The Covington Catholic controversy and the shutdown are both more evidence that American politics has boiled down to a binary question about the president.
A few days have passed since the initial pile-on, the retractions, and the renewed debate about who did what to whom when a group of Kentucky high-school students became the focus of a viral-video controversy. Conclusive evidence about what happened was provided in the form of lengthy videos that left little doubt about who instigated the scene and whether a Native American elder with a drum who claimed to be a Vietnam veteran was “mobbed” or insulted by the teenagers who were there to attend the annual March for Life.
But the ongoing arguments about whether these kids deserved the opprobrium that landed on them in the first hours after the incident had little to do with any serious disagreements about what was on those videos. All that most people needed to know what they thought was a momentary glance at the misleading excerpts posted on Twitter that showed a young man with a smile and a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap on this head.
This sterile debate in which a group of Catholic and politically conservative teenagers became a national Rorschach test is being blamed on the corrosive impact of social media. But the reason why this became a cause célèbre had everything to do with the baseball cap. If Nicholas Sandmann and his friends were not identified as Trump supporters, then it’s doubtful that, even if they had actually been guilty of mobbing a Native American with a drum, it would have garnered national attention, let alone becoming a story that overshadowed the government shutdown for a few days.
It was because they were supporters of President Donald Trump, and only secondarily because they were attendees at the March for Life, that they were labeled racist thugs harassing Nathan Phillips in much the same manner as Nazis attacking Jews during the Holocaust, as one particularly egregious Internet meme asserted.
The full video evidence showed that it had been Phillips who sought out the confrontation and that the Covington high-school boys had been subjected to racist and homophobic taunts from a group from the radical Black Hebrew Israelites sect. But that didn’t deter some on the left from continuing to assert that the boys had been wrong or that the willingness of so many conservatives to rush to their defense was further proof of the Trump camp’s racism and thuggery. The battle over the Covington teens had become just one more fault line between Trump and the “resistance.”
In that way the kerfuffle quickly took on the characteristics of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. There was little or no middle ground, and people on both sides of the political spectrum found themselves drawn to one side or the other in an increasingly bitter debate that had little to do with the substance of the issue and everything to do with the one overriding concern: How you feel about President Donald Trump.
The same is true of discussions of the government shutdown that Covington briefly eclipsed. There is an intrinsic interest in keeping the machinery of government running as well as in ensuring that federal employees are not subjected to unnecessary hardships because of a political impasse. But this shutdown was different from previous budget standoffs. The willingness to go to the mat over funding for border security was about saying “no” to Trump — and to his desire for a “wall” that in one way or another Democrats had supported in other instances — more than it was an ideological difference such as the 2013 debate about funding for Obamacare. If efforts to bridge the gap between the two sides failed, it was not because a compromise on how much to spend on the border, or on what to call the barriers and other measures used to secure it, was impossible. It was, rather, simply a matter of fighting or defending the administration in every way possible.
Many conservatives and even some liberals may think there is still room for a debate about the great issues of the day without involving Trump. That ought to be especially true given his lack of interest in ideology and the inner workings of policy discussions. But it’s hard to think of a single domestic or foreign-policy issue about which the debate has not become one on which Trump’s position has not determined the stances of the participants. The willingness of former conservatives such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot to switch sides on Iran, Jerusalem, or climate change, issues on which they had once taken strong stands, has illustrated one aspect of Trump Derangement Syndrome. But this trend now extends beyond the few remaining Never Trump stalwarts still in the field.
For liberals, Trump has always been not so much a conservative opponent but a threat to democracy, even though their rights and that of a hostile media are still very much intact two years into his presidency. Trump has fielded the most conservative government in memory and, with a few exceptions, adopted stands on social, economic, and foreign-policy issues that conservatives had long held, but it makes no difference to some of his centrist or former conservative opponents. If the realization of long-cherished conservative goals such as tax reform, deregulation, and control of the Supreme Court or even moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem are considered unimportant when compared with his inappropriate behavior and statements, then it’s obvious that the only issue is whether to keep him in the White House or rid the country of the affliction of Trump and his “deplorable” supporters.
Covington demonstrated as clearly as anything else that the battle over Trump is not ideological in nature but cultural, that it’s about the president’s perceived vulgarity and unwillingness to behave in a presidential manner or, more to the point, like a member of the educated classes to which he actually belongs. That is what fuels the anger of his opponents. If the red hat that is emblematic of support for the president is, as some commentators have made clear on CNN and other outlets, now seen by Trump’s opponents as being as much a “trigger” for feelings of fear of racist behavior as a Ku Klux Klan white hood, then issues and ideology have become secondary to symbolism that denotes an attitude that is assumed to be hateful if not offensive. That leaves millions of Americans — and presumably most of those who will vote for the president next year no matter what happens in the intervening months will do so because they believe the country is better off in his admittedly unsteady hands than with the Democrats — forced to stand with the red hats and to join the Trump culture war as full-fledged partisans in much the same way they did when it came to defending Kavanaugh.
As any casual viewer of late-night television knows, in the past few years virtually all of the popular shows have become daily in-kind contributions to the Democrats, as Hollywood’s liberal orthodoxy has taken full possession of pop-culture outlets. The ratings of NBC’s Jimmy Fallon suffered when he was perceived as neutral toward Trump, rather than as a hostile partisan, in 2016 during an interview. Fallon was forced to adopt a more political and anti-Trump tone in order to compete with his rivals.
That’s why the decision of TBS’s Conan O’Brien to attempt to avoid all mention of Trump and politics in his new half-hour show is instructive as to the difficulties of avoiding the only issue anyone seems to care about. If there is room for 30 minutes of comedy every day without its focusing on abuse or mockery of Trump’s foibles, then perhaps there might be some hope for the preservation of neutral space.
But as the 2020 presidential race begins in earnest, it’s clear that Trump and not abortion, gun rights, religious freedom, or free speech remains the binary question around which America’s most bitter culture war revolves. For many Americans, politics has largely replaced religion as the factor that determines friendships and even marriages. Both Covington and the shutdown reminded us that there is only one issue worth arguing about, and its name is Donald Trump.