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President Trump Seems Struggling To Adjust To The Changes In The Culture Wars

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Culture wars have been part of American politics for decades. Hot-button issues like immigration and abortion can get a more powerful reaction from voters than a dry debate about taxes or Medicare. But as NPR's Mara Liasson reports, the culture wars are changing, and President Trump is struggling to adjust.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: No modern president has been as aggressive a culture warrior as Donald Trump. He announced his candidacy by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists. He took aim at Black athletes who knelt during the national anthem.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, get that son of a b**** off the field right now - out. He's fired.

LIASSON: He proclaimed himself your president of law and order.

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TRUMP: Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa.

LIASSON: He's a champion not just of police officers, but of rough policing.

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TRUMP: When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in - rough. I said, please don't be too nice.

LIASSON: And he announced by tweet he would never consider removing the names of Confederate generals from military bases. But since the killing of George Floyd, some of Trump's culture war allies have been defecting. NASCAR decided to ban the Confederate flag. The NFL apologized for punishing its athletes who knelt to protest police brutality. And the biggest rift of all, says Democratic strategist David Axelrod, was when military leaders who Trump calls my generals said they would not only consider renaming bases, but they rejected Trump's threat to use the military against protesters.

DAVID AXELROD: That was a seminal development in this story because Trump has so tried to cleave himself to the military and claim the military as his own. And what the military was saying there is, no, we're not yours. We belong to the Constitution. We have principles and rules and norms and laws that we're going to follow.

LIASSON: In some cases, there will be a backlash.

NEWT GINGRICH: I can tell you, I probably won't watch the NFL this year. And I'm a big Green Bay fan.

LIASSON: That's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an experienced culture warrior in his own right. Gingrich thinks kneeling athletes will still be a cultural flashpoint because, he says, refusing to stand for the anthem is an insult to America.

GINGRICH: It's not protesting racism. It's protesting the United States of America. And that's what the divide is going to become. If you want to be anti-American, you've got a party eager to be with you.

LIASSON: To Gingrich, the culture wars are not over. President Trump will be able to find new issues, Gingrich says, because his opponents always overreach.

GINGRICH: The nice thing in my entire career about dealing with the left is they can't contain themselves. So they go from very legitimate demand to reform the police to defund the police because they just can't help themselves.

LIASSON: Culture war issues do come and go. Republican strategist Karl Rove harnessed the backlash to gay marriage to help George W. Bush get reelected in 2004. But after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, the issue faded. Now, Rove says, the same thing is happening again, especially after this week's Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBTQ workers.

KARL ROVE: There will be some concern in some quarters about the latest decision by the court, but yeah, that's the interesting thing about Supreme Court decisions. Not always, but many times, they tend to sort of diminish the controversy.

LIASSON: But there's another, more fundamental reason the culture wars are shifting. Most modern cultural battles are racial. In the wake of George Floyd's killing, white voters have started thinking differently, says Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

JAMAL SIMMONS: The videos of black men being killed is much like the 1950s and '60s when Martin Luther King had even children marching in Alabama and being attacked by fire hoses and dogs. It's raised the stakes on these questions of racial harmony and our ability to get past our history. As afraid as people may be of rioters and looters, they may be more afraid of a president who's not against racism and who's not trying to bring the country together. And that may be turning the tide against him.

LIASSON: Even Trump seems to understand that something is changing. He moved quickly to identify himself with a police reform bill in the Senate. He accepted the Supreme Court's decision on gay rights without complaint. And in an interview on Wednesday, he conceded he could have used a different tone.

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TRUMP: Tone is a very important thing, and I try and have a very good tone, a very moderate tone, a very sympathetic, in some cases, tone.

LIASSON: A president who sounds a little uncomfortable may be starting to realize an all-out culture war isn't right for this moment. Mara Liasson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.