‘Everything that we hold dear’: From race to plastic straws, Trump dials up culture wars in divisive play for 2020 votes

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August 12 at 6:05 PM

George W. Bush had “freedom fries,” Sarah Palin had the “Big Gulp” and Dan Quayle had the Hollywood portrayal of an unwed single mother named Murphy Brown.

For President Trump, it’s paper straws — the latest addition to an ever-growing list of cultural flash points his campaign is seeking to highlight as part of a base-focused reelection effort.

As cities and coffee chains across the country have adopted policies aimed at limiting environmental damage, the president’s campaign has targeted what it calls “liberal paper straws.” It’s selling a Trump-branded plastic version as a fundraising tool.

Pointing to the “runaway success” of the straws — which have earned the campaign more than $670,000 in a month — communications director Tim Murtaugh said they represent Trump’s ability to make a political point using a cultural issue everyday voters can relate to.

“With the Trump straws, the campaign tapped into widespread disdain for paper straws that simply don’t work,” he said. “People don’t like being told they can’t do simple things, and so the Trump straws were born.”

From straws to wind turbines to socially conservative issues, Trump is deliberately amplifying public tensions by seizing on divisive topics to energize his base, according to campaign aides and White House advisers. The president is following much the same strategy that he pursued in 2016 — inserting himself into the issues his supporters are already discussing, and using blunt us-against-them language without regard to nuance or political correctness.

As Democrats debate policy, Trump has sought to force his potential rivals to defend the most far-reaching cultural ideas circulating within their party.

“It’s part and parcel of his long-running effort to energize his base at the expense of those who were not for him before and who are not for him today,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Part of his appeal to his base is that he is famously and proudly not politically correct.”

While Trump’s campaign aides have proactively pushed his politically incorrect message with creative and at times tongue-in-cheek marketing, the president has caught some of his advisers off guard by crudely inflaming culture wars on heavier topics such as race, abortion and immigration.

He has attacked his opponents (including four minority congresswoman) as un-American, described entire U.S. cities (many with large minority populations) as deplorable, and pitted his mostly white base against an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

The president — angry at Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) for his oversight of the president and his administration — recently targeted Baltimore, tweeting that “no human being would want to live there,” and derisively comparing the majority-black city’s murder rate to Afghanistan.

“The Democrat party is now being led by four left-wing extremists who reject everything that we hold dear,” Trump said at an Aug. 1 Cincinnati campaign rally, a reference to U.S. congresswomen he targeted last month with a racist go-back-to-your-country taunt.

Like much of what Trump does, the strategy of inflaming the culture wars carries significant risks. Democrats say the president is writing off much of the country and giving some of the voters who stayed home in 2016 a reason to vote against him. Some 2020 candidates have specifically sought to portray Trump’s constant agitation of political, cultural and racial divisions as too exhausting for the country. 

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) contrasted her presidential campaign with Trump’s by saying that voters want a political message “about lifting people up and not beating them down.”

 “People are just tired of what we’ve been seeing,” she told reporters earlier this month in Detroit. “It is tiring.” 

And after two mass shootings earlier this month — including one authorities believe may have been inspired by anti-immigrant racism — Democrats say Trump’s unwillingness to play the traditional presidential role of national healer and bipartisan problem-solver has been laid bare.

“We have a president who has aligned himself with the darkest forces in this nation,” former vice president Joe Biden said Wednesday. “And that makes winning the battle for the soul of this nation that much harder.”

Trump disparaged Biden on a day the president had set aside for visiting victims of the shootings that killed 31 people in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

“Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech,” Trump tweeted from Air Force One as he traveled between the grieving communities. “Sooo Boring!”

 In recent weeks, Trump has attacked Nike for pulling shoes with the Betsy Ross flag, blamed wind turbines for various community ills and suggested labeling anti-fascist demonstrators — known as antifa — as a domestic terrorist group.

 Democrats have also arguably provided Trump with some of the fodder he is using in his cultural crusade, as the party continues a leftward shift on both economic and social issues. He has accused Democrats of favoring undocumented immigrants over Americans, comparing downtrodden U.S. cities to parts of Central America.

While Trump’s turn toward more overt racially offensive rhetoric surprised some campaign officials, they were much more prepared to follow suit when the president began taking on liberal cities. Campaign chairman Brad Parscale had already been testing one aspect of the message through the paper straw sales. 

Parscale sent out a tweet last month lamenting what he characterized as excessive liberalism, complete with a picture of a disintegrating paper straw, smashed tight in the lid of his cup. 

“I’m so over paper straws. #LiberalProgress,” he wrote. “This is exactly what they would do to the economy as well. Squeeze it until it doesn’t work.”

