Over the weekend, Donald Trump came under blistering criticism from Democrats and the media for a Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore that was characterized as “dark,” “divisive,” and filled with appeals to white grievance. There is no question that Trump was stoking the culture wars to whip up fear while posturing as the protector of a nation under assault by radicals. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that his claims were not entirely false — and that progressives, including major media, bear no small blame for fostering dangerous divisions. Trump’s cynical gambit deserves to fail. But his opponents must do better if we are to restore sanity to our public square.
Addressing a raucous audience, Trump warned of “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” of mobs seeking to tear down American monuments and unleash violence, and of a far-left “cancel culture” that stifles free debate.
Hyperbolic? Exploitative? Sure. But the wave of mob attacks on monuments, including statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant — and even of some abolitionists — is real. Meanwhile, The New York Times and The Washington Post have run a spate of opinion pieces arguing that we should “cancel” Washington and Jefferson as slave owners and take down their memorials.
It is also true that simplistic claims about the inherent racism of American culture and institutions have increasingly permeated public education. New York-based writer Sol Stern, who severed his ties to the conservative City Journal because of its pro-Trump stance and believes Trump’s reelection would be “a catastrophe,” told me in an email, “It pains me to acknowledge that the President has found a salient issue when he rails about ‘anti-American’ indoctrination in the schools.”
Nor did Trump make up the problem of growing left-wing intolerance: similar complaints are being voiced by quite a few liberals. Lastly, it’s a fact that, in the wake of recent unrest, we have seen a crime surge in several major cities including New York, as well pockets of anarchy in Seattle and Portland.
So far, judging by the polls, Trump’s attempts to capitalize on these problems have been unsuccessful. Partly, it’s the hypocrisy: while he denounces cancel culture, he has urged the firing of athletes who protest police brutality and presided over purges of his critics from Republican and conservative organizations. Partly, it’s the fact that people who hate political correctness don’t want to be associated with his thinly veiled bigotry. His lip service to the ideals of equality rings hollow after years of bashing Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants from “[expletive] countries.” Partly, it’s the fact that he’s widely seen as a chaos agent, not a protector of order.
It also helps that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is no one’s idea of a subversive radical. Biden struck the right note when he backed the legal removal of Confederate monuments while opposing calls to remove statues of the Founders. But Democrats need to avoid unforced errors. On Sunday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who has been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential pick, seemed to suggest in a CNN interview that we should have a discussion on whether to take down Washington and Jefferson. She later backtracked in a tweet, but not before the right got mileage out of her comment.
News organizations, too, should curb the irresponsible rhetoric in opinion pieces: Trump can easily use the “fake news media” as a proxy for the Democrats.
Trump wants to use the culture wars to his advantage. The only way to win is not to play.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.