As we have seen over the past week, the president is eager to frame this election as a war over the symbols, monuments and statues that celebrate America’s historic figures. As a White House aide told the Wall Street Journal the other day, Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech was “a defense of America’s integrity against those who seek to tear it down. Unity was the goal—unity in preserving our heritage and learning from it.”
In the past, Trump has been able to stoke racial and cultural animus to his benefit. In 2016, he took, for example, Hillary Clinton’s line about some Trump voters being “deplorable” to effectively cast himself as the champion for a beleaguered white middle class that has been shamed and denigrated by coastal elites.
However, there are many reasons to believe that this strategy won’t work for him this time around. First, he is no longer the outsider but is instead the president of the United States at a time of a public health crisis. A health crisis, by the way that a majority of Americans think Trump is mishandling.
In 2016, with the economy stable and life in a relatively “normal” place, it was easy to distract and engage voters with this stuff. Today, however, when 87 percent of Americans (according to a recent Pew poll) say they are disappointed in the direction of the country, it’s hard to scare them into thinking that things will worsen if they vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in the fall. And, Biden isn’t making himself an easy target either. He was quick to denounce the ‘defund police’ movement. He also came out in defense of preserving and protecting national monuments dedicated to founding leaders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Bottom line: it’s hard to be an effective messenger when just 41 percent of Americans approve the job you are doing as president and just over a third think you are doing a good job handling racial issues.
Even so, warns one GOP strategist I spoke with this week, there is real concern among suburban voters about where this so-called ‘cancel culture’ or what we called in the old-days, PCism, is headed.
This strategist, who has been deeply involved in both quantitative and qualitative work with suburban voters across the country, acknowledged that these voters are not interested in preserving Confederate statues or flags. They are sympathetic to Black Lives Matter and supportive of the protests against police violence.
But, this person points out, they are also wary of how far this reckoning will go. Over the last week or so, they’ve raised the question of “where does it end?” They cringe at reports of statues of Christopher Columbus being tossed into a lake and are upset to read of another public figure fired for a controversial Facebook post that they put up years ago.
However, the challenge for Trump in being able to exploit these concerns is that these voters “are mostly done with him” and think that “he makes everything worse.” As a messenger, this person said, Trump has “zero credibility” with these suburbanites.
In the era of Trump, Democrats have become more and more reliant on suburban voters. But, as one Democratic strategist wondered aloud the other day: are Democrats simply renting them until Trump is no longer in office? This GOP strategist argues that one way to lose them is to assume that they want to move as far on social, racial and cultural reckoning, as many within the Democratic Party and/or the left would like to go.
And, this worry of an ‘overcorrection’ of Trump-ism, isn’t happening only in suburban living rooms and kitchens. Earlier this week, more than 150 prominent artists and public thinkers signed onto a letter titled “A Letter On Justice and Open Debate,” that ran in Harper’s. This letter mirrored what the GOP strategist told me were “simmering” concerns from suburbanites: worries about public shaming and retribution for expressing opposing or non-PC views.
We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
Bottom line: while Trump is a flawed messenger, it doesn’t mean that this issue of censoriousness (aka, shaming or cancel culture) is irrelevant. Instead, expect to see discussions about it to play a significant and potentially starring role in the 2022 campaign — especially if Democrats take full control of the federal government.