At the grocery store the other day, I found myself in the checkout line behind an old man whose T-shirt showed an electoral map of the country. The caption for red states said “United States of America”; for blue states, it said “Dumbfuckistan.” Like me, this man lives in California, which has a strong economy, low unemployment, the nation’s best public-university system, and some of the most innovative tech companies. But along with other blue states, it was being assaulted as a land of “dumbfucks,” while red states were praised as the “real” America.
In the parking lot afterward, as the man loaded his groceries into a luxury SUV, I stared at him, unable to get past the message he was trying to convey to people like me: that he and I were not fellow Americans, working to form a more perfect union, but rather citizens of two battling nations. This wasn’t just a political statement, it was propaganda—and it was emblematic of the current culture war.
The trenches of this war are getting deeper. In July, two Republican senators, Tom Cotton and David Perdue, introduced the RAISE Act, a bill that would effectively cut legal immigration by 50 percent over the course of a decade. According to its sponsors, the bill would spur economic growth and raise workers’ wages by limiting competition from newcomers. It would establish a point system for all prospective immigrants, place restrictions on the type of relatives they can sponsor, add an English-language test, eliminate the diversity visa lottery, and limit the number of refugees.
But this legislation will not necessarily help the economy, simply because employers’ needs range widely, depending on the industry. In California, for example, tech and agricultural workers are both vital to the state’s economic health. Furthermore, automation and declining unionization, not just immigration, have been shown to be strong contributing factors to declining wages. What the bill will do, however, is limit the arrival of relatives through family reunification, close our doors to refugees, and give an immediate advantage to immigrants from English-speaking countries. The RAISE Act may or may not make the economy stronger, but it will probably make the country whiter.
Outside the Senate, the culture war is being fought on many fronts. At the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions has been critical of consent decrees—reform agreements with police departments that are accused of abuses—saying they “reduce the morale of police officers.” Sessions’s attorneys have also filed a brief in federal court arguing that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect workers from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. At the Education Department, Betsy DeVos is currently reconsidering the responsibilities that colleges and universities have under Title IX to investigate campus rapes. And on July 26, Donald Trump abruptly announced on Twitter that transgender service members would be banned from the military.
There is one kind of discrimination, however, that the administration seems keen on investigating. On August 1, it informed the Justice Department’s civil-rights division that it would be redirecting resources toward investigating and suing colleges for discrimination against white applicants. The reason for this is no great mystery: Trump is trying to appeal to his shrinking base. He is also trying to cover up his failures as president. The first six months of his administration have been remarkable for their incompetence. The “big, beautiful” wall he promised along the southern border has not received funding. The Muslim ban he championed resulted in chaos at airports and was rejected by federal courts. His vow to repeal and replace Obamacare led to multiple bills in the GOP-controlled Senate, all of which ultimately failed. His presidential campaign is under investigation for potential collusion with the Russian government. So Trump resorts to what he does best: waging a culture war.
Some people believe that the culture war is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, that it distracts from tangible issues like health care, the economy, education, and the environment. Every time Trump sends a tweet or endorses legislation that targets a minority group, a few good souls can be relied upon to cry, “Distraction!” But for those at the receiving end of insults or attacks, there is only the searing pain of rejection. The culture war cannot be ignored, or even avoided. Trump has brought the white-resentment battle to Democrats, while insisting to his supporters that Democrats are the party of identity politics.
How should Democrats respond? The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ben Ray Luján, has said there would not be “a litmus test” for candidates. To win back Congress in 2018, he said, the party needs a broad coalition, and candidates who oppose abortion rights could receive funding. The Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria advised Democrats to “rethink their immigration absolutism” in order to appeal to Trump voters.
This is like saying that you can win a war by switching sides. If Democrats give up on women’s reproductive rights and immigrant rights, then what will they give up next—and what will they stand for? It makes far more sense, morally and strategically, to energize the eligible voters who didn’t bother casting ballots last fall. This doesn’t mean that discussions of abortion or immigration ought to be avoided. On the contrary, Democrats should make a better case for how their policies can reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies or bring about progressive immigration reform.
In other words, instead of trying to convince the guy in the “Dumbfuckistan” T-shirt, try talking to his neighbor. Large segments of the public already know that Trump is a boor unfit to be president, but they haven’t yet heard what they might gain under a fresh, fearless leadership: universal health care, higher wages, and better opportunities, in a nation that does not compromise on its ideals.