strategic genius, regardless of his political significance. Trump simply means to flatter his supporters. Naturally, Trump’s supporters admire the “great general” who fought to establish an alternative political order where white hegemony—dare we say white supremacy—prevailed.

The left favors the term “dog whistle” to describe the right’s supposedly coded appeals to white identity. Richard Nixon pioneered dog whistle politics in his rhetoric about crime, Ronald Reagan mastered dog whistle politics in his rhetoric about everything, and now Trump underscores the term’s absurdity: If every critical columnist on the beat and every activist on the planet can immediately discern the real meaning in the description of Robert E. Lee as “a great general” in response to a reporter’s question about Charlottesville, two years later, then we are all on the same frequency. We are all comprehensively addressing one another. So Trump doesn’t just praise Robert E. Lee to arouse MAGA gadflies like Richard Spencer. Trump praises Robert E. Lee to trigger the libs.

But there’s a longer, broader war—the culture war.

It’s a 100-year-old conflict that reaches new heights of absurdity with each passing decade. The term “culture war” originates in contemporary accounts of the urban-rural divide that emerged in the 1920s, from the Scopes trial onward; though the baby boomers tend to date the culture war’s origins to the ’60s and ’70s as mass media accounted for all manner of national conflict. But mass media must also entertain. The news and the entertainment inform one another. The culture war heightens awareness of political tensions in all corners of American life while also trivializing those tensions. The culture war appoints a TV game-show host to oversee the decline of white identity. The culture war transforms an argument about dead kids and bad cops into an argument about the flag. The culture war recruits partisans to relitigate the U.S. Civil War, in all seriousness, for more than a century, if only to obscure the war’s causes and themes. The culture war obscures. The culture war intensifies.

The major factions in today’s politics are angry and polarized. The country is divided, and the president is astoundingly unpopular. It’s bewildering, then, to see the nation remain so peaceful in comparison to the Civil War or even the assassination decades. The peace seems to follow from trivialization. In the 2010s, mass media trivializes even the most somber causes. School shootings, police executions, rape scandals, climate catastrophe, the student loan crisis—they are all processed as culture war. There’s no substantial legislation addressing (much less resolving) these crises. There are, however, pundits. There are activists searching desperately for a real politician.

Reactionaries blame the latest phase of the culture war on left-wing proponents of identity politics, the so-called “social justice warriors,” an assortment of civil rights activists, progressive essayists, and social media scolds who scrutinize popular culture for slights, however supposedly minor, against marginalized groups. Reactionaries resist these interrogations, which they perceive to be the real fascism. The social justice warriors and their opponents have selected popular culture as the main theater for their political conflict. They don’t argue over legislation as frequently as they argue about Marvel movies. For progressives, the obsession over culture follows from decades of marginalization. For conservatives, the obsession follows Andrew Breitbart’s old adage about politics being “downstream from culture.” Breitbart encouraged conservatives to reassert themselves against Hollywood, universities, and the news media—the progressive trifecta. The reactionaries thus form a counterculture, represented most vividly in the form of Gamergate and the alt-right, factions that locate their purpose in arguments about anything but the law. Congress is nearly irrelevant to them. They are media creatures. The key qualities these factions all share is their having stronger and more convoluted thoughts about Captain Marvel than they have about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And even their thoughts about Nancy Pelosi are primarily thoughts about a political cartoon.

The social justice warriors are more widely maligned than their various critics ever care to admit. The right opposes the social justice warriors and campus-style identity politics, of course. The centrists resent their deplatforming tactics as well as their excessive demands. The leftists resent their distractions from a class-based political agenda. These perspectives align to ridicule identity politics as uniquely unserious: too invested in Star Wars movies and too erratic in their campus activism to function as a political program for adults. The two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—the centrist and the socialist—struggle to engage productively with the social justice warriors, who loudly resent the dominant candidacies of two old, straight, white men.

But the disagreeable language of identity politics—old, straight, white men—is the language of a culture war that has raged for 100 years. Biden resists the left-wing factions, and Sanders resists the culture war altogether. Their supporters view modern identity politics as the prohibitive challenge for their respective candidacies. Their real problem is the culture war, which had trivialized socialism for several decades before Oberlin students described cafeteria sushi as “cultural appropriation.” The only presidential candidate who enters the culture war with unambiguous confidence is, unfortunately, Donald Trump.

On Monday, Newt Gingrich went on The View to discuss Trump, Charlottseville, and Lee. Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway had spent the past weekend characterizing the president’s contemporary response to Charlottesville as “near perfection”; and so Gingrich hoped to recontextualize Trump’s ambivalence toward the white nationalist protests, and toward the murdered counter-protester, Heather Heyer, as “this myth on the left.”

Gingrich is a politician but also a novelist. In his serialized historical fiction about the Civil War, Gingrich reimagines Robert E. Lee as an abolitionist. He now does so, in all seriousness, on The View, though he struggles to get the words out. “Are we going to say if you were somebody who thought Robert E. Lee was a decent person, which would be a high percentage of white Virginians … Now you’re going to say everybody in the South who thinks anybody is a reasonable person is, you know …”

The View cohosts Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Abby Huntsman, and Sunny Hostin clamored against Gingrich’s equivocations. (Meghan McCain remained silent.) They took turns resisting Gingrich’s effort to transform a matter of fact into a matter of preference. Finally, Gingrich asked Hostin a full question. “Are you literally saying that everybody who favors having those statues is somehow a bad human being?”

Here, Gingrich finally reveals the real stakes for yet another national argument about Donald Trump and racism. He trivializes the white nationalist rally, and he can discuss Lee only as metaphor for modern white Southerners and pure reason. There’s nothing intelligent or productive happening here. There’s no real history lesson, there’s no real political achievement. There’s just Newt Gingrich promising absolution for all his soldiers in the culture war, where there are few casualties in comparison with Antietam. But this war never ends.