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Culture war forever

After four years of dialed-up-to-11 political engagement, does all that energy just evaporate?

October 25, 2020

3:47 PM

25 October 2020

3:47 PM

Donald Trump made a lot of promises during the 2016 campaign. Four years later, it has been mostly a relief to see them all broken. There’s the ‘big, beautiful’ border wall, still largely a figment of the President’s imagination (as was Mexico’s interest in paying for it.) A plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, supposedly just around the corner for years, clearly does not exist. And despite much bloviating to the contrary, multiple Hillary Clinton sightings in the months and years following the election confirm that she is not, in fact, locked up. 

But perhaps most importantly, Trump made a lot of noise about extricating America from endless wars — instead, he’s left us embedded in a brand new one. 

The Culture Wars are our new Forever War. They are all-encompassing and constant; there is nothing they do not touch. Books and movies, basketball courts and football fields, late night television and daytime talk shows, art museums and corporate offices. Somewhere in between the rise of woke capitalism, the fall of the girlboss, Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression, and the deep-dive investigative reports on whether Star-Lord might be a secret Republican, the entire cultural landscape has become a battlefield. Unlike our actual military engagements, participation in this war is not optional. Everything is political, including being apolitical; if you’re not with us, you’re one of them


Even before pandemic lockdowns, police violence and mass protests ramped tensions up to a fever pitch, the political capture of the national consciousness was already in the works. If Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency ignited a spark of awareness, his election turned it into a wildfire. In place of frivolous trends, we now had haute-couture emblazoned with ‘Not My President’; institutions like Saturday Night Live and The Late Show stopped looking for laughs and went all-in on ‘clapter’ (perhaps understanding that the alternative was four years of nonstop anguished screaming.) Even now, with what appears to be the end of the Trump presidency looming ever closer, the entertainment landscape is pretty much Resistance cheerleading as far as the eye can see. 

The question, then, is what happens if (or, inshallah, when) we wake up on November 4 to a victory for Joe Biden? After four years of dialed-up-to-11 political engagement, does all that energy just evaporate? 

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Some folks — the single-issue voters who just want to make America normal again — would answer that question with a resounding ‘Yes, please.’ Perhaps they imagine 2021 as the year when the nation will collectively unclench its sphincter and breathe a sigh of relief; when athletes will go back to being famous for their ability to play sports; when people neither want nor expect their lipstick, snack foods, and grocery store to swear loyalty oaths to the proper politics; when people neither know nor care who the Incredible Hulk voted for. 

But even if we still remember how to be normal, even if we could get back there, would we? Will anyone believe, after this, that it’s safe to let our guard down? Electing a Democrat to office is no guarantee; after all, we had eight years of President Obama to make us complacent, and look how that turned out. Even if America evicts Trump in November, the traumatic effects of his presidency won’t just disappear…and maybe more to the point, some of us, the ones who’ve existed since 2016 in a state of aggrieved symbiosis with the Orange Man, will be loathe to just let it go. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, and getting down to the business of governing, would require relinquishing the drama of the Trump years that has been both an addiction and a livelihood to so many. News organizations will have to find something else to write about; comedians will have to get new material; people who constructed an entire identity around underdog resistance will have to accept the obscurity that follows victory and the hard, unglamorous work of leveraging power productively. 

But those people, the dedicated culture warriors, are few and far between — especially compared to the majority, who are, above all things, exhausted. That’s the thing about forever wars: the longer they rage on, the more apathy they breed among people who would, at some point, like to stop resisting and start living again. And since the populist right, despite eking out a narrow win in 2016, have never been much for mass organizing (compare the multiple thousands in attendance at the various Women’s Marches to the hundred or so screaming tiki-torchers who constitute a right-wing ‘rally’), a hopeful vision of the US under a Biden presidency emerges. Not normal, necessarily, but at least less noisy. It’s a start.


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