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A Right-Wing Counter-Hegemony

On culture in a fascist America

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

To speculate on what the future of American culture might look like in a second Trump presidency, we must consider the past: the formative New York and educational years of Donald Trump himself. By a curious turn of fate, the young Donald and I share a birthplace and, generally speaking, an education at the same institutions of higher learning. I can’t pretend to know the influence our common background has on his attitude toward the arts, but I can make some informed guesses by contrasting Trump’s journey to my own. To understand Trump and the cues his base takes from him, we need to see him as the anti–New York New Yorker: intellectually incurious and leery of the crowded streets of the crown city of cosmopolitan difference in a nation that mythologizes rural communities of sameness.

Trump, a Protestant by birth if not interest, ecumenically began his college career in 1964 at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in the Bronx. Nine years later, when I—a fellow Queens native, but one from a more “aspirational” working-class neighborhood than Trump’s own—entered Fordham as an undergraduate, theology was still a required course along with English, philosophy, and history; in short, the traditional humanities core. The Jesuits, after all, are the intellectuals of the Roman Catholic Church. I thrilled to professors who guided me through the profound pleasures of canonical writing.

The two years that Trump spent as a student at Fordham would have been the years when he would have had to fulfill most of those required courses in the humanities and theology, yet, despite his claim that the Bible is his “favorite book,” nothing from his brief encounter with the Great Works of Western Civilization seems to have stuck with him. His word-salad-spinner speeches are occasions where you might expect a random canonical character like Huck Finn or Hamlet (What a loser!) to surface, or maybe even a swaggering line from some jingoistic poem like Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But young Trump seems to have passed, unenriched, through the very courses we misty liberal arts types still insist can be transformative and, in my own case, were.

In my time at Fordham, I lived on campus in the upper Bronx, a long subway ride away from my parents’ walk-up in Queens. Trump lived at home in Jamaica Estates while he attended Fordham, ensuring that his brush with the cultural and ethnic differences found north of Yankee Stadium would be as minimal as possible. His feet were firmly planted in the world of “getting and spending” that defined the real estate empire of his father, Fred. In 1966, Trump left Fordham behind, transferring to the purportedly higher academic altitudes of the University of Pennsylvania. An Ivy League degree promised more bang for the buck. Trump majored in economics at Wharton—the university’s business school—in preparation to walk into the career in real estate his father had set up for him. Once again, I followed Trump, broadly speaking, to the same institution of higher learning. We were separated by almost a decade, as well as by class background, and by avocation—I arrived at Penn on fellowship as a graduate student in English (What a loser!), a career very much not set up for me by my skeptical, indeed baffled, parents.

The thing about the University of Pennsylvania in those years, though, is that it was sort of like the Queens of the Ivy League. Just as the borough of Queens is adjacent to Manhattan and gazes with wonder and resentment at its skyline and all the power and beauty it represents, Penn, back in Trump’s time there and into my own, was routinely demoted to the ranks of a “mere” public university. As late as 2011, when the Joe Paterno scandal broke at Penn State, Maureen Dowd, among other commentators, referred to Penn State as “Penn.” For a long time, the University of Pennsylvania bookstore sold T-shirts that read NOT PENN STATE—a kind of rueful in-joke. The school’s nervousness about its Ivy League positionality won’t be completely banished until “The University That Benjamin Franklin Founded” obtains his papers ... from Yale.

Trump would see nothing funny about my recollections of Penn during its period of “soft Eclipse” (Thank you, Emily Dickinson). Irony is a mainstay of English departments, not self-absorbed blowhards. He is a roiling spitball of status anxieties, an outer-borough kid who ended up at what was, at the time, the last-place Ivy. That’s why he’s so insistent about his own superiority. Only pursuits that turn a profit, accrue power, and fortify his anxious narcissism catch his notice. He loves the city’s attention, but he hates his gullible audience. Romantic Manhattan skyline gazers like Alfred Kazin and Pete Hamill—and their fictional counterparts Francie Nolan and Nick Carraway—yearned for the soaring promise of Manhattan, including its cultural riches. Trump, however, matured into someone who sought not to admire beauty, but to assess and conquer it, staining New York City’s buildings with his “Kilroy was here” mark wherever he could before leaving New York in a huff.

In the Trumpian presidential sequel, it will be his ardent fans who will be energized by his passive disdain and his nasty buffoonish-ness toward anything that seems fragile and feminized. (Read: the arts.)

As for specific policy, who knows? Trump doesn’t care about culture—as opposed to celebrity. In his first term, he couldn’t be bothered to attend even ceremonial nods to the arts like the annual Kennedy Center Honors event. So he might subcontract out that area by appointing a dedicated culture warrior theorist like the writer Christopher Rufo to a high government position. Rufo’s goal is to create a right-wing counter-hegemony to dissipate the alleged entrenched power of post-’60s racial-and-gender-justice-and-equality activism within higher education. But Rufo has actual, strongly held beliefs about universities, and, as we have seen, universities do not interest Trump. Rufo might annoy him. So, Trump might not even bother to empower anybody on the Cultural Contempt beat. He might just spout off about whatever loser left-wing actor pisses him off.

