Will the United States, a country that has endured for centuries and survived a brutal civil war, now be torn asunder by the terrifying specter of paper straws? The president of the United States is brave enough to test whether it can.
As everyone knows, President Trump believes that he can win reelection only by dividing Americans, particularly on racial lines. And perhaps not surprisingly for someone who spends hours every day glued to Fox News while tweeting, Trump sees our never-ending culture war as a key element of a successful strategy. And in this version of the culture war, no battle is too small-time to fight:
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.
Again, this is what happens when you spend too much time watching Fox News.
When we look back on this era in American politics, we might see it as a time when a true litany of horrors from the government — children ripped from their parents’ arms and put in cages, access to abortion eviscerated, climate change intentionally worsened — was joined to a culture war of mind-boggling silliness.
Paper straws and their ilk are staples of conservative media, little differences from “the way things used to be” blown up for the audience as symbols of profound cultural degradation, brought to you by malevolent liberals. At one point last year, Fox went into a pantomime of outrage over the fact that some hippie somewhere decided to call gingerbread men “gingerbread people,” leading Tucker Carlson to proclaim that he and his fellow conservatives were damn sure not going to “participate in our own spiritual neutering.” To the battlements!
Now it’s straws, which isn’t just a way the Trump campaign is having some fun but is apparently something they think is genuinely potent as a driver of votes.
If you’re going to use culture war divisions as an electoral strategy, you have to keep finding flash points that motivate your voters more than those of the other side. The classic recent case was in 2004, when Republicans used the specter of marriage equality to drive Republicans to the polls. They got constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on 11 state ballots as a way of encouraging social conservatives to turn out, and every one passed. At the time, many Democrats were unfortunately still sorting through their feelings about the issue, so they weren’t as motivated to get to the polls to oppose the initiatives.
But that was an issue that was hugely controversial, had dominated the news, and on which the Republican position was, for that moment anyway, the more popular one.
Today, “owning the libs” has become the primary organizing principle of a certain portion of the Republican base, the ones who spend their evenings getting mad with Sean and Tucker and Laura, then go on social media to swim in the rushing bloodstream of hate and conspiracy theorizing. No policy issue is as important to them as whether they believe they have ruined a liberal’s day. It just happens that the president is one of them.
The trouble with basing your campaign strategy on what excites those people is that they’re already really excited; anyone who would pay the Trump campaign $15 for 10 straws was almost surely already going to vote. And “To hell with the environment, ha!” is not actually a popular position to take.
The geniuses at Trump headquarters would probably reply that this is all part of a coherent plan: It’s not about straws per se, but a whole set of societal changes that members of Trump’s base find disorienting and maddening, and which they can be mobilized to push back against, from the big and consequential (the United States’ increasing racial diversity) down to the mundane (what you use to sip your Slurpee). So anything that frames the election as a battle between two cultures and two ways of life is good for them.
At certain times in the past, that might have been true. But everything we’ve seen lately suggests that Democratic voters are just as worked up as Republicans, if not more; experts are predicting record turnout in 2020.
What Trump doesn’t seem to understand is that his relentless focus on pleasing his base also mobilizes the opposition against him. We saw it in 2018, when he was sure that fear-mongering about an invasion of immigrant caravans would ensure victory in the midterm elections, and instead Democrats won big amid huge turnout. His campaign can sell all the plastic straws it wants, but it probably won’t be enough to change the dynamics actually driving this election.