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Trump Wants a Culture War. Are Democrats Ready to Fight Back?

In the same week that Democrats dropped their “Better Deal” economic agenda, Trump made it clear he’s banking on cultural issues.

Saul Loeb/Getty

On Monday, the Democrats released a set of core policy proposals that they plan to run on in 2018. Called the “Better Deal” agenda, the Democrats’ strategy is what many critics, mostly on the left, have been demanding for months: that the party focus on kitchen-table issues, like wages and jobs, and step up its critique of corporate interests. It’s not a radical document, essentially splitting the difference between the so-called Bernie wing of the party and the establishment wing. But it does suggest that party leaders are in broad agreement that Democrats need to be better about foregrounding populist economic issues.

But if President Donald Trump was rattled, he sure didn’t show it. At a Tuesday rally in Columbus, Ohio, Trump gave a grotesque description of what “animal” illegal immigrants do to American girls. They “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others,” he roared, “and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.” A day later, Trump tweeted that he was banning transgender people from serving in the military, and announced that Sam Brownback, the ultra-conservative governor of Kansas, would serve as “ambassador at large for international religious freedom.”

Democrats have slowly—and tepidly—embraced economic bread-and-butter issues, in response to Trump destroying a Midwest firewall in the 2016 election with promises of returning decaying Rust Belt towns to their former glory. Meanwhile, Trump is running in the other direction. As his administration is riven by disputes both petty (Priebus vs. Mooch) and profound (Trump vs. Sessions), he has dived with relish into the culture wars. It raises a profound question for Democrats as they head into the 2018 midterm elections and beyond: Is the Better Deal agenda enough to overcome the cultural forces that swung the election to Trump?

Trump’s play here is fairly straightforward. With a favorability rating in the mid-30s, Trump needs his base more than ever. His recent moves are chum for both religious conservatives and voters who rated immigration as their most important issue in 2016, both of whom broke for Trump. Yes, Trump won Democratic-leaning voters with an economic message of preserving the social safety net and upending job-stealing global trade agreements. But to a large extent “Make America Great Again” was a cultural message disguised as an economic one—an air raid siren, rather than a dog whistle, to voters who feared an increasingly diverse country.

Democrats appear to be aware of this. You only have to look at the cultural minefields that are not mentioned in Better Deal: immigration, gay rights, abortion, Black Lives Matter. This represents a huge shift for Democrats, who heavily emphasized these issues in the Obama years and in Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, presuming America’s changing demographics had permanently tilted the culture wars in their favor. In the case of Clinton, they were wrong.

Trump outflanked Clinton and the Democrats with so-called populist voters, those who generally favor socially conservative and economically liberal policies. This gave rise to that unlikely figure, the Obama-Trump voter, who voted for Barack Obama and the man most famous for perpetuating the racist myth that Obama was not born in the United States. Six months into Trump’s presidency, it’s increasingly clear that he thinks that his cultural message is the more important of the two. A study conducted by the Voter Study Group’s Lee Drutman largely bore this analysis out, finding “the primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be.”

To an extent, both parties are now retreating to terrain that has produced success in the past. “It’s a battle over what the most salient set of issues will be,” Drutman told me. “Is it economic? Or is it culture and identity? Democrats rightly win if it’s about economics, but they lose if it’s about culture. Their obvious strategy is to make it more about economics because they’ll perform better if those concerns are more salient. Republicans’ obvious strategy is to try and make it more about culture and identity.”

One reason Trump was able to pull off his surprise 2016 victory is that Democrats had moved to the technocratic center on issues like trade and immigration, leaving room for Trump to speak for disaffected workers, particularly in the Midwest. The Better Deal is a first step in reclaiming the mantle of economic populism from charlatans like Trump.

Democrats have had no better ally in this than Trump himself, who has governed as a typical take-from-the-poor-to-feed-the-rich Republican. The health care plan moving through the Senate will likely cost at least 15 million people their health insurance, while causing premiums to skyrocket. He nominated the business-friendly Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He has promised to effect a massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest via health care and tax reform. And his infrastructure plans, if the White House ever gets to them, consist of huge gifts for the wealthy and corporations.

All of this helps explain the renewed focus on cultural issues. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that the decision to suddenly introduce the sweeping transgender ban had nothing to do with military readiness, but instead was a cynical electoral ploy.

There are reasons to believe that this particular ploy will fail—ask ex-North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who lost his job in 2016 in part because of a law that forced transgendered people to use the bathroom of their birth gender. But it’s just one element in a constellation of cultural issues Trump and Republicans can use. As Trump’s foray into torture porn on Tuesday suggests, he is prepared to go all in on race-baiting, homophobia, and Islamophobia.

This presents something of a fork in the road for Democrats. In the past, Democrats have swerved rightward on cultural issues to fend off assaults from the right. Bill Clinton, signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and, with the help of Dick Morris, the Defense of Marriage Act, in an attempt to win over voters who were with his economic policies but skeptical of his stances on social issues—though they are now rightfully scorned, these laws were thought to have helped seal his re-election in 1996. In 2006, former Clinton staffer Rahm Emanuel cooked up a similar plan, getting a bunch of anti-abortion, pro-gun, “fiscally responsible” Democrats to run for—and ultimately retake—Congress.

This simply isn’t an option anymore, in terms of both politics and principles. “If you look at where the Democrats were in the mid-2000s to where they were in the mid-2010s on cultural issues—full-throated support of gay marriage, supporting transgender bathrooms, immigration reform—the base of the party changed under the Obama presidency,” Drutman noted.

What Democrats may be tempted to do, however, is to simply de-emphasize these issues, in the hopes that sheer anti-Trump hatred will get out those voters who cast a ballot for Obama but stayed at home for Clinton. Democrats will also surely fine-tune the balance between economics and culture in individual congressional elections in 2018, many of which might turn on cultural issues. The problem right now is that there is no indication that Democrats have any kind of coherent strategy to deal with the top factor that gave Trump the presidency. Clinton’s argument that Democrats’ social and cultural values were “American values” didn’t work—nonwhite voters didn’t show up in great enough numbers, and white voters went for Trump in record numbers.

The elections in 2018 and 2020 will primarily be about one thing: Donald Trump. And by all indications so far, Trump is going to spend both of those campaigns talking about immigration and terrorism and urban crime and LGBT issues. Democrats have taken the right steps in fixing their economic message—in providing a program for the kinds of people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Trump in 2016. But they should also be preparing for an all-out culture war.