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Is Donald Trump Sparking a Conservative Culture War?

While many evangelical voters revel in his anti-PC rhetoric, some religious-right stalwarts think Trump is imperiling the soul of America.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Last week National Review, the longtime standard-bearer of conservative thought, published a 22-part symposium contra Donald Trump, presenting a smorgasbord of reasons the infamous billionaire should not receive the votes of conservatives he has so far successfully courted. Among the contributors were pundits and professors, preachers and publishers, and almost every sort of conservative authority in between. Their arguments varied, with some citing pure policy disagreements, and others more general concerns about the impact of a potential Trump presidency. Taken all in all, the symposium advanced the idea that Trump wouldn’t just make a fumbling, buffoonish president, but that he poses a threat to American politics and conservative consensus at large. 

One of the discrete fears to emerge from the symposium bears a strong whiff of old-fashioned culture-war anxiety. In particular, the articles by two of the symposium’s prominent Christians—Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and R.R. Reno, editor of the journal First Things—create a sense of culture-war deja vu, placing complaints about Trump’s vulgarity and decadence front-and-center

“One also cannot help but look at the personal life of the billionaire,” Moore writes of Trump’s sexual exploits, publicized by none other than the man himself. “It is not just that he has abandoned one wife after another for a younger woman, or that he has boasted about having sex with some of the ‘top women of the world.’ It’s that he says, after all that, that he has no need to seek forgiveness.” Moore goes on to skewer Trump’s greedy profiteering off the family-destroying vice of gambling, his “Nietzschean, social-Darwinist” approach to his (thin) pro-lifery, and his narcissistic lust for power, of which Moore claims: “Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant. For them to view it any other way now would be for them to lose their soul.” 

Reno, meanwhile, points out that Trump’s appeal primarily reaches a “growing number of Americans who want to burn down our political and economic systems and hang our cultural elites,” and who are “tired of being policed by political correctness, often with the complicity of supposed conservatives.” Those conditions—the hegemony of certain cultural elites, and the dominance of politically correct speech norms—may be troubling, Reno concedes, but he warns they won’t be properly redressed by “going Trumpster diving.”

From these expressions of moral concern, a larger question emerges: Is Trump stirring up an internecine right-wing culture war, not unlike the right-left culture wars of the last several decades?  

One could hardly be blamed for espying old-school culture war rhetoric woven into Moore and Reno’s complaints. In both cases, Moore and Reno seem less invested in laying out a specific policy argument (against promiscuity or gambling or political correctness, for example) than in staking a claim to a particular American spirit—perhaps the same spirit Trump predecessor Pat Buchanan once dubbed “the soul of America.” 

But how can we know if what we’re seeing is typical of intra-party policy disagreements or evidence of a more principled, culture-war dispute? What accounts for the difference between regular policy disagreements over social issues and the socio-political conflicts known as culture wars? Andrew Hartman, associate professor of history at Illinois State University, and the author of A War for the Soul of America: a History of the Culture Wars, explained in a recent interview: “Culture-war arguments are much more existential, much more about epistemology: What does it mean to be American, what is this nation, how should Americans think?” 

Moore and Reno’s complaints about Trump fit within that vein, taking him to task as much for the example he sets and attitudes he encourages as for the policies he proposes. And they are not the only Christian conservatives to air these kinds of reservations. Conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh called upon Christians to abandon the “Godless” Trump earlier this month, arguing, If a man has no moral center, if he has ambition but no faith, if he does not demonstrate humility or integrity, I will never vote for him for president.” Conservative voters with an interest in pro-life politics have also voiced doubts about Trump’s moral commitments; as one woman protesting abortion outside the U.S. Capitol last fall told reporters, “I don’t think [Trump] is pro-life. I don’t care what he says now. Six months ago he was way [for] partial-birth abortion, you name it, it was OK with him.”

Disenchantment with Trump can be viewed as a symptom of cultural rifts that have existed inside the conservative movement—at different levels of intensity—for the past several decades. “They’re apoplectic about something that has been with the right for 40 or 50 years,” Hartman told me. Ronald Reagan, for instance, “was different than Trump in many ways, but in other ways was very similar: He was all about entertainment, he had been divorced, he had lived a Hollywood, you might say libertine life before committing to politics. ... So that for me was setting the stage for Trump.” Yet it was easy enough for conservatives to overlook Reagan’s personal heresies so long as he served as the most effective vehicle for the conservative cause, and his subsequent canonization as a Republican hero is testament to that willingness to forgive some failures for the greater good. 

Which is probably a pattern most people with experience in politics are familiar with: Sometimes, grand projects militate against strict purity. There have certainly been prior conservative luminaries who have used either explicit or untoward speech to advance their messages. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell wasn’t above, for example, reading nefarious gay sexuality onto one of the Teletubbies, while back in the heyday of the 1980s-90s culture wars, Republican Senator Jesse Helms reportedly distributed allies examples of the explicit homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe in order to campaign for censorship. 

But these public acts of (depending on your taste) salaciousness differed notably from Trump’s: Falwell and Helms were deploying examples of purported cultural malaise to stir the people against moral disorder, not to revel in it or score points on opponents. And Reagan’s Hollywood past wasn’t something he strove to parade proudly before voters, a la Trump. Yet flagrant disregard for more upright sensibilities is precisely what Trump—in his sneering remarks about Fox host Megyn Kelly’s menstrual period, for instance—is displaying.

And not without a calculated reason. Trump’s utter lack of shame does flatter a certain conservative impulse: the frustration some on the right have with political correctness. “When [Trump] says things—even if it’s offensive to people—they think it’s great because he’s offending the establishment,” Hartman posited. While some conservatives might normally find the tone of Trump’s self-expression disgusting, in other words, it’s coming across now as refreshing, and titillating in its shamelessness in the face of establishment disapproval. This might partially explain why Trump is still doing remarkably well among evangelicals, despite his decidedly un-Godly self-presentation and apparent lack of interest in serving as a moral exemplar. 

For conservatives who view political correctness as a web of interrelated prohibitions on speech—from expressions of Christian faith in public spaces to remarks about women’s bodies, from sexuality to general opprobrium aimed at seemingly oppressive behavior—Trump’s nastiness might register as worthwhile on the whole. And yet other conservatives, Moore and Reno among them, take Trump’s unapologetic nastiness as yet another compromise made in favor of libertine degeneracy in the war for the soul of America—not unlike the licentiousness Buchanan, Falwell, and Helms decried in the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

Does Trump’s irreverence toward political correctness override his rakish indecency in the eyes of many cultural conservatives? That question defines the fault lines of the internecine culture war swirling around the Donald—and the answer could gesture toward a forking path for the Republican Party. Hartman views the success of Trump’s cad routine as evidence of the loss of the last round of the culture wars—that is, proof that sexual liberation won out as a cultural premise over cultural conservatism. 

For that reason, Moore and Reno seem to have it right: If Trump is the future of the Republican Party, then the battle against political correctness, so often fought on behalf of the fervently religious, will have taken old-school political concerns about the decline of decency and family values as casualties.