Culture War Isn’t a Political Distraction. It’s the Heart of Politics.
Antonio Gramsci, Chris Rufo, and Donald Trump walk into a Scruton Cafe
When Pete Buttigieg launched his 2017 campaign for DNC chair, I was part of the narrow group of people outside of South Bend who saw a familiar last name. I’d made extensive use of his father’s translations of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in graduate school, and in recent years I’ve come to appreciate again Gramsci’s focus on culture as the crux of politics. Right now, there are a lot of commentaries bemoaning the culture wars that seem to dominate our present political moment, from Bud Light to book bans. But what observers and practitioners of politics from Gramsci to Newt Gingrich remind us, politics is a culture war.
What Gramsci understood was that culture—folkways, popular convention and art, national imagination—shapes how we conceive of our world and how we think of ourselves in it. For Gramsci, this was crucial to winning “the war of position” that would enable communism to sweep into power. One doesn’t have to be either a Marxist or a feature of the early 20th century—after all, I’m neither—to appreciate the insight that the ways people live out and imagine their daily lives, which includes but extends well beyond politics, are more important than any arcane policy battle or individual electoral competition.
If man is a political animal, perhaps it’s because he is first and foremost a cultural one.
Waging the Culture War of Position
This sentiment has been expressed from other places along the political spectrum and at other moments in time. The right-wing polemicist Andrew Breitbart famously operated by the view that “politics is downstream of culture.” Lee Atwater’s now-infamous comments on the Southern Strategy reflect this. And today, Christopher Rufo perhaps best embodies this understanding in the hands of a Machiavellian operator.
Rufo has been at the center of the culture fights in American education, first as a leading opponent of CRT and “groomer” content and now as a new trustee in Ron DeSantis’s takeover of New College. In January, he told The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg he hopes to “steal the strategies and the principles of the Gramscian left, and then to organize a kind of counterrevolutionary response to the long march through the institutions.”
Rufo’s assault on CRT has been about this exact aim. He is waging a Gramscian war of position, relabeling a range of liberal activities and arguments under a tidy umbrella and popularizing a set of assumptions and fears about everything from children’s books to varsity sports. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells recounted in a rich 2021 examination of Rufo for The New Yorker:
Last summer, Rufo published several more pieces for City Journal, and, on September 2nd, he appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Rufo had prepared a three-minute monologue, to be uploaded to a teleprompter at a Seattle studio, and he had practiced carefully enough that when a teleprompter wasn’t available he still remembered what to say. On air, set against the deep-blue background of Fox News, he told Carlson, “It’s absolutely astonishing how critical race theory”—he said those three words slowly, for emphasis—“has pervaded every aspect of the federal government.” Carlson’s face retracted into a familiar pinched squint while Rufo recounted several of his articles. Then he said what he’d come to say: “Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States. And the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values. And I’d like to make it explicit: The president and the White House—it’s within their authority to immediately issue an executive order to abolish critical-race-theory training from the federal government. And I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order—to stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.”
Most recently, Rufo has been in Hungary as a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute. Hungary looms large in the imagination of the American right. Viktor Orbán was a guest of honor at CPAC, and an array of self-styled postliberals and national conservatives have decamped to Budapest to take the waters where the Hungarian strongman weaponized a combination of historical and contemporary cultural grievances to cement his power.
At Orbán’s ideologically friendly universities and thinks tanks, or in coffee shops themed around the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, the likes of Rufo, Gladden Pappin, and Rod Dreher can be found extolling Hungary’s muscular approach to defending its Christian identity and indulging in fantasies about what it might look like to export these anti-liberal approaches back to the U.S.
Take, for instance, Pappin’s comments to a Vice News reporter that “We should pass into the U.S. Constitution anything that is fundamentally required in order to protect the things that have been taken away by other forms of legislation or by the Supreme Court.” For Pappin, this includes giving heterosexual marriages “pride of place” in American society.
This comes down to a long-term vision of flexing institutional power to secure and cement cultural victories.
Candidate Shopping in the Mall of MAGA
It’s true that the man the new right had been touting as an American Orbán seems to be floundering at the moment. But DeSantis’s political struggles are not a result of overindulging cultural issues. They’re more or less about the fact that he’s wilted somewhat under the spotlight and, more importantly, that Trump is still the exemplar par excellence of grievance politics and cultural angst. Trump is culture war personified to the extent he needn’t evoke every individual battle against the woke mob. His mere presence is an attack on them.
And the GOP’s increasingly hard right base voters have little reason to settle for a knock-off when shopping for a candidate. What, after all, is contemporary cultural expression without the chance to flash a brand name? In noting the way the modern far right utilizes cultural consumption to attract and provide outlets for ideological agreement, Cynthia Miller-Idriss writes, “[T]oday’s far right consumers can choose from a wide array of high-quality products that touch nearly every aspect of their lives, from the way they cook to the clothes they wear.” This consumerist view is a helpful lens through which to think about much of the broader MAGA culture war, including the 2024 contest itself.
If the early primary season is often looked at as a time when voters are “candidate shopping,” let’s think about what’s on offer for the MAGA right. When they stroll through the great indoor galleria of presidential aspirants, what choices do they have?
What other candidate can offer quite the same quality of liberal pain and self-indulgent pique? The thread count on grievance, angst, paranoid conspiracy theorizing, and violent fantasy at a Trump event remains unparalleled. DeSantis squints and bobbles when asked questions he doesn’t like outside the friendly confines of his home state. Haley wears her brags about “kicking hard” with the awkwardness of an off-the-rack suit.
Why should the GOP’s hardcore voters accept shoddy craftsmanship when they can have Trump? What would it say about them if, after all their talk of payback and strongarming America’s power centers, they became brand ambassadors for knock-offs? Trump remains MAGA haute couture.
Conspicuous Consumption and Self-Branding
Of course you can show off your Trump pride with an endless array of apparel and tchotchkes that show off the conservative, pro-Trump, and often “Christian” or “patriotic” bonafides of the owner. You can even shower in the comforting presence of Donald Trump’s face.
This deluge of branding is all perfectly in step with Trump’s entire career. He was, after all, not so much a corporate tycoon as the master of plastering his name on things and licensing out the Trump brand wherever he could. That he turned this into a neatly cultivated image of brashness and business acumen, not least because of his long-running reality show, only shows his skill at the self-branding that now pervades daily life for everyone from professional athletes to high schoolers moonlighting as TikTok celebs.
Beyond this, to reiterate Miller-Idriss, a multitude of products and experiences in the marketplace are now fraught with political messaging. Some of this is explicit. Take the aforementioned Roger Scruton cafes, where one can buy Scruton’s books and other conservative writing. As John O’Sullivan, who happens to be the founder of the Danube Institute, wrote for National Review in 2020:
I hope an American political entrepreneur will take Iain’s success as an incentive to plant Scruton Places in New York, Washington, and university towns across America, but especially in towns such as Hillsdale, Mich., and Richmond, Va., that host colleges with sympathetic coffeeholics. Roger and Sophie lived in Virginia for many years, and they have many friends and admirers among American conservatives. (Since we believe in competition, maybe NRI might want to set up a chain of Buckley Coffee places as well. I’ll leave it to Lindsay and Rich to choose the right name.)
Let me suggest one minor amendment to any American borrowing of Scruton Cafes, however. An ideal name for such an American version would be the name that Roger and Sophie gave to their farm in England. I can even propose its advertising slogan: Scrutopia: For those who like Coffee and Conservatism undiluted.
His then-employee Rod Dreher agreed, writing, “Wouldn’t it be great if American university towns had a Scruton, as a hangout for conservatives, and a place to debate and discuss?”
No shortage of right-wing consumer choices exist in the United States. Laura Loomer’s MAGA coffee company Covfefe boasts that “Thousands of Deplorables have joined the COVFEFE community and more are joining everyday. We've also recruited World Class Talent who are on the front lines of the Culture War and fight for American values. Own your place in the Culture War like so many have.”
In response to anger over Bud Light’s ad with trans spokesperson Dylan Mulvaney, Seth Weathers co-launched Ultra-Right Beer. In the first ad for the self-styled “100% woke-free beer,” Weathers complains that “America’s been drinking beer from a company that doesn’t even know which restroom to use,” before encouraging his prospective customers to “stop giving money to work corporations that hate our values.”
These exchanges are fundamentally two-directional. Yes, there are conservative products offering some form of conservative experience or value add, but it is also about the opportunity for consumers to display their politics through their purchases. It’s true that this isn’t exactly new in the sense that people have often attached additional layers of meaning to the clothes they buy or the places they eat. Think about The Preppy Handbook or the intricate histories of aesthetic trends like punk or grunge. But the whole process does seem to be on steroids lately.
And, as Berny Belvedere writes here at Arc, this logic can also become a justification for boycotting or excluding a good altogether. Belvedere asks, “MAGA voters and left-leaning LGBT people both like to drink beer, but because the two are at enmity with each other, we ought to conclude that these beer companies are completely captured by progressive zealotry if they try to pitch their drinks to both camps?”
For many, the answer is yes. After all, if the goal is to maintain one’s own political identity through consumerism, then any product that is actively marketing to one’s perceived enemies has no social value in this way. In fact, it becomes toxic. It is deleterious to one’s own sense of self and the image one is presenting to the world—increasingly, an image that is being presented at almost all times and across numerous platforms.
The Culture War is the Point
The energies gathered around the fights against trans rights, rolling back reproductive freedoms, reversing gains on LGBTQ acceptance, and expanding censorship efforts in schools and libraries are not going to be easily exhausted. And advancing an open, pluralistic society that lives up to the core principles of liberal democracy requires confronting these cultural fights with real urgency.
The mistake is in seeing these fights as not serious or at best not central. Many talk about the culture war conflicts as distractions or manipulations, combustible issues that ultimately keep us from paying attention to what really matters. Often, they’re separated out from serious policy debates and treated as little more than red meat messaging opportunities around which sane and savvy operators must figure out how to maneuver.
But the Gramscian view, a view interlocutors like Rufo have taken to heart, is that this is an inversion of the relationship between culture and policy. Culture wars don’t distract from politics. Politics is a culture war.
I feel like I can push back on your premise here, or at least offer a dissenting point of view.
Your idea, if I may submit a paraphrase, is that the issues at contention in the "culture war" are political in their essence, not "cultural" in some sense of opposition to "politics". Laws and speeches centered on behavioral restrictions or freedoms, national symbolism, identity, etc. are a necessary and appropriate part of politicking, and it is imperative that we engage with these matters in political terms. Having an "open society", like with democracy, just means that you have to be willing to compromise or to lose. Feel to correct me if I've mischaracterized you.
I have a different perspective on this. First, I would claim that we've gone through a remarkable cultural shift since the Industrial Revolution (partly presaged by the global mercantilism that preceded it) which is not just a difference in economics and technology. All of the many aspects of our social systems -- culture, politics, law, art, economics, religion, etc. -- have *differentiated* themselves from one another in an unprecedented way. In agrarian societies, various social practices of different types would form a highly coherent "package" that defined each society within the bounds of some time period and geography. Cultures are never totally monolithic, so the details have always been mutable for a good portion of the population, but the unity of the "package" was critical to a well-functioning society. Industrialization and globalization have blasted these things apart into each their own orbit, although certainly independent spheres can be understood to interact. An "open society" is exactly the society which seeks to keep different aspects society from becoming confused and tangled out of this differentiated state.
I highly recommend Mark Lilla's excellent book, "The Stillborn God" as a point of reference to this argument. His thesis is that, starting from Hobbes, there has been a consistent program in European and American societies to separate political ideology (and by extension, political institutions and processes) from theology (and by extension, religion). He traces this development up to the doorstep of WWII.
I wrote a long paper a few years ago which charts a similar development in our conceptions of laws and rights. My interest was less in the history of American or other legal systems, and more in how our underlying concepts about how laws and rights apply to individuals have shifted from identifying the individual as a member of a political or social class to identifying the individual as an individual. And American Constitutionalism happens to coincide (fortuitously?) with the first phase of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. You can read it on Researchgate:
My second claim is that the "culture war" is borne out of a mis-placed yearning for spiritual or religious expression. Humans have a deep need for participative rituals, and traditional religions, particularly Christianity, just are not adequate to the demands of contemporary society. The politicization of evangelicals in this country is a sign of rot and putrefaction, not a future that most people want to inhabit if they could see the outcome now. In this view, the problem with the "culture war" is that it is NOT, actually, political OR religious, but politics pretending to be religion or vice versa. Because these now-differentiated spheres of social activity can still be mingled in practice, we can produce a hybrid political theology of sorts, but it ends up just being the stupidest version of both those things rolled together. I wrote about this problem, and my proposed solution at length in an article published by Arc this March:
So, my recommendation on the politics of the "culture war" is to message to the masses how the whole imbroglio is unutterably asinine and cynical, in the hopes they will realize that they should take their lives more seriously.
I'm curious to hear how or if you might disagree with these ideas.