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Return of the Repressed: Trump & the Revival of the Culture Wars

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Donald Trump will be inaugurated the nation’s 45th President on January 20th and his appointment – along with Republican control over both Houses of Congress — will enable the Christian right to regain nominal control over the U.S. government.  With this power, they can be expected to launch a renewed culture war.  This is the third time during the last two decades in which Republicans have secured control over Congress and each period was marked by a bitter battle over moral values, especially a woman’s right to an abortion.

Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush and took office as president in January 1993.  However, the Democrats were routed in the mid-term 1994 election and the Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time since 1954.  They promoted what Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA) called the Contract with America that intoned a new conservative political ideology based on “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public’s money.  It can be the beginning of a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.”

George W. Bush and the Republicans gained control of the government during 2003-2005, a period considered the high-point of the Christian right’s influence on public policy.  It was marked by a peculiar sexual perversion marked his presidency that began inauspiciously when Attorney General John Ashcroft draped two semi-nude statues, “Spirit of Justice” (female) and “Majesty of Law” (male), in the Justice Department auditorium.

Most troubling, as conservatives gained control over the federal health and education bureaucracies, they targeted teen sex education.  The federal government withdrew the effective comprehensive sex-ed program that included the proper use of contraceptives and replaced it with one promoting “abstinence until marriage” and “virginity pledges.”  The administration pledged to extend funding to religious groups that provided social services, especially those promoting abstinence to young people.  Bush fulfilled his abstinence-only crusade and it was a failure.  The Guttmacher Institute reports that the abstinence-only program, at a cost of $176 million, had “no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior.”

The deathblow to the Bush-II culture wars was the now-infamous halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl game when Justin Timberlake “accidentally” exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple to TV viewers.  The Christian right was shocked and flooded the FCC with angry letters, forcing a reluctant agency to stand up for moral rectitude.  It slapped a stiff fine of $550,000 against a contrite (if dumbfounded) CBS; on appeal, a federal district court dismissed the case.

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Trump’s inauguration will renew the Christian right’s culture wars and the campaign will likely be led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a born-again evangelical.  He will receive strong support from the Congressional Republicans as well as from three staunch conservatives who will top Trump’s proposed Cabinet regarding “cultural” issues — Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), as Attorney General; Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), as Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Elisabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a conservative Michigan philanthropist and Republican operative, as Secretary of Education.  Under their leadership, campaigns to restrict sexual experience and expression, let alone artistic creativity and intellectual thought, can be expected to be pursued aggressively.  So too will the vigorous investigation of the press over disclosures.  If a “terrorist” attack occurs, political expression and assembly will likely be forcefully policed if not curtailed.

The renewed culture wars will likely be marked by mean-spirited venom.  The Trump administration, together with the Republican-controlled Senate and Christian right, will first seek to seat a conservative on the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade.  Other targets will likely be to de-fund Planned Parenthood and restrict teen birth control and sex education as well as to limit the rights of gay and transgender people.  One can also anticipate greater efforts by localities to suppress adult “consensual” prostitution and restrict the commercial availability of pornography, sex toys and sex clubs.  With less fervor, conservatives in Congress will likely attempt to stop federal funding for the National Endowments and PBS/NPR; Ken Burns’ forthcoming series, The Vietnam War, could be a litmus test of free speech as Congressional conservatives and the generals in the Trump Cabinet confront their failed past.

Trump seems less “culturally” conservative than Pence and many others within the Republican-controlled Congress.  Maybe it’s his macho, New York swagger that appealed to the more libertarian, hyper-masculine spirit that got him elected.  Pence seems dour, repressed, but mean-spirit enough to lead a renewed culture war following the battle lines laid down by Phyllis Schlafly four decades ago.  As Governor of Indiana, four-term Congressman and earlier radio talk-show host, Pence has long championed a religious- or faith-based (white) moralist agenda.

Pence has long taken a hardline stand against a woman’s right to an abortion, even signing a law banning abortions in cases where a fetus could have a potentially life-threatening condition.  He supported a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and, in March 2015, signed a law allowing merchants and others to discriminate against gays and lesbians for religious reasons.  As VP candidate, he adopted the classic dodge arguing that “the transgender bathroom issue can be resolved with common sense at the local level.”

Pence also sought to cut state HIV/AIDS funding and increase spending for “conversion therapy” programs (by which gay youths can be “cured” and made straight).  He opposed condom use by teenagers, insisting, “The only way to stay safe from premature pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases is to practice abstinence and pray to God, that’s the only real way to stay safe.”  Pence even opposed the local Catholic archdiocese over the settlement of Syrian refugees in Indianapolis.

The three Cabinet members who will likely enforce the renewed culture war — Sen. Sessions, Rep. Price and Mrs. DeVos – will tighten the conservative’s moralistic noose.   Sessions is a staunch culture warrior, whose long been identified with racist campaigns and has vehemently opposed a woman’s right to choose, gay rights and the legalization of marijuana (even for medical purposes).  In anticipation of his Senate confirmation hearing, the ACLU and NAACP have released detailed analyses of his long history of rightwing, anti-humanistic positions.

Price is a former orthopedic surgeon who has been one of the House’s strongest opponent not only to Obamacare, but abortion rights and federal funding of Planned Parenthood.  He pushed a bill that sought to define human life as beginning at conception, thus turning all forms of birth control into possible criminal offenses.  The Wall Street Journal raised questions about his possible conflict-of-interest issues regarding having traded medical stocks while working on health legislation in Congress.

DeVos is, along with her husband, Dick, a billionaire — thanks to the Amway fortune – and a Republican fundraising stalwart.  As the proposed Sec. of Ed., she brings a unique experience to the position, having neither taught in a classroom nor served on a local school board.  As chair of the American Federation for Children, she’s aggressively promoted the privatization of public education through charter schools and school voucher programs that siphon taxpayer money to for-profit schools and undermine teachers’ unions.

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The top officers of the new administration have pledged to fulfill the 2016 Republican Party’s platform that asserts:

Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which wrongly removed the ability of Congress to define marriage policy in federal law.

It’s impossible to predict how far the Trump administration will push the new culture wars.  The Christian right is provoking a major cultural showdown.  It is not unlike the cultural battles that took place in the Civil War era over the utopian movement; the 1920s over the new woman, speakeasies and jazz; and the 1960s counter-culture, feminist movement and the pill.  History is, again, posing the question: Who legislates morality?

The Christian right’s moral absolutism may well draw significant resistance from many of those who voted for Trump, but consider themselves more “libertarian,” freer in their sexual experiences, supportive of a woman’s right to an abortion (but not federally funded), have gay friends, family members or workmates, favor an open Internet and even once voted for Obama.  It remains an unanswerable question how long they will go along with the likely renewed culture wars.

The “new normal” is fundamentally different than it was when Schlafly launched the current round of the culture wars in the 1970s.  Abortion and gay marriage are constitutionally guaranteed rights, at least in terms of current Supreme Court decisions.  Pleasure has replaced procreation as the key factor in engaging in sexual experience; premarital (safe!) sexual experimentation is engaged in by most youths; homosexuality and trans-identity are recognized as components of the human experience; and sex is a $50 billion industry.

The fate of nation’s moral order will be determined by a playboy misogamist and an evangelical moralist.  It’s going to a long four years.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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