Last month, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, laid out what he believed to be the unifying idea behind Trump’s victory.
“The center core of what we believe, that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” Bannon said in conversation with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. “And I think that is what unites us and I think that is what is going to unite this movement going forward.”
The Trump administration has already provided ample proof of its incompetence and unseriousness when it comes to the pursuit of its stated agenda; on March 15, a federal judge cited the president’s own anti-Muslim statements in striking down Trump’s latest attempt at a travel ban. And the president’s budget, set to be officially released today, includes eliminating all federal funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a move that would make it more difficult to actually build anything resembling a unified national culture.
Of course, what Bannon and I each mean when we talk about a national culture couldn’t be more different. I’m not motivated by racist fantasies about immigration, nor am I particularly worried about the health of Western civilization. And though I think it takes care and thought to balance the needs of people of many faiths and those with none, I don’t think that some sort of vague Judeo-Christian revival will save America nor do I see it as desirable.
But I care deeply about cultural literacy, the idea that we should all have access to a shared set of core concepts that will not only make it easier for children to learn to read and write, but that will give Americans at least some common language and ideas we can use to understand each other across our differences. The canon that makes up cultural literacy can and should shift over time; I think it would be wonderful if all Americans read both U.S. Grant’s memoirs and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and if we studied both the Constitution and Bill of Rights and the 9/11 Commission report, to name two examples.
Schools are an obvious place where Americans get access to this common pool of information and ideas. And once we leave school and go out into the world, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowments are institutions that work to make sure that access continues. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting both funds the creation of content — including documentarian Ken Burns’s movies about everything from the Civil War and jazz music (and starting on September 17 of this year, the American war in Vietnam) and NPR’s high-quality programs — and helps support the local stations that broadcast and syndicate that content.
“With minimal funding, PBS manages to produce essential (commercial-free) children’s programming as well as the best science and nature, arts and performance, and public affairs and history programming on the dial – often a stark contrast to superficial, repetitive and mind-numbing programming elsewhere,” Burns wrote in a 2011 opinion piece in this paper. “PBS supplements the schedules of hundreds of other channels. It produces ‘classrooms of the air’ that help stitch together statewide educational activities and helps create cradle-to-grave continuing education services that are particularly appreciated in rural states.”
This access is particularly important at a moment of increasing cultural fragmentation, and a time when some of the most sophisticated, critically acclaimed programming is fleeing behind paywalls. Subscription services like Netflix, and premium cable channels like Showtime and HBO are snapping up documentaries left and right; even “Sesame Street” got gentrified. Lots of people tune in to “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” But public broadcasting makes sure that there is programming that anyone with a television or an Internet connection can get access to even if they can’t shell out for a cable package.
In the short term, cultural fragmentation and the polarization that can grow from that may be in Bannon’s — and Trump’s — interest. Bannon, after all, accrued power by running Breitbart News Network as a niche news service catering to conservatives who wanted to hear the worst about anyone even remotely associated with the Obama administration. The Trump campaign famously made targeted ad buys aimed at viewers of “The Walking Dead” and “NCIS.”
But if you want to create a genuine national culture, you actually have to reach all Americans, rather than losing yourself in idiotic and racist delusions about defeating “bad hombres” by force or outbreeding the competition. And you have to create compelling, high-quality content that can persuade Americans across the political spectrum, rather than mediocre trash that preys on audiences who feel under-served by mainstream media. The Trump administration shows no rhetorical sign that it understands this — or that the public broadcasting system and other federal arts and humanities institutions could have value to conservatives who want to try to meet their high standards.