Last week, President Donald Trump singled out NFL players who protested racial injustices during the National Anthem, and news coverage instantly shifted the focus to Trump’s attack. Leaving the merits of the debate aside, the decision to focus on “race-identity politics” represents one of Trump’s more conniving political moves, and it takes a page right out of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s political playbook.
Trump’s initiation of petty culture wars has become his modus operandi in a way that is bad for the country. Bannon’s ignoble legacy is falsely convincing Trump that appeals to race-identity politics that may win in the short run is also a long-run governing strategy. In the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville, Va., Bannon gave an interview, noting that “The race-identity politics of the left… Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.” Bannon’s strategy requires Trump to incite the Left’s outrage, and then aim to position himself as anti-elitist. If Trump can paint the Left as heavily focused on race-identity politics to the detriment of other concerns, then Bannon’s policy of “economic nationalism” can find a new base of support among disgruntled, working-class Democrats who feel left behind by their party.
Despite stoking deep divisions in society and shattering hopes of building civic unity across our fractured republic, Bannon’s strategy understands something Trump’s opponents do not: namely, that moral outrage is a finite commodity. At Trump’s prompting, particularly on race-identity politics, Trump forces his opponents to exhaust public attention, resources, and energy appealing to their already committed followers. As long as the outrage is focused on issues the Left already controls, his opponents win few new converts, expend their resources, and drive some voters away. For his part, Trump believes that he can only win by forcing the Left to sing to their choir.
Although Bannon has left the White House, his strategy remains. Trump’s current kerfuffle with the NFL targets Trump’s base, many of whom love their flag and want to keep politics out of football. Amid their distrust of other institutions in American life, now even the NFL has become politicized. Sunday football used to be politically neutral and Americans used to be able to find common ground in the local team. If you did several tours in Vietnam, or are struggling to find work in Detroit, Green Bay, Wis., or Pittsburgh, and you fear that your society is breaking apart, to lose the NFL is another unhappy reminder of the cultural uncertainty you’re facing. But instead of working to heal these rifts, Trump feeds your anxiety for his own gain.
Even though he has left the White House, Bannon’s ghost is still making Trump start petty culture wars he believes he can win. As a result, we see norms of appropriate presidential behavior are eroding like so many other American institutions, and Americans becoming more divided—not less. Trump makes no acknowledgement of racial injustices or the principled arguments of his opponents, but elite overreaction convinces Trump’s downtrodden base that the elites don’t care about or understand them. Distrust of expertise is the natural result, and the society continues to decouple.
Our recent foray into the politics of division cannot end well for America. However, beyond Trump, our continued national obsession with the soundbite or the tweet is worse. By taking the bait, and reacting to the Bannon strategy in the way our elites do, we encourage Trump to do it more. He cannot be shamed into restraining his rhetoric, or it would have happened by now. Eventually, we must reject the politics of division to change the underlying conditions that have eviscerated public confidence and alienated many Americans from the solvable problems we must confront together.
Alex Hindman is an assistant professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.