The Coming Culture Wars in Trumplandia

by | 16 Nov 2016

Catastrophe by Lala Gallardo

Catastrophe by Lala Gallardo

War was declared in United States of America last Tuesday. There was no official signing of authorisation, it was announced through the proliferation of images and slogans across 24-hour news-cycles, like our contemporary wars on drugs or terror. Following from those wars on abstracted symbols, this war will be one waged over meaning itself, of the ways people understands themselves within history. Benjamin’s Angel warned against presupposing the linear progress of history and last week, the victory of Donald Trump’s promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ heralded not just the eruption of a new political moment but one that will, within itself, seek to redeem and condemn different revolutions of the past.

April 2011

American conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart releases a book proclaiming he has discovered the source of the infection breaking down American social order. For Breitbart, the problem is America’s universities, moreover, a particular constellation of ideas being explored in these presumed seats of leaning:

The line was becoming clear. Marx and Hegel had paved the way for the progressives, who in turn paved the way for the Frankfurt School, who had then attacked the American way of life by pushing “cultural Marxism” through “critical theory.” The Frankfurt School thinkers had come up with the rationale for radical environmentalism, artistic communism, psychological deconstruction of their opponents, and multiculturalism. Most of all, they had come up with the concept of “repressive tolerance,” aka political correctness. [1]

The spectre of ‘cultural Marxism’ haunts the imaginations of American conservatives, an old paranoia reborn for the internet age. Synthesising seamlessly with classical white supremacy, its narrative of Jewish-German scholars Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and others having launched an invisible network of intellectuals now poisoning the minds of America’s youth carries an audible echo of anti-semitism, as well as reinforcing ideas about the intellectual inferiority of blacks or women, who could only have gained success through a mass conspiracy. Central to this world is the belief that African-American studies, Queer Studies or Feminism were mere plots to curtail freedom and free-speech. Breitbart’s followers commit to breaking the spell of political correctness, believing that then these ideas and the political movements they reflect will disappear.  

Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again’ was a striking statement to have resonated within a still-hegemonic nation that has always traded on optimism and bravado. The statement contains not just a call to arms but also an acknowledgment of defeat, a recognition that the project called America is failing. Trump called on his followers to revolt against this failing and his success raises the question of who are the enemy Trump’s army have secured their first victory against? A line of argument has emerged claiming Trump represented the backlash of a forgotten working-class, whose lives have been devastated by shifts in globalised trade.

December, 2015,

Breitbart Senior Editor Milo Yiannopoulos runs a poll amongst his followers asking if they would rather their child had ‘Feminism or Cancer.’ 21,000 people respond, with 55% of Milo’s fans opting for cancer.

Two obvious problems with the ‘revolt of the left-behind’ argument are that, firstly it erases the existence of a Black and Brown working-class. Empirical research repeatedly suggests that African–Americans have suffered  disproportionately at the hands of the post-2008 recession. The comic Chris Rock retorted to White America’s cry of “We are losing the country” with “If you’re losing, who is winning? It ain’t us?” Those advancing a story of the revolt of ‘white working class’ should heed Rock’s advice. Under neoliberalism, material inequalities between racial groups in America have only hardened in white America’s favour. Trump’s ‘revolt of the left behind’ did not include those hit hardest by neoliberalism, exit polls show he lost the non-white vote to Hilary by a margin of 74% to 21%, his support rate falling as low as 8% amongst African-Americans. Secondly, while there was an increase in Republican support in de-industrialised areas, particularly in the key swing states, the vast majority of Trump support came from affluent Americans, with exit polls showing that Trump scored his biggest victories among from high-income voters. The trend shows that the more wealth you have in America, the more likely you are to support Trump.

May 2016,

Donald’s Trump’s policy director Sam Clovis outlines the educational strategy that a Trump Presidency would implement. Clovis suggests restructuring tuition fees and loosening regulation, making colleges partly responsible for a student’s debt. Tying together these ideas is an over-arching vision of what the university should be. The changes in loans should pressure colleges into allowing the right people to study the right courses. “If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts,” Clovis says. “But you are not going to get a job.” However, wealth and privilege can inculcate you from this harsh, instrumental vision of education. Clovis continues “If you go to Harvard, you can major in anything you want, and once you get in the door, you’ll be OK[…]But not all colleges are in the same system,”

The voting statistics don’t erase class as a lens but extend it beyond crude economic determinism by showing how class must be read within race and culture which capitalism was always already constituted through. Trump’s voters were in one sense striking against an ‘elite’ but it’s an ‘elite’ betraying a configuration of class different from the economic; this is class as so decoupled from material relations of production that the previous President, a Black man, raised by a single mother, is rendered the quintessential bourgeois, cosmopolitan elite whilst a billionaire industrialist born with a silver spoon is cast as the anti-establishment voice of the masses. Obama can obviously be conflated with an elite but as an image it acquires its potency from a narrative that ignore how neoliberalism has only crystallised the economic inequalities between racial groups in America and rather focuses on a shift in cultural and social norms over the same period. The whitelash of Trump victory was, at least in part, a revolt against this loss of cultural supremacy, a challenge to an ‘elite’ framework of meaning.

