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July 24, 2023

Culture Is King in Politics

Donald Trump is dominating the Republican field because he dominates the culture.

Politics is downstream from culture. The late Andrew Breitbart said it, and the present-day Donald Trump is living proof of it.

As it stands, the race for the Republican nomination for president is a runaway. It’s Trump, and it’s everybody else. It’s true that the candidates have yet to engage in a single debate, but Trump’s nearest and most serious challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has been going the wrong way in the polls, having lost nine points in the RealClearPolitics average since January while Trump has gained six points since then.

Why? It can’t be about policies because the two agree on nearly every major issue. If anything, DeSantis is more conservative than Trump in certain areas: fiscal policy, LGBTQ+++ stuff, and abortion come to mind.

The difference between Trump and DeSantis — the reason why a 77-year-old one-termer is cleaning the clock of a 44-year-old rising star with a glowing political résumé — can be explained in a single word: culture.

Policy doesn’t win elections. Culture does. Culture attracts people and moves people, and it makes criminal indictments seem tired and superfluous. Or maybe it’s a corrupt Department of Justice that does that. But no matter.

When it comes to politics, Trump has known all along that culture is king. DeSantis is only now learning that lesson — the hard way. (Have you noticed that the “Trump can’t win” crowd has now become the “I still don’t think Trump can win” crowd? It’s a subtle shift, but a telling one. And it’s come about because of Trump’s cultural dominance.)

Back in March, just prior to his indictment by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, Trump attended the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was treated like a rock star. Trump was hosted by the state’s junior senator, Markwayne Mullin, and the state’s governor, Kevin Stitt, both of whom have endorsed him in his reelection bid. As the Washington Examiner reported: “The 45th president received a standing ovation as he entered the arena, which saw nearly 17,000 fans in attendance for the tournament. Trump was seen shaking hands and posing with the national champions as they left the mat, as well as others in the massive crowd.”

Soon thereafter, Trump was in Miami for UFC 287, there to hang with his longtime friend and UFC president, Dana White, and to support fighter Jorge Masvidal, who himself is a huge fan of Trump. Again, he got a hero’s welcome, this time with resounding chants of U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

More recently, on July 8, it was UFC 290 in Las Vegas, where a video of Trump shaking hands with the world’s most influential podcaster, Joe Rogan, has gone viral. As Newsweek reports: “Trump was seated cageside at the T-Mobile Arena ahead of the fight night when he spotted Rogan, who has a popular podcast with The Joe Rogan Experience. The meeting of Trump and Rogan seemed cordial, despite the podcaster calling out the former president in the past and making a number of pointed barbs during his many tirades across his podcasts.”

It’s hard to know just how many votes that 10-second handshake with Rogan was worth, but, again, here was Trump creating yet another pop-cultural mega-moment.

Finally, there’s “Sound of Freedom,” the improbable box-office smash that began with conservatives but has since jumped the bounds of political affiliation. As The New York Times reports, “Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina called it an ‘amazing, gut-wrenching, emotional movie.’”

Senator Scott, who’s also running for the Republican nomination, was clearly moved by the movie and what it represents. Trump, though, didn’t merely comment on the film. He saw a cultural moment in it, so he arranged a private screening at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey — a private screening with actor Jim Caviezel, real-life hero Tim Ballard, and producer Eduardo Verastegui. The following day, Caviezel and Verastegui sat for an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade, and the moment couldn’t have been scripted any better by Trump’s communications team.

“This is the Mexican dream and the American dream together,” said Verastegui. “When two Mexican filmmakers — Alejandro Monteverde, the director, and myself, the producer — mix with two American heroes, Tim Ballard and Jim Caviezel … what are the results? The Sound of Freedom. What happens when the bad guys of Mexico and the bad guys of America, what happens? What is the result? Child trafficking.”

Kilmeade asked what prompted Caviezel to take on both this film and this fight against child trafficking, to which Caviezel responded, “When God tells you to do something, you don’t hesitate.”

“We could be doing more, right Jim?” asked Kilmeade.

To which Caviezel responded: “Oh yeah, we have to do a lot more. We’ve got to start with Donald Trump.”

“What do you mean?” asked Kilmeade.

“Well,” said Caviezel, “he’s got to be in there. Because he’s going to go after the traffickers.”

“Do you think he understands that?” asked Kilmeade.

Both Verastegui and Caviezel nodded. “We were with him last night at Bedminster,” said Caviezel, whose portrayal of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” brought him to stardom. “This is the new Moses. I mean, I’m still Jesus, but he’s the new Moses. ‘Pharoah, let my children go free.’”

Trump thus scored again, and he might have found himself the political issue of 2024: the fight against child sex trafficking. After all, who could be against it — Republican or independent?

Politics is indeed downstream from culture. Trump gets it, and he runs with it at every opportunity. Can other Republicans do the same? Can DeSantis? It’s a tough question, perhaps a chicken-and-egg question: Is Trump running away with this because he commands the culture, or does he command the culture because he’s running away with this?

If we had to venture, we’d say the former.

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