The recent NFL controversy gives us a surprising insight into the psychology of conservativism: the far-right would exchange its control of money and government to own the culture.
For a long time I’ve assumed most of the far-right knew economics was king—how could you not? Material conditions control so much of our lives. If you’d asked me, I’d have told you that the far-right understood where the power was; they just practiced the Culture War to cover up their looting of the poor and the middle class.
But with the arrival of the Trump-Kaepernick feud, I’ve realized the far-right might actually mean it. Their Culture War might be in earnest. Trump and his forces control all three branches of government and a majority of the statehouses. Their allies run the economic machine. But it’s not enough for them. The one place where progressivism has command—where they’re winning—is the culture.
I am now convinced the far-right would sell Wall Street and Washington for the Cocktail Circuit, the Academy, and the Arts. In a heartbeat.
The economic machine runs our world. That’s unvarnished fact. Economics dictate culture and politics. Flint, Michigan isn’t dying because its citizens have bad manners, or because their values have decayed. Flint is suffering because the factories moved away. Why did the factories move away?
Because economics decided the factories didn’t belong to the people who built them.
Because economics told politics that it was both good and cool to allow corporate America to move money overseas.
Because economics told politics it was ethical to build a system without a good safety net. This is the way it’s been since the Founding. The Blues didn’t invent sharecropping; sharecropping invented the Blues.
In these pages, I’ve argued for the primacy of economics in political questions. I’ve discussed how the dress code is governed by money. I’ve written about pundits like David Brooks, who insist that wealth is downstream from manners. Brooks, like other conservatives, seems to think that if unemployed coal miners learned which fork belonged to the salad, then everyone in West Virginia would be a millionaire. If only feckless youth memorized the Gilbert and Sullivan librettos, then opiates would stop carving up the Midwest.
For years, the writer Thomas Frank insisted that conservatives did this cynically, that they were hip to the con.
After all, right-wing politics are a hard sell in any democracy. Far-right rule exists for one reason only: to shovel money and power to the elites. That’s easy to do in a monarchy, dictatorship, or an aristocracy. But how do you manage it in a republic? To achieve far-right doctrine, you have to convince people to vote against their best interests. How do you persuade the many to give their resources to the few? How do you get democratic citizens to help build an oligarchy?
The way you do it is to focus on culture, Frank says. That’s the genius of the American far-right. You divide people up by race. Or gender. Or whether they live on farms or in the cities. You focus on that, and avoid mentioning how Wall Street keeps Washington on a leash.
The script for a right-wing politician is easy. You scare the public with gay marriage, while you gut their pensions. You talk about guns, as you saddle young adults with debt. You preach about God, and then starve the poor. The Culture War has worked for the last forty years. And it’s self-reinforcing. As people get poorer and more desperate, you repeat the cycle. Eventually, after years of winter, the public forgets the warmth of the summer sun. Memories turn gray: was there ever a time when they didn’t hate the neighbors?
This made sense to me. I agreed with Frank. I assumed the far-right knew this, and nodded their head. After all, it’s hard to pick someone’s pocket unintentionally. Frank argued that conservatives understood they were distracting the people with culture: how could it be otherwise? They just didn’t mean a word of it.
But after the continental burst of jersey-burning angina, I’m not so sure. Consider the dyspepsia erupting from the American jet-ski set. I’m afraid their rage against the NFL is genuine. What I hear from the Kaepernick-bashers—from Trump’s constituency—is not cleverly-crafted anger, but the sincere sputter of betrayal: The libs have football! Isn’t anything sacred these days?
After all, who does Trump represent? Not the poor. That’s clear. The President was elected to advocate for the economically comfortable and culturally marginal. Trump’s base chose him to troll the liberals. And at the end of the day, that’s all they care about.
The NFL-Trump spat is evidence: the far-right seriously believes culture is king. In their mental cosmos, that’s why the poor are poor and the broken stay broken. Not the brutal realities of late capitalism. Not the lack of affordable medical care, or the drug war, or colonialism, or the legacy of race, or the patriarchy. For them, it’s Will & Grace all the way down. And now the National Football League has betrayed them too.
This belief explains why they would support an ineffective President: he fights the culture war for them. It also clarifies why Kaepernick enrages them so. If you seriously, no-kidding believe that an Oscar speech has more influence than Goldman Sachs—if you honest-to-God saw Antifa as a threat to the police—if you really thought that liberal professors were a clear and present danger to the Constitution—then you might think that the NFL disobeying Trump was the end of the world.
Now, it would be true, but uncharitable, to point out that Trump’s base already has everything but still wants more. Let me be uncharitable. The entitled believe they are entitled to all the toys, including the coveted status of victimhood. The far-right has lost the culture war, and it infuriates them. They are the outsiders culturally, and they know it. All their anger stems from that: the frustrated cries of people who can build walls, but never make them well. Sean Spicer was invited to the Emmys so a beautiful room of creative and clever people could laugh at him. The culture will never love them, and that’s not going to change, in spite of everything. That is the right’s pathology, and their tragedy.