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Cultural Warlord Trump Goes on the Offensive

As Trump signs his trans ban, the fantasy that he would sideline cultural strife is officially dead.

Hundreds protested a rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender students outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City on February 23, 2017. Spencer Platt/Getty

Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel delivered one of the most memorable speeches of last year’s Republican National Convention, predicting that Donald Trump would, swiftly and without mercy, end the culture wars. How is that working out?

More than a year ago in Cleveland, Thiel told the GOP crowd, “I am proud to be gay . . . but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.” The way Thiel saw it, these “fake culture wars” had eclipsed attempts to deal with real problems. “When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union,” Thiel recalled. “And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?” The shining promise of Trump was that as a businessman by trade and temperament, he had no interest in seeing cultural issues divide the country. Like Thiel himself, he would stick to grand construction projects, such as strengthening the economy and investing in infrastructure. “I’m not a politician,” Thiel said. “But neither is Donald Trump. He is a builder, and it’s time to rebuild America.”

Now that the candidate Thiel endorsed is seven months into a uniquely destructive presidency, it seems clear that his hopes were misplaced. Far from sharing Thiel’s attitude that no one should care about “who gets to use which bathroom,” Trump has shown he cares deeply. One of Trump’s first acts as president was to issue a letter withdrawing federal protection for transgender high school students who want to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities. In July, the president tweeted that he would reinstate a ban on transgender people in the military, and this week, he made good on the threat, issuing a directive that bars new transgender recruits, blocks funding for sex reassignment surgeries, and gives Defense Secretary James Mattis six months to decide whether to expel the thousands of transgender soldiers already serving. And these are not the only ways in which Trump is governing as a right-wing cultural warrior. He has also reinstated the gag rule on international agencies that provide abortion counseling, appointed figures like Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and signed a law that will allow states to deny funding to Planned Parenthood.

While Thiel’s dream that Trump would be keen to ditch hot-button social issues now seems like an obvious delusion, it’s worth remembering that Trump himself gave reasons for entertaining the fantasy. Trump campaigned as a different sort of Republican, one unbeholden to the party’s orthodoxies. Thrice married and with a notorious playboy past, Trump has only the barest familiarity with the Bible, which was reason enough for some people to assume that he had little personal passion for cultural war. He also made a greater effort than most national Republicans to court LGBT votes. To be sure, his arguments were usually framed in terms of offering to protect LGBT citizens from Muslim terrorists, in effect making LGBT rights a wedge issue dividing a sexual minority from a religious minority. “Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist,” Trump said during his speech at the Republican convention. “This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBTQ community. No good. And we’re going to stop it. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”

Very few LGBT voters found Trump’s pitch persuasive, despite the endorsement not only of Thiel but also of Caitlyn Jenner. Trump got only 14 percent of the LGBT vote, a significant drop from the 22 percent that Mitt Romney received in 2012. Yet if LGBT voters weren’t won over by Trump, he did see an improvement in another group. Hillary Clinton got the support of 68 percent of secular voters, down 2 percent from what Barack Obama received in 2012 and a full 7 percent from what Obama received in 2008. The erosion of support from secular voters can be seen in the improved position Trump achieved outside the Bible Belt, winning over midwestern states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The numbers suggest that the true audience for Thiel’s call for an end to the “fake culture wars” wasn’t LGBT Americans (who tuned Trump out) but rather secular midwesterners who would be comforted by the fact that Trump has a gay friend.

But if Trump won the election by augmenting the traditional Republican base of white evangelicals with a few more secular voters, it’s unlikely he can replicate the trick ever again. As president, Trump has had to choose sides on divisive social issues, and time and time again, he’s gone with what white evangelicals want. It’s not surprising that this is the side Trump picked. Trump got 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, beating out Mitt Romney (78 percent), John McCain (74 percent), and even the George W. Bush of 2004 (78 percent). Evangelicals are now loyally nodding along even as Trump, following this month’s deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, huffs and puffs on a dog whistle aimed at his white-nationalist supporters. While one pastor resigned from Trump’s evangelical faith advisory council after Charlottesville, on Thursday journalist Jonathan Merritt wrote in USA Today that of the several other council members he spoke to, none could think of any scenario in which they would ever quit.

Peter Thiel (and those who shared his illusion) misjudged Trump because they thought the fact that he wasn’t personally invested in culture-war issues would mean that he would put them on the back-burner. What they ignored is that Trump has a fundamentally tribalistic approach to politics. He sees himself as the head of a tribe, whose main goal is to reward his supporters and punish his enemies.

In January 2016, Will Saletan wrote in Slate that “the Republican Party is a failed state, and Donald Trump is its warlord.” That metaphor deserves an update. Trump is now presiding over America as if it were a failed state, and he is its avenging cultural warlord. Trump is styling himself as the chieftain of the Straight White Christian Party who will defend his people against all enemies, be they Muslim terrorists or trans soldiers.

Trump’s tribal approach to politics has only intensified due to his political problems. As he faces the investigation of Russian interference in the election and quarrels with his fellow Republicans, he has to keep his most loyal followers happy, even at the risk of throwing away more marginal voters. Trump’s political instincts are geared only toward polarization, not reconciliation. This is why he was always destined to become a cultural warrior.

Peter Thiel is still a Trump supporter, even though he reportedly grumbles in private that there is a 50 percent chance Trump will be a “disaster.” This might yet prove a problem for Trump, who won 2016 with the thinnest possible margin of 70,000 odd votes spread across three states. People like Thiel are small in number, but Trump needs to hold on to all the votes he can. The culture-war strategy of giving red meat to the base while alienating everyone else might shore up Trump’s support in the short run, but it could cost him in the end.