March 2012

Andrew Breitbart is struck by a heart attack whilst walking home and dies at the age of 43. Breitbart has recently promised that he is going to release a tape of President Obama from his college days that will destroy any chance of re-election. Breitbart’s fans speculate that the President has arranged the murder of the commentator. Breitbart’s friend and collaborator Stephen Bannon appears on Fox News promising to carry forward the legacy of this new conservative martyr. Breitbart’s videos are posthumously released showing Obama as a Harvard student protesting alongside Professor Derrick Bell, the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and a leading light of Critical Race studies. Obama wins re-election comfortably in November.

For Trump’s supporters, universities have become a metonym for this war over culture and meaning. The modern college campus as they understand it, with its safe spaces, recognition of non-gender binary pronouns and movements to teardown statues of racist forefathers serves as a microcosm of the future America of Trumplandian nightmares. This is not to argue that Trump will be defeated from within the Ivory Tower. His primary victims will need on the ground solidarity, at the detention centre, at the prison and at the hospital. But these battles will occur within a contested framework of meaning.

Doyen of English cultural studies Stuart Hall recognised that ‘culture has ceased (if ever it was— which I doubt) to be a decorative addendum to the ‘hard world’ of production and things, the icing on the cake of the material world. The word is now as ‘material’ as the world.’[2] To see how our precarious economic times relate to a changing political, an appreciation of the extent to which the categories through which people understand themselves are constituted through race and culture is essential. Trump and the acolytes he drafted in from the reserves army of white nationalism were more adept at communicating on this register of meaning than the Clinton campaign. They grasped the political potential offered by resuscitating the culture war. [3] Where they have erred, is presuming that culture is manipulated solely from within the university, as opposed to produced through social antagonism from multiple sites. In an ironic confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique, they try to effect a separation between the sign of the thing (the study) from the signified (the struggle) before taking the former as the totalisation of the later in a bid to reduce it to predictability. Feminism or BlackLivesMatter are not movements born of the academy and would survive without it. However, as Hall and others have appreciated, representation facilitates an accelerating or containing of political movements and with the Republicans having gained control of the not just the executive, but also both branches of the legislature and, soon, the Supreme Court, an appreciation of the process by which meaning is produced and shared through culture will be necessary for both those inside and outside the academy to protect the gains made over previous decades.

November 2016

Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen Bannon is rewarded for his successful management of the Trump campaign by becoming the President-elect’s ‘chief strategist and senior counsellor.’ Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos takes a break from his tour of college campuses to attend Trump election party as a guest.

Trump’s campaign promised everything from restoring waterboarding to exiting NATO, NAFTA and the TPP. But, fittingly, Trump’s defining policy was the dream of building a “beautiful wall”, the re-imposition of fixity, of boundaries and of borders in defiant opposition to haunting indeterminacy. Donald Trump will not reverse the tide of globalisation. He could not even if he wanted to, which he does not. The question is will this even matter to the supporters who have flocked to him from Breitbart news? Will visible victories in the spheres of entertainment, art and academia suffice? Will that be the ultimate meaning of Trump? Those who wish it not to be must be prepared for the fight.

October 2016

Donald Trump makes a pitch to young voters as his candidacy tries to recover from a series of scandals. Trump borrows from Bernie Saunders by promising a lowering of student debt, a cutting of tuition fees and plans to restructure debt repayment. These proposals are each greeted with applause but it is only when Trump promises to protect ‘free-speech’ on college campuses that his audience of conservative students erupt in jubilation. A spontaneous chant of “Trump… Trump… Trump… Trump” breaks out. The candidate himself is shocked at the response. “Wow. Wow. You like that more than the lower costs! That’s impressive.”


[1] Andrew Breitbart, Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011)

[2] Stuart Hall, “The meaning of New Times”, published in Stuart Hall, Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds) (London: Routledge 1996) p, 232

[3] James Davidson Hunter Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books 1992)


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