Donald Trump’s win in 2016 never brought his followers the cultural power they’d hoped it would. Quite the opposite, it prompted many cultural institutions — from professional sports to Hollywood — to oppose Mr. Trump and his political project with more fervor.
That reaction helped fuel a sort of Möbius strip of grievance: We came to power because we were the overlooked, hated silent majority. But, when we came to power, our opposition hated us and treated us unfairly. The result of that treatment is the loss of our power and proof that the system is rigged against us. Once again, we’re the overlooked, silent majority.
That telling omits quite a bit. Most important, it omits the political power that the right wields and accumulates through the courts and through structural advantages in institutions like the Electoral College and the Senate. But the sense of threat is fundamental to the modern right’s self-identity. It’s worth noting, too, that conservatives say they recognize this same dynamic on the left.
“Both sides feeling like they are losing is a crucial aspect of American cultural conflict,” David French, a senior editor of the conservative publication The Dispatch, told me. “To both conservatives and progressives, the culture war looks like one side is routing the other. Each side takes its natural advantages for granted. But losses, of any kind, feel existential.”
This is the culture war doomloop. It’s not a reflection of reality, but a distorted perception of it — a gut feeling that increases conflict.
“For every political action or reaction or overreaction there seems to be an equal and opposite political action or reaction or overreaction,” Mr. French said. “The situation escalates. Each side activates the other in a profound way.”
For instance, in mid-November, with Mr. Trump’s election results denial in full swing, the Fox News host Howard Kurtz posted a tweet destined for the “both sides” hall of fame.
That Mr. Kurtz conflates vague pop culture power (daytime television) with hard political power (an executive pressuring the federal government to ignore the democratic will of its people) is ridiculous.
But that false equivalence is a revealing bit of rationalization that helps explain the Republican Party’s grievance cycle and its commitment to a ceaseless culture war. It is a tidy encapsulation of a facet of the pro-Trump mind-set, which reasons that political power (which Trump supporters have wielded for nearly four years) will never be enough if they don’t also feel that they have dominant cultural power.
The pro-Trump media has constructed an alternative reality, and I’ve spent the last four years dropping into it. With each news cycle the distance between the more traditional media and its MAGA counterpart widens. Deeply reported exposés of corruption in the Trump White House were met with crickets in the pro-Trump media, while smaller culture-war skirmishes stayed in their headlines for days. (Remember when Sean Hannity’s fans publicly destroyed their Keurig coffee makers after their manufacturer stopped advertising on his show in 2017?)
Many of the biggest outrages in the Trump media ecosystem during the last four years have been about cultural institutions. Liberal Hollywood is a favorite target, one that predates Mr. Trump. In sports, many culture warriors on the right boycotted the N.F.L. after Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest. Conservatives have also delighted in lower than usual 2020 playoff ratings for the N.B.A., proof in conservatives’ eyes that the league has spent too much time focused on social justice issues. (Ratings have been down for all live sports this year.)
Then there’s “the media” — arguably the institution that looms largest in the mind of the president and his supporters. The right’s fixation on a certain segment of the press is nothing new and it ignores the vast audience for conservative talk radio, Sinclair’s network of local television stations, Fox News’s towering prime-time ratings, and conservative content’s domination on Facebook.
But Mr. Trump’s choice to declare insufficiently servile journalists “the enemy of the people” raised the stakes considerably. It’s a tactic that rallies the base but also serves another purpose: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you,” Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” recalled Mr. Trump telling her in 2016.
The media has always been Mr. Trump’s obsession because the cultural power it wields is the only power he’s known throughout his career. He used it to revive and inflate his reputation via reality television, and eventually he learned how to hijack and program the press. Political power, the kind granted to him on Jan. 20, 2017, has always seemed foreign to him, requiring elusive virtues like patience, empathy and curiosity.
Mr. Trump’s cultural cachet was a crucial asset in his surprise run and win in 2016. His very presence in Republican politics suggested to conservatives that he might be able to bestow the party with the kind of transcendent power it lacked.
Nothing demonstrates this quite like a Trump rally, an event that is a cultural experience as much as a sporting event, concert or big-tent religious revival. At every Trump rally I attended in the lead-up to the 2016 election, his supporters described the same electric feeling — that someone who embodied (or, more accurately, pandered to) their cultural values was ascending to power.
Much of the pro-Trump media’s project was an attempt to harness this feeling. Shortly after Mr. Trump’s election, pro-Trump media pundits bandied about the slogans “Conservatism is the new counterculture” and “Conservatism is the new punk rock.” But the pro-Trump media didn’t create a counterculture as much as a dangerous counter-reality — one that prods mainstream media organizations to push back harder to debunk the lies.
In 2017 I wrote that this online ecosystem “turned politics into a ledger with a running tally, where every outrage, misstep and hypocritical line builds on the outrages that came before.” And where every news event becomes “manipulatable evidence to fit a narrative for each side, building in intensity, crescendoing to some unforeseeable but somehow still inevitable conclusion.”
Three years ago, it might have been easier to imagine that the 2020 election might have offered up a denouement, or, at least, served as a valve to release a bit of tension. But what seems obvious right now is that the culture war doomloop defies conclusions. It is self-sustaining and also potentially lucrative — just ask Newsmax and One America News, whose post-Trump business models appear to be to indulge the president’s every conspiratorial fantasy and feed the loop.
There’s no easy way out. To break the cycle, one side would have to feel as if it’s definitively won or lost. But the ultimate effect of the culture war doomloop is that it distorts reality. Each side believes it’s winning and losing, all at once.
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