Long before student activists started talking about pulling down statues of Cecil Rhodes, a cultural war was being waged in America over monuments honouring General Robert E. Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy. In 2001 there was a petition to remove some of these statues from the University of Texas on the grounds that their presence might ‘lead people to believe that the university is tolerant of the Confederate ideology regarding slavery’. The arguments that started on campus then branched out beyond it. To some, the statues were a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. To others, they were a monument to racism.
In recent years this argument has intensified, gathering a momentum that few of America’s political leaders fully understood. Movements like Black Lives Matter sprang up and pushed their agenda in the growing culture war. However legitimate their initial cause, such groups swiftly descended into rhetoric and activities which swapped the language of racial reconciliation for that of race-baiting. An unemployed white worker may have had all the same worries as an unemployed black worker, but the white worker also had to hear claims about being a beneficiary of ‘white privilege’. The politicisation of race had started again, and too few American leaders knew how to stop it.
It would give too much credit to Donald Trump to say he has deep insights into contemporary public concerns. His style is to speak first and think later; cause a fuss and see what happens. But he found himself to be the only politician campaigning on the issue of American greatness, or the cultural wars in general — and enough Americans shared these concerns for him to be elected to the White House.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, had it right when he said that there can be no moral ambiguity in condemning the Nazi sympathisers who arrived with their swastikas, torches and Hitler salutes in Charlottesville.
The original cause was perfectly legitimate — to protest against the removal of the statue of General Lee. But it mutated into a far-right rally, with Ku Klux Klan members and members of various white nationalist factions armed with weapons and ready for a fight. That they were granted a fight does not exculpate them.
It is quite correct to say, as Donald Trump did, that there are good and bad people on both sides. ‘Antifa’ activists (self-described ‘anti-fascists’) in America routinely behave and talk in a way that makes them indistinguishable from any fascists they claim to oppose. But to focus on this distracts from the main point: that to see Nazism paraded in America is a sickening and deplorable spectacle. Yet again, Trump has demonstrated the extent to which he is unsuited to be President. But yet again we can also see the forces at work that led him to power.
To avert a deepening catastrophe, it is necessary to better understand its origins. A recent study of 8,000 voters in last year’s presidential election judges them on two axes: economic and cultural. Hillary Clinton’s supporters were to the left economically, keen for taxes on the ultra-rich and worried about rising inequality; but Donald Trump’s supporters were generally uninterested in economic issues. Most of the Republican presidential nominees were reheating the Reaganite agenda of free markets, low taxes and light regulation — an agenda which left most Americans cold.
So while the likes of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush sought to regale voters with a 59-point plan of sensible free-market ideas, Trump talked about the end of American power, ‘carnage’ in US society and a threat to US culture. That gave him a large audience among those who either admired or deplored what he had to say. A great number of Americans worry not only about the effects of globalisation, but about change in their society. It doesn’t help to tell them that they’re on the wrong side of history or demography.
There is a way of addressing such concerns without raising a battle flag. Barack Obama did not manage to find it, and neither has Donald Trump — the result being a level of radicalisation and even political violence that can easily escalate. So we see various flashpoints emerging that seem baffling and bizarre until one remembers that, for a great many Americans, the issue of flags, statues, culture and history is politics.
At the time of the American Civil War, The Spectator was the only publication in Britain to offer unequivocal support to the North over the slave-owning South. When General Lee emerged as a leader of that rebellion, we said that he had no cause that stood up to scrutiny. To have new streets named after secessionist generals, the Confederate flag flying over national buildings, and monuments to the losing side erected long afterwards can seem baffling from a distance — and even up close. But it is precisely politicians’ failure to respond to the menace of identity politics that has given an opening to some of the ugliest forces in American life.