Why Doubling Down on the Culture Wars Won't Save Trump

Rehashing an old Bush-Rove strategy from 2004, president's inflammatory stance on "wedge-issues" has already backfired spectacularly

President Donald Trump's "Culture Wars" messaging to appeal to his Republican base – including his trans military ban – is unlikely to find purchase in 2017. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

With the administration quickly taking on the feel of a bad circus, earlier this week President Trump signaled his intent to turn to an old strategy intended to solidify support among the Republican base. He is following the formula correctly, but it is unlikely to work this time.

George W. Bush and his key strategist Karl Rove famously boosted Republicans' chances in the 2004 election by using "wedge issues" against Democratic candidates. This involved, most prominently, introducing ballot measures about same-sex marriage in a number of key states including Ohio.

The theory was that conservative-leaning voters who might be unimpressed by Bush's first term performance would be motivated to vote by their strong opposition to same-sex marriage. Other issues used to similar effect during the W years included abortion and stem cell research bans.

As election strategies go, this was not a bad one; Bush entered 2004 on somewhat shaky ground, with voters becoming increasingly dissatisfied with an Iraq War that was promised to be short and easy. Tapping into conservative voters' strong feelings about social issues made sense.

Using that template, Trump has signaled a strong shift toward "Culture Wars" messaging this week. Unfortunately for him, it probably won't be effective at all this time. Each election requires a strategy that is suited to the political context of the moment. What worked in 2004 is hardly guaranteed to work in 2017.

First, the pointlessly cruel decision to ban transgender people from the military, even those currently serving in combat without issue, was an attempt to tap into the same vein as the same-sex marriage bans in 2004. The move backfired immediately and spectacularly; within minutes of the announcement, conservative stalwarts like Orrin Hatch, Joni Ernst, and Richard Shelby denounced the ban. Defense Secretary Mattis indicated that he will not enforce such a ban unless directly ordered. And these, remember, are reactions from Republicans.

Although Trump insisted the decision was a military one (made, curiously, over Twitter without involving or consulting the military) a staffer told a journalist:

"This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?"

This is the Rove strategy down to the letter. But we already see strong evidence that it won't work again. Public opinion on LGBTQ+ issues have changed dramatically in two decades, and today the percentage of voters stirred into a froth by transgender people is small even among conservatives. Ask North Carolina ex-Governor Pat McCrory how his "bathroom bill" worked out for him.

Further evidence of the shift in strategy can be found in Trump's statements throughout the week. Culture war issues appear to be all he has left given the failure to produce any legislative victories since inauguration. He has escalated anti-immigrant rhetoric to some truly appalling levels, race-baiting in ways that make the classic "Willie Horton" TV ad look subtle in comparison.

Trump appears suddenly to have discovered religion too, patronizing actual believers with capslock shouting about America "WORSHIP(ING) GOD!" He followed with low-hanging fruit for his base like glorifying law enforcement, which is more important than ever to counter the threat the average American faces from…the Mexican MS-13 street gang?

If this seems like a Mad Lib of random ideas thrown together, it isn't. These are all issues aimed directly at the authoritarian-follower personality types that love Trump: God, scary immigrants, law and order, and the always-terrifying transgender Americans. A wise bettor would place a solid wager on Trump introducing a flag burning amendment and a proposal to make English the official language before the end of the year. It's only a matter of time until he gets sufficiently desperate to dust off those old Culture Wars chestnuts.

One thing that 2004 had that 2017 decidedly does not was a robust economy. Trump repeatedly boasts that the stock market is high while ignoring the fact that for normal people, the economy (and job growth in particular) remains poor. What job growth has taken place since the 2007 recession is largely confined to the lower wage service industry. These are jobs, but certainly not the kind of jobs out of work Americans in Rust Belt states are looking for to provide for their families.

Obviously none of these issues are brand new to Trump; immigrant-bashing and overt Nixonian appeals to law and order both featured heavily in his campaign. However, he rarely spoke of religion and made only conciliatory (if vague) remarks toward LGBTQ+ people. That has changed now that he has decided to double down on cultural wedge issues. We can expect a steady diet of this divisive, confrontational approach as the 2018 election begins in earnest later this year.

What can Democrats do to fight back? Denounce this talk from the White House as the distraction that it is and talk about issues voters actually care about. The hard truth is that any voter blind enough to believe that Donald Trump is a religious man is beyond Democrats' reach anyway.

Imitating success is a useful strategy in many areas of life, but in politics success is more about catching lightning in a bottle and correctly reading the zeitgeist of the moment. By returning to a strategy used successfully more than a decade ago, Donald Trump is proving himself unable to do either.