Yesterday, Vice President Pence mounted a national anthem protest of his own to express his displeasure at football players protesting racism and police brutality. If this kind of thing disgusts you, I have bad news: There’s going to be three more years of culture-war posturing from the Trump administration.
In case you missed it, Pence traveled to Indianapolis for a game between the hometown Colts and San Francisco 49ers, then dramatically stormed out of the game upon seeing members of the visiting team kneel during the national anthem, so deeply offended was he. While it was intended to look like a principled reaction to the players’ shocking protest, it was immediately apparent that the event was carefully planned. Everyone knew there would be kneeling players, and reporters traveling with Pence were kept outside and told beforehand that he might be leaving early. Then President Trump, apparently aghast at the idea of somebody besides him getting praise from Fox News, tweeted that it was all his idea:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2017
Who knows if that last part is true, but the White House surely knew how the episode would play out: Pence would perform his little stunt, Democrats would point out how contrived it was and act outraged at the expense the taxpayers incurred, cable news would eat it up, and the whole thing would exacerbate racial and political divisions within the country. Mission accomplished!
This is politics in the Trump era, and it’s going to be this way as long as he’s president.
It was obvious almost from the day he took office that Trump has no interest in reaching out to voters who didn’t support him in 2016 or don’t support him now; he is emphatically the president of his base, not the entire country. But there are at least three different things Trump can offer that base, and understanding them allows us to see why there will be more manufactured pseudo-events like Pence’s football protest.
The first is concrete results that Trump might deliver. During the campaign he traveled to places with large concentrations of white working-class voters and promised an industrial revival that would deliver them economic security and transform their lives. In places such as West Virginia and Kentucky he claimed all the coal jobs would be coming back as new mines opened (there are fewer than 70,000 people currently employed in the coal-mining industry, about the same number of Americans who work at Bed Bath & Beyond). In the industrial Midwest he promised that new factories would be pouring in to revive downtrodden towns. While it’s theoretically possible that Trump’s policies could produce these gains that would benefit his base, they haven’t yet and are not likely to do so.
The second way Trump can come through for his base is what we might call substantive culture-war results. These are changes that are fundamentally about cultural divisions within the country, but which have a real impact on people’s lives. The appointment of a Supreme Court justice falls into this category, because it is always framed in terms of issues such as abortion and gay rights. On those issues Trump has delivered, particularly for evangelical voters, with actions such as his move to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military and the new policy allowing companies to opt out of including birth control as part of health coverage.
The third way Trump can feed that base is the symbolic culture war, which is about things like Pence’s football morality play — it doesn’t have any immediate practical impact, but it generates conflict and division, keeping the base riled up and angry at people they think aren’t like them.
There are already signs that Trump’s failure to deliver concrete results, and the unlikelihood that he will ever do so, is beginning to dawn on some of his supporters, as new Reuters polling of Americans in rural areas shows:
In September, 47 percent of people in non-metro areas approved of Trump while 47 percent disapproved. That is down from Trump’s first four weeks in office, when 55 percent said they approved of the president while 39 percent disapproved.
The poll found that Trump has lost support in rural areas among men, whites and people who never went to college. He lost support with rural Republicans and rural voters who supported him on Election Day.
That’s hardly a widespread revolt, and it doesn’t necessarily mean those voters won’t come around when there’s a choice between Trump and a Democrat in 2020. But it is a meaningful drop, and it shows that the number of die-hard Trump supporters who will stand by him no matter what he does is significantly smaller than the 46 percent of voters who chose him in 2016.
There’s another factor to note, which is that Trump will probably run out of substantive culture-war policy changes to deliver to his base. Once you’ve reversed all the Obama-era policies you can find, where do you go from there? The answer is that you find more symbolic culture war battles to fight. You lash out at African American athletes, or politically correct college kids, or liberal Hollywood actors, or some pointy-headed professor somewhere who said something offensive. The less of your policy agenda you accomplish — and let’s not forget that Republicans will probably end their first year of total control of Washington without passing a single important piece of legislation — the more you’ll seek out those attention-grabbing conflicts, to show people who’s on whose side.
It’s always possible that this administration transform itself into a model of efficiency and accomplishment, giving not only Trump supporters but all Americans a future built on durable prosperity and social progress. But if that doesn’t happen, you can expect a lot more culture-war posturing coming from the White House.