But, for fun, let’s try something. I read a fair amount of nineteenth-century time travel literature during my time at Penn: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Morris’s News From Nowhere, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and, the most haunting one of them all, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In the Gradgrind educational theories Trump and his followers adhere to, that reading was a waste—why imagine other times when there is money to be made right now? But perhaps those tales can be put to use as models for our own brief trip into the future. Morris, a medievalist, relies on “dream vision” structure to present his tour of England, circa 2090. Let’s do the same. Close your eyes, Dear Readers, and awaken in the near future of, let’s say, the autumn of 2027, when President Trump, three years again in power, has made some changes:

Walking around the Imperial City … we reach 400 Seventh Street SW, former headquarters of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The building, called Constitution Center, was once a gleaming marvel with sculptures and an interior garden, but dirt now smears the windows of ground floor tenants: a nail salon and a Hooters. (The restaurant chain was struggling before President Trump graciously patronized one in Tampa and gave a grinning thumbs-up to the, uh, wings.) In 2025, with the help of a Republican Congress, Trump’s budget, zeroing out funding for the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, finally was approved. (He’d tried to level those agencies during his first administration, but those efforts were beaten back four consecutive times.)

Around the country, the emphasis is on minimizing public funding for what old-timers sentimentally call “the life of the mind.” The plug is pulled on poetry festivals, “One Book, One City” reading celebrations, artist and musician residencies. Shakespeare troupes cease visiting high schools in rural communities; jazz musicians no longer perform at community centers. Although quite a few ordinary citizens object because they enjoy this stuff, an offhanded Trumpian riff—“Who needs this bullshit? Does anybody still care about THE LATE, UNGREAT William Shakespeare? His ratings are in the toilet”—inspires even larger local budget cuts for the arts. Trump even makes a few bucks peddling WHO NEEDS THIS BULLSHIT? mugs and T-shirts, featuring a slashed picture of the Bard. National Public Radio and PBS soldier on, but without federal funding, local affiliate NPR stations can no longer afford to buy the national programs—crucially, the news programs. The larger cities are mostly spared. The big money donors, both Republican and Democratic, keep the high-end cultural monuments of urban life—opera companies, symphonies, flagship museums—afloat. (Remember whose name adorns one of the three grand facades of Lincoln Center—not Soros, but Koch.) However, given the depressed national mood and state of the economy in the wake of the 2024 election (when Trump, once again, failed to win the popular vote), listener donations to NPR are down some 35 percent. The same is true for PBS, which has fallen back on weeklong Judi Dench marathons and 24-hour loops of James Taylor in concert at Tanglewood alternating with Simon and Garfunkel’s triumphant restoration in Central Park to fill the time vacated by PBS NewsHour, whose reporting is too expensive to sustain.

Over the next few days, we leave downtown Washington and explore the larger DMV area to confirm a rumor we’ve heard: The independent bookstores in Washington, as in other urban areas, are flourishing! Where once there were only about 20 in the city and surrounding suburbs, in 2027 that number balloons to 67. Washingtonians are readers, and the area’s independent bookstores are unionized sites of resistance in a surrounding sea of MAGA “abstainers,” as those Americans are called who have taken the pledge, administered in the first year of his second administration by President Trump on Fox News, to “not read more than two books a year—one of them the ‘God Bless the USA’ Bible, the other The Art of the Deal.” Some 40 percent of new literary fiction published since 2025 consists of dystopian fantasy or narratives that are in some way “oppositional” and are distributed through social media as much as by the old-line mainstream publishers. These oppositional texts and art fuel self-funded underground classes, alternative galleries, and ubiquitous reading groups—an undercurrent of insistent thinking.

University teachers do not fare well. With the ongoing adjunctification of the humanities professoriat—there are no full-time academic positions in literature, history, or philosophy—the few remaining scholars and critics are herded into liberal arts theme parks, maintained as profit-making tourist destinations by the universities. Nostalgia seekers watch academics “in costume” (i.e., badly dressed) wander around muttering odd bits of Pope or Yeats or else having staged “problematizings” of postmodern theory that, for some reason, small children find very funny, sitting enthralled listening to quotations from Judith Butler, much to the relief of their exhausted parents.

Meanwhile, in the heartland, Trump’s followers, like him fearful and enraged by the urban mélange, control public library boards and keep a close eye on new releases, marshaling arguments at the ready to challenge them from reaching library shelves. Even before Trump’s second inauguration, book challenges and bannings skyrocketed and their targets expanded. Public book bannings are now performed; thousands of Trumpists travel for miles to hold rallies, featuring tailgate parties and enormous caricatured visuals of canceled writers and their book covers. It’s become standard procedure to challenge queer coming-of-age stories aimed at the YA audience, but now even “classics” like Peter Pan (Peter’s pansexuality) and Black Beauty (shames white readers) are nixed.

Most book bannings and challenges continue to arise from the right; but many books are being quietly disappeared from college syllabi and libraries, as liberals and leftists, the closest to each other on the political spectrum, can’t always agree that it’s better to fight Trump than to hate each other. It’s simply too emotionally draining to defend novels like Lolita or “monster” authors like Norman Mailer in these anxious times.

As the critic Dwight Macdonald anticipated more than 60 years ago in his classic essay “Masscult and Midcult,” there is no “common culture” anymore in the United States. People gather in online chat groups composed of the like-minded; stream shows on their home screens and listen through their earbuds; read books—if they do read books—and talk about them with friends who share their tastes and opinions. These niches and subcultures in a continental-size nation permit a sense of normality—there are geographical and mental spaces in which to hide. But that is, in large part, because Trump and his more sophisticated political-media operatives prefer manufactured outrage directed at the cultural “garbage” served to the most aggrieved activists more than they do difficult legal efforts to outright proscribe texts and artistic events. It is a private, nervous, self-monitoring country, but it’s also a nation as ridiculous as it is ominous. Trump embodies, in Philip Roth’s famous description, the “indigenous American berserk,” but the children giggling at the professors arguing about Saussure keep things from descending into the deepest darkness.

We take our leave of America in 2027, with a scene under the Florida sun of the anti-urbanist, the “escape from New York” New Yorker contentedly chewing on his Big Mac before cheating at another round of golf. Myself, I’ll still take Manhattan. And Queens, too.