2018 midterms

The Toxic Cycle That Keeps Republicans Focused on Culture War

Trump loves culture war, and its bad effect on upscale suburban voters keeps him at it to hang onto the “base.” Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of the big questions that will be asked after the midterms, no matter what happens, is why Republicans didn’t focus more on economic themes, given the humming economy, as reflected in the final pre-election jobs report. Yes, we all know the president is obsessed with such culture-war staples as the alleged threat of immigration, which may help explain his focus on the phantom menace of a migrant “caravan.” But he likes to boast about the economy, too. Why aren’t he and his allies talking more about that?

Well, for one thing, as Sarah Jones has observed, all those macroeconomic indicators that look so good don’t necessarily translate into good living conditions for middle-class voters. Republicans, moreover, don’t have an economic agenda that is attractive to such voters, who don’t feel they benefit from GOP tax cuts and are actively threatened by GOP health care policies.

And as a matter of fact, midterm elections are usually not about the economy, but about overall assessments of the president. Trump’s assessments, while generally positive in terms of his stewardship of the economy, are bad enough on other issues and characteristics that they remain underwater. It is clear, moreover, that Trump and his party are caught between the temptation to appeal to voters who love his cultural agenda or to reassure those who don’t. To the extent they play to the culture-war base, they make it very hard for the suburban upscale voters who might actually believe they are benefiting from the current economy to make that their decision-point. It’s a toxic cycle, as Ron Brownstein explains:

The GOP’s final message in 2018 shows that it is relying more than ever on the cultural grievances of blue-collar white America in order to amass the political power to pass an economic agenda aimed primarily at those in the upper income brackets.

And yet the GOP appears at far greater risk next week of losing upper-middle-class voters on cultural grounds than it does of losing working-class voters for economic reasons. The major exception is a few midwestern industrial states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, where Democrats appear to be clawing back into contention among working-class whites.

Trump’s closing emphasis on culture may, in fact, represent a kind of triage for the GOP that effectively concedes large suburban losses in the House, but tries to protect more rural and blue-collar districts, as well as GOP Senate candidates in states fitting the latter description.

And it’s not just a short-term decision Trump and Republicans are making right now. The cycle of trading culturally liberal suburban for culturally conservative white evangelical and working-class voters can become self-perpetuating, as Brownstein notes:

After November, the GOP caucus in both congressional chambers will almost certainly tilt even further toward predominantly white, heavily blue-collar, and religiously traditional places where Trump’s insular messaging resonates. The paradox that the final stage of the 2018 election reveals is this: As more upscale voters who benefit from the GOP’s economic agenda flee Trump’s racially infused definition of the party, Republicans will become even more dependent on stoking the cultural grievances of their working-class base.

So the culture-war mood among Republicans may become more, not less, intense after the midterms. And if, between now and 2020, the economy slows down, you can expect Trump to get downright medieval on cultural issues. He’s already broken most of the resistance of his fellow partisans to a revanchist, white nationalist message and agenda; it’s amazing to remember that as recently as 2004 comprehensive immigration reform was a bedrock principle of a Republican president. But at some point, ethno-cultural traditionalism may no longer just be Trump’s signature issue, but his only politically effective theme.

The Toxic Cycle Keeping Republicans Focused on Culture War