On Sunday, Breitbart published a column by Susan Berry, who began by invoking the web site’s late founder: “Andrew Breitbart famously said, ‘Politics is downstream of culture,’” she began, using the hyperlink to direct readers to this Red State post:
Andrew Breitbart, the late ever-controversial right-wing gonzo journalist (not to be confused with the dreary Trump-propaganda organ that now bears his name) used to have a saying that “politics is downstream of culture.”
- People’s political opinions are mostly not thought-out or analytical so much as an expression of what they think is valuable, cool, scary, smart, stupid, impressive to their friends.
- People generally put more of their hearts and free time into cultural pursuits—from mass media and video game consumption to churches, schools, museums, gun clubs, bowling leagues, etc.—than political ones, so the attitudes that pervade the larger spaces of their lives affect the smaller ones, not just in what they believe but who they know and trust.
- Young people in particular are much more into getting their values and their “facts” from cultural rather than explicitly political sources.
After approvingly linking to that article describing today’s Breitbart as a dreary, Trump-propaganda organ, Berry proceeded with her own Breitbart article:
Andrew Breitbart famously said, “Politics is downstream of culture,” and while establishment Republicans seem unwilling to defend America’s culture and values on many fronts, President Donald Trump is already changing the country’s politics by taking back its culture from progressives.
She then offered seven examples: Trump banned transgender people in the military; signed an executive order pertaining to abortion; signed another executive order on religious freedom; signed a bill that affects state funding of Planned Parenthood; appointed a Supreme Court justice; made sound appointments to the Department of Health and Human Services; and vowed to defend law enforcement.
Notice that Berry inverted Andrew Breitbart’s claim: She cited what are largely political actions, arguing that cultural change is downstream from them.
The inadequacy of the metaphor is part of the problem here. Streams always flow in one direction. Culture often influences politics, but culture is often influenced by politics, too. In fact, much of the Republican Party has gambled that political gains they expect from the Trump administration outweigh the cultural costs that Trump is exacting.
Fans of Andrew Breitbart who believe that politics is downstream of culture should look not just at Trump’s political actions, but also at how he is changing American culture.
Way back in 2011, the public moralist Dennis Prager wrote a column titled “F-Word Laced Speech Disqualifies Donald Trump from the Presidency.” In it, he argued that there is an enormous moral difference “between using an expletive in private and using one in a public speech,” that the latter “is degrading to the user, to the listener and to society,” and that Trump didn’t merely use an expletive in a political speech, but “upon seeing the enthusiastic reaction, felt encouraged to use it again and again.”
The audience's reaction is even more important—and more distressing—than Trump's use of the word. Had there been booing, or had someone who invited him arisen to ask that he not use such language, or had some of the women walked out, the good name of the Republican Party and of conservative values would have been preserved. But if Republican women—and I emphasize both the party and the gender—find the F-word used by a potential candidate for president of the United States amusing, America is more coarsened than I had imagined. If we cannot count on Republicans and conservatives to maintain standards of public decency and civility, to whom shall we look?
Today, we’ve gone far beyond curse words in a speech. Trump is unapologetically and publicly indecent or uncivil on almost a daily basis. And there is no way for the Republican Party to credibly advocate for public decency and civility so long as it supports Trump.
As Peggy Noonan observed in an astute Wall Street Journal column, Trump’s sharp break from “traditional norms and forms of American masculinity” and public displays of weakness—in her words, his continually acting like “a drama queen”––is giving young boys, like the ones that he addressed recently at the Boy Scout Jamboree, a new, self-obsessed, and overindulgent template for what maleness is:
The way American men used to like seeing themselves, the template they most admired, was the strong silent type celebrated in classic mid-20th century films—Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. In time the style shifted, and we wound up with the nervous and chattery. More than a decade ago the producer and writer David Chase had his Tony Soprano mourn the disappearance of the old style: “What they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings they wouldn’t be able to shut him up!” The new style was more like that of Woody Allen. His characters couldn’t stop talking about their emotions, their resentments and needs. They were self-justifying as they acted out their cowardice and anger.
But he was a comic. It was funny. He wasn’t putting it out as a new template for maleness. Donald Trump now is like an unfunny Woody Allen. Who needs a template for how to be a man? A lot of boys and young men, who’ve grown up in a culture confused about what men are and do.
In just the last week, Trump has twice attacked the rule of law. Andrew Sullivan wrote about one example in New York magazine. “Day after day, the president has publicly savaged his own attorney general for doing the only thing possible with an investigation into a political campaign he was a key part of: recusing himself,” he observed. “And the point of the president’s fulminations was that the recusal prevented Sessions from obstructing that very investigation. The president, in other words, has been openly attacking his own attorney general for not subverting the rule of law.”
And in a speech to police officers, Trump said:
When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, I said, please don't be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over. Like, don't hit their head and they've just killed somebody. Don't hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?
This prompted clapping from many of the police officers immediately behind Trump in footage of the speech and cheering from some of the people in the crowd—the words were immediately corrosive to their culture—followed by a series of criticisms of Trump from cops in leadership positions in cities all over the United States.
As I noted last September, Trump has a cruel streak. “He willfully causes pain and distress to others. And he repeats this public behavior so frequently that it’s fair to call it a character trait. Any single example would be off-putting but forgivable. Being shown many examples across many years should make any decent person recoil in disgust.”
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Later on in that Red State post that I quoted at the top, Berry writes that “Andrew Breitbart himself thought Donald Trump was a con man and no conservative, but he doubtlessly would have enjoyed the showmanship and sheer disruption of Trump’s primary campaign. And as we sift through the rubble left in his wake and look for a path forward, we should not overlook Breitbart’s dictum. Because for all the talk about the politics of ‘Trumpism,’ a major part of what allowed Trump to rise and prevail in the primary was his prominence in popular culture as well as the generally debased state of American culture in general these days.”
That is true. And it doesn’t speak well of Breitbart’s legacy that the website and populist ethos he helped to create did so much to elevate someone he saw as a con man.
The Republican Party should be more farsighted about embracing nihilistic populism.
As David French put it, “Words still matter, and the president’s words are often reprehensible. A conservative can fight for tax reform, celebrate military victories over ISIS in Mosul, and applaud Trump’s judicial appointments while also condemning Trump’s vile tweets and criticizing his impulsiveness and lack of discipline. A good conservative can even step back and take a longer view, resolving to fight for the cultural values that tribalism degrades. Presidents matter not just because of their policies but also because of their impact on the character of the people they govern.”
Republicans should turn on Trump, en masse, right now. The longer the president enjoys a large degree of institutional support, rather than being regarded as a pariah by all, the more likely it is that other indecent, uncivil, weak, self-justifying, overindulgent, cruel men with little regard for truth or the rule of law will rise.