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.