In Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right, Angela Nagle writes, “Politics has been hollowed out too much into little other than a purely cultural politics over the last half-century, which the ugly spectacle of the Trump-Hillary race represented the logical conclusion of — politics as culture war.”
This excerpt, from Nagel’s relevant and engrossing new book on the rise of Internet culture wars, strongly stood out to me in light of the recent kerfuffle over a recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The adaptation and the ensuing controversy is a perfect analog for the culture wars of the Trump era, and ultimately the limits of cultural politics.
Briefly, New York City’s Public Theater put on an adaptation of the play with Julius Caesar reimagined as a Donald Trump-like figure. Subsequently, there was much anger among Trump supporters over the production’s violent depiction of Caesar’s assassination.
The controversy came to a head after Tuesday’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice involving Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise. Trump’s son, Don Jr., explicitly blamed the shooting, and the general toxic political climate, on the adaptation.
The controversy further exploded into the national conversation when a recent performance was interrupted by alt-right media personalities Laura Loomer and Jack Posobiec. After Loomer walked on stage in the middle of the performance and was removed by security, Posobiec began yelling at the crowd. Among other things, he yelled, “you are all [Joseph] Goebbels” and “you are all Nazis.”
Much of the anger aimed at the theater’s adaptation of Julius Caesar was swiftly and mercilessly criticized by many. Some focused on the fact that the play is not a celebration of political violence but a condemnation of assassination, especially given the chaos unleashed upon Rome after Brutus assassinates Caesar. (If the play’s critics knew anything about the play they would be thankful that Trump was depicted as Caesar and not as Brutus or Cassius.) Others criticized the hypocrisy of the play’s critics given the lack of controversy for another recent adaptation depicting Caesar as Obama.
In light of Nagel’s observation that politics is now, first and foremost, about culture, it’s easy to see why this controversy has erupted. For both sides, conservatives and Trump supporters, and liberals and the president’s opponents, this nicely fits into the culture wars of the current era.
For Trump supporters, the Julius Caesar controversy is perfectly emblematic of liberal New York City elites enjoying Shakespeare (a symbol of highfalutin culture) as they take joy in a dramatization of the president’s assassination. Furthermore, this has further allowed the Right to point fingers at liberals for the coarsened rhetoric and for legitimizing violence.
To a lesser extent, for Trump’s opponents, the controversy has played into the cultural narrative of Trump supporters as ignorant and thoroughly unable to tolerate any criticism or satire of the president.
These narratives that have developed around the play well encapsulate Andrew Breitbart’s prescient aphorism that “politics is downstream from culture.”
Of course, politics masquerading as culture and vice versa, is nothing new in American history. Last few decades have seen variations on the theme of politics as culture from the 1960s culture wars of drugs, hippies and Vietnam to the the 1980s and 90s culture wars of feminism, gay rights, abortion and pornography. Now, the theme has continued to the culture wars of transgender rights, Islam, free speech and anything Donald Trump.
Obviously, as Nagel claims, the 2016 election was the high point of purely cultural politics.
Arguably, the election was entirely a competition between cultural narratives. On one side, it was Trump casting Clinton as a corrupt, dishonest, out-of-touch elite unable to truly represent “Real Americans.” On the other side, it was Clinton casting Trump as an unfit, profane, bigoted bully representing the worst aspects of American culture.
This is not to say that policy was not an important part of the election but that the policies of the candidates were inexorably linked to greater cultural narratives.
Take the border wall or promising to reinvest in coal power as ideal examples.
Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was perhaps the most identifiable example of his cultural argument to his supporters.
Even the Clinton campaign illustrated an even larger lack of focus on policy (as this study indicates).
Even as president, policies such as withdrawing from the Paris Agreement have been justified in cultural terms. Trump’s quip about being elected to represent “the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris” has been analyzed by some as a gendered slogan, since it harkens back to a working class past of masculine men toiling in the steel mills of a tough, hardscrabble city like Pittsburgh. Paris, by contrast, is imagined as a place inhabited by culturally elite emasculated men enjoying art and reading Sartre.
When politics becomes primarily about culture, we obscure the real causes of last week’s shooting, for example, and instead blame it on cultural factors.
We ignore the social and materialist causes of violence, opting instead to focus exclusively on the culture of coarsened political rhetoric typified by a play.
In the case of James Hodgkinson, it appears that an intense anger highlighted by a history of domestic abuse and easy access to firearms was certainly more to blame than violent rhetoric on the Left or a Julius Caesar adaptation.
What battles over culture, the recent controversy included, neglect is that for most individuals politics is about policy.
Many polls indicate that voters’ most pressing concerns are typically the economy, jobs and health care.
More crucially, according to Chris Hooks:
“That’s what politics is — the way we distribute pain. It’s not a sport or a fraternity or a game. It’s how we determine who gets medication and who dies young, who learns in a class of twenty kids and who learns in a class of thirty.”
Even the most divisive issues of the culture wars, LGBT+ rights and abortion, are ultimately at their core about economics and public health.
We can see the negative implications of an exclusively cultural politics not only in the last presidential election but also in the campaign for the special election for Georgia’s Sixth congressional district.
Of course, what else could they really run on when the AHCA is disapproved of by 75 percent of voters in the district and 50 percent of Republicans? That does not take into account the general unpopularity of the Republican healthcare proposal and Trump himself across the country.
Given those factors and that the Republican policy agenda does not boast wide popularity nationally, a conservative cultural politics may be the only way for the party to have any success in the Trump era.
For Democrats and the Left, the limits of cultural politics hold important considerations, also. Too often, cultural politics has served as a vehicle to shift the Overton window rightward. Case in point: the overemphasis of the conservatism of the electorate on gun control, immigration and abortion.
The problem for Democrats is not the unpopular of their agenda but what they represent culturally for many voters. The party is cast as run by wealthy, educated cultural elites concentrated in coastal urban areas — though certainly not without reason.
Democrats can only rebuild a broken party via an understanding of their negative cultural representation among a wide swath of Americans, and to understand the limitations of politics as culture.
That is part of what made the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK such a rousing phenomenon. He successfully shifted the conversation away from politics as culture and toward politics as primarily about one’s relationship to the material conditions that affect one’s livelihood. No wonder his success is such a watershed moment for the ascendancy for a policy-based, materialist left-wing politics.
The fact of the matter is that since culture is strongly connected to values, and values are strongly connected to politics, cultural politics will always be a force. Art is simply a distillation of societal and cultural values, and a battlefield of debates over them.
Nonetheless, an exclusive rendering of politics as culture has its set of limitations — limitations that must be taken into account.
Before I conclude, all the indignation surrounding this adaptation of a classic illustrates why it is important to read and understand Shakespeare — even today. If anything proved the need for liberal arts and the humanities, it is the proud and full-throated ignorance of Shakespeare’s message in the play.
Plus, how can you not see the irony of so-called defenders of Western culture and civilization trashing a crown jewel of Western literature in favor of shilling for their “Caesar.”
The fault, dear readers, is not in our stars but in ourselves at our inability to properly heed Shakespeare’s warnings from nearly 400 years ago.