These are the two extremes of the culture war, which Donald Trump, for all his indiscipline, seems determined to fight. It’s notable that sexual morality, hardly a Trumpian forte, plays no major role in it. He has sent out a pair of tweets barring transgender Americans from serving in the military and has rolled back a birth-control mandate, but these are offerings to the religious right rather than loud battles. Instead, he has saved his ammunition for symbolic fights over heritage and nationhood, voicing loud support for Christmas (this worked well for him), cops (this worked well for him), Confederate statues (this worked poorly for him), and defending the flag (this worked well for him, but we’ll return to that).
On the one hand, these instances of Trump’s baiting can look shallow and cynical—never more so than when Mike Pence went to a football game, told journalists to stay in the car, and then returned in protest as soon as players took the knee—triggering reactions among all of us as if we were lab animals. On the other hand, we intuitively grasp that they’re about something deeper. You can’t “win” the culture war—because it doesn’t end—but each battle counts, and a triumph of one side over the other re-draws the map of power. One side then gets to say, “We’re stronger than you, so cross us at your peril.” Pile up such victories, and politicians change their rhetoric, newsrooms reframe their stories, and policy starts going your way. Trumpian nationalism and (decidedly eccentric) traditionalism could gain ground.