Within hours, the campaign website was promoting a new product — plastic red straws, with “Trump” written down the side.

 As of last week, the campaign had sold more than 44,700 packs of 10 at $15 per pack, Murtaugh said.

Ralph Reed, chairman of the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, compared Trump’s ability to capture the cultural zeitgeist to another political figure who transcended politics and entered the mainstream of popular culture.

He recalled how former Alaska governor Sarah Palin protested a proposed ban on large soft drinks in New York City at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference. During her speech, she reached below her podium and pulled out a Big Gulp, taking a sip to the roar of the crowd.

 “It was for Palin, and similarly is for Trump today, a way to combine a cultural message with policy substance, in a way that energizes conservatives and marginalizes the left,” he said.

Republican allies of President George W. Bush sought to rebrand french fries as “freedom fries” in 2003 as part of an effort to galvanize the public and protest the French government’s opposition to the Iraq War. In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle leaped into the culture wars by publicly castigating the television show “Murphy Brown” after the sitcom depicted the lead character choosing to have a baby as an unwed career woman. Quayle, who said in a campaign speech that the show was “mocking the importance of fathers,” later backtracked amid backlash from critics.

 Karine Jean-Pierre, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser at MoveOn.org, said Democrats should ignore Trump’s attempts to goad them into debates over tangential social issues on his terms.

 “Don’t play into the labels and the silliness of where they want to take us,” she said, adding that Democrats should take Trump on directly when he engages in racist behavior.

 Jean-Pierre said Trump, who won a narrow electoral college victory in 2016 amid low Democratic voter turnout in key states, is only energizing liberal voters with his divisive rhetoric.

 “What he’s doing, this culture war, is going to just excite our base even more — in particular, people of color,” she said. “They’re looking at this and they’re thinking, ‘This is crazy. This is not safe. This is not okay.’ Democrats have to tap into that energy.”

 Attacking Democrats over social and cultural issues comes naturally to Trump, who entered politics via reality television, said David Urban, a 2016 campaign aide who advises the president. 

“The culture wars are a byproduct of the political wars,” he said. “It’s the coasts versus mid-America. It’s people who drive Teslas versus people who drive John Deere tractors. And it’s being fanned by dueling cable networks.”

Trump and his campaign have also seized on policy issues that have emerged in the Democratic presidential race, including Medicare-for-all, decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings and health benefits for undocumented immigrants. 

At the Democratic presidential debate last month, some candidates appeared to agree that the party should be wary of handing Trump another term by embracing a left-wing agenda.

“We’ve got to talk about the working-class issues, the people that take a shower after work,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said during the debate, after cautioning Democrats against focusing too much on helping undocumented immigrants. A clip of his comments was shared on Twitter by the Trump campaign.

Ayres, the pollster, said a base-first strategy could work for Trump if Democrats nominate a candidate who tries to placate Democratic activists at the expense of more moderate voters.

“If the Democrats nominate someone who can consolidate the non-Trump majority of the country, then they’ll have a very good chance to win,” he said. “On the other hand, if they nominate a far left-winger who splits the non-Trump majority, Donald Trump can be reelected with just his base.”

 Trump was able to win over some traditionally Democratic voters in 2016 by presenting himself as a tough political outsider who would disrupt Washington. 

 His straight-talking approach and with-us-or-against-us calls to patriotism are part of his appeal, even as they occasionally land him in hot water politically, said Karl Rove, who worked as a political strategist for Bush. 

“Others may dress it up, but he just goes straight there, and he’s an everyman, so the way he phrases it is as an everyman,” Rove said. “Now, it gets him into trouble sometimes, so the ‘go back to where you came from’ was not very artful.”

Trump tweeted last month that four Democratic congresswomen of color — three of them born in the U.S., the fourth a naturalized citizen — should “go back” to other countries. The campaign spent more than a week trying to make the case that the tweets were not about race. Polls showed that voters found the attacks to be out of bounds, and a growing number of Americans view the president as a racist.

But Jim DeMint, the chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute and a former Republican senator from South Carolina, said Trump is reaching beyond the traditional Republican voter to reach new audiences by breaking from political tradition.

 “I don’t know that it’s strategy, but it turns out to be so much more effective because I just don’t think he thinks politically, which is kind of refreshing in a lot ways but it gets him in trouble a lot of times,” he said. 

 While Rove and other political strategists have long used wedge issues to press a political advantage, Trump has shifted the Republican playbook by expanding beyond socially conservative issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, said former White House official Andy Surabian.

 “It’s not like plastic straws is an issue for social conservatives; plastic straws are an issue that touches atheists, Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals,” Surabian said. “It’s an issue that touches pop culture.”

David Weigel and Dan Balz contributed to this report.