Our Urgent Tasks in a Post-Trump Anti-Propaganda War
Robert Oscar Lopez
The election of Donald J. Trump will prove to be far more significant than any of us Trump Train riders might have even dreamed. What looked like a desperate attempt to stave off complete and permanent domination by the American left has actually revealed truths that bear a lot of promise:  A large swath of the country is firmly with conservatives on social principles if not on fiscal matters,  the libertarian-conservative intelligentsia that demonstrated so much weakness and ineffectiveness for decades is not a valid reflection of conservatism in the population at large, and  conservative strategies can work if people are energetic, willing to take risks, and smart.
Perhaps the most important revelation of November 8, 2016, however, was that all of the right wing’s focus on political activism has been overkill. Republicans own America’s political structure; the GOP controls the House, the Senate, and almost 70% of state legislatures and governorships. These gains developed over time, even during the supposed peak liberalism of the early Obama years. So all of our consternation about the threat of a vanishing Republican Party was wasted worry.
If we never needed to spend so much time worrying about politics, why do so many of us on the conservative side still feel like we are immersed in a war with the left? The answer is simple: for all the domination of politics by conservatives, there is a corollary counter-domination of culture by liberals, and for most right-wing people, there is a deep awareness that the cultural exile experienced by conservatives matters and warrants some anxiety.
Trump’s win is important not because it is the final reward for the valiant battles we fought, but rather, because Trump will be the most important weapon in the battles awaiting us in the frontier of culture. This is not the time to rest—the iron is hot right now, so this is the time to strike. If given time unchallenged, the liberal forces arrayed against us will do what they have done in the past, scheming and manipulating and plotting so that when we mobilize, it will be too late again. Our great mistake over the past decades was to summarize these battles as a “Culture War,” when in fact we were not fighting a culture—the left has no culture, only propaganda.
For all of the left’s control of national conversation and entertainment, the left has failed to produce, in 60 years, any sort of compelling values, inspiring way of life, or holistic belief system that could make sense of human experience or instill happiness. The left has given us critiques of the past, vague notions of tolerance and equality, plus a neurotic need for authority figures to punish dissenters under the McCarthyite banners of “bigots,” “haters,” and “un-American fundamentalists.”
We are not culture warriors, we are anti-propaganda warriors. The culture that conservatives hold dear, based on American self-reliance, tradition, strength, and Judeo-Christian beliefs, is strong and well; it is simply buried under layers of the left’s fluffy platitudes and perversions. We need only brush away the propaganda and the culture will thrive again.
Money, Infrastructure, Time
So let’s get to it. How do we combat the left’s enormous propaganda? As someone who was in the trenches during the motherlode of all cultural flashpoints—the debate over same-sex “marriage” and parenting—I have to conclude that there were enormous mistakes made by the conservative movement, which must be addressed. Here are the key problems: (1) We sought to argue with the left in the hopes of winning with better arguments, (2) we trusted our cause to an exclusive clique of leaders better designed to look good to the left than to reflect conservative people truthfully, and (3) we neglected the practical matters of organizing our money, infrastructure, and time.
If we were really fighting a left-wing ideology, perhaps we could invest our hopes in the tenet advanced in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, namely “things which are true and things which are just are by nature stronger” (Book I, l.21). This assumption on conservatives’ part was wildly off the mark (pace Aristotle), for the left never gained its advantageous ground by having better arguments about anything. The left merely took control of the institutions, meeting spaces, money, and personnel who would be able to give them an exclusive platform.
From our misguided belief that the truth could speak for itself and victory would come from mounting better arguments came the folly of investing all our hopes in a tiny cabal of well-groomed and telegenic spokespeople. The same faces appeared again and again, shared millions of times on Facebook on Twitter. I can think of one spokesman for traditional marriage who delivered endless lectures at university campuses and elsewhere; he has been sent to over a dozen countries, in which traditional marriage lost every single time. With book contracts and flawlessly promoted appearances on TV talk shows, he was the embodiment of the right wing’s Peter Principle: keep investing in pretty faces who lose with style, and keep everyone else off the radar because they’re “risky.”
We have got to shift gears and completely re-envision our struggle and what we are doing. This means trusting that we have the truth already so we do not waste copious time repeating the same arguments to ourselves, hoping that some undecided people will overhear and come to our side. This means having a strong offense and a strong defense: With the post-Trump government decidedly within our sphere of influence, we must cut off the supply chain of money, time, and infrastructure that has enabled the left’s propaganda machine, and we have to move quickly to assemble our own arsenal. Going forward, we must be clear that there’s no point arguing with the left on the left’s turf. This is a war of resources, not a war of ideas.
Here are our priorities in order of importance:
When we were fighting against gay marriage, we made a huge tactical error in thinking we had to fight in the courts and media first, trusting that the churches would be safe. I fell for this delusion as well. As I pointed out in a recent conference in London (“The New Normal”), I followed many others’ leads and minimized the churches’ influence on my position, for fear of being tied in people’s minds to “old church ladies telling people what to do.” After half a decade of this, I’ve realized that “old church ladies” are the most important group to get on our side, and we have to have their confidence first. Why? Unlike everybody else, they show up and bring food. On their often unacknowledged labor rested most of the breakthrough moments I saw in the fight against leftist propaganda, not only in the United States but also in France and the United Kingdom.
It is alluring but fanciful to dream of winning over secular feminists and prestigious men in suits, but these would-be partners are notoriously slippery. I tried, for instance to open up a dialogue with innumerable liberal feminists in hopes we could build a coalition. Queer feminists Yasmin Nair, Claire Potter, Cