Andrew Breitbart, the late ever-controversial right-wing gonzo journalist (not to be confused with the dreary Trump-propaganda organ that now bears his name) used to have a saying that “politics is downstream of culture.” Meaning that:
1. People’s political opinions are mostly not thought-out or analytical so much as an expression of what they think is valuable, cool, scary, smart, stupid, impressive to their friends.
2. People generally put more of their hearts and free time into cultural pursuits – from mass media and video game consumption to churches, schools, museums, gun clubs, bowling leagues, etc. – than political ones, so the attitudes that pervade the the larger spaces of their lives affect the smaller ones, not just in what they believe but who they know and trust.
3. Young people in particular are much more into getting their values and their “facts” from cultural rather than explicitly political sources.
Breitbart’s assessment was a shrewd one, maybe his shrewdest. Breitbart himself thought Donald Trump was a con man and no conservative, but he doubtlessly would have enjoyed the showmanship and sheer disruption of Trump’s primary campaign. And as we sift through the rubble left in his wake and look for a path forward, we should not overlook Breitbart’s dictum. Because for all the talk about the politics of ‘Trumpism,’ a major part of what allowed Trump to rise and prevail in the primary was his prominence in popular culture as well as the generally debased state of American culture in general these days. And if conservatives have any path back from the ruins, it will have to include finding a way to get our message and messengers into the cultural mainstream.
Trump has precious little in common with Ronald Reagan, but he has this: like Reagan, Trump came into politics from a position of being a familiar figure on American TV (Reagan, after his film career and before he ran for Governor of California, was the popular host of the weekly GE Theater). Among other things, Trump was a well-known to fans of pro wrestling, an under-the-radar element of the culture for a lot of political commentators; a regular guest on the Howard Stern show; and polls by AMG and SurveyUSA found that his most faithful supporters overlapped significantly with the TV audience of his reality show The Apprentice. And throughout Trump’s campaign, he – like Reagan – has drawn on his showbiz friends, albeit friends like Mike Tyson who you or I might not consider positive cultural role models.
Put simply, there were a lot more people out there than anyone had credited who already enjoyed watching Trump and believed he was the kind of leader we needed, before he got into politics. They may not be anything like a majority of Republican primary voters, let alone American voters in general, but Trump pulled off exactly what many Republicans have wanted to see for some time – a figure who got lots of free media coverage from being a glamorous figure of the culture, cashing that in politically. Had the trick been pulled by someone with actual conservative beliefs and less obviously a crude, ignorant, bombastic jerk, we might all be celebrating right now.
Culture matters. Withdrawing from it is no answer. If you want to change the future of the country, you need to engage the culture and not just expect that the kinds of citizens who vote for your values can be summoned from the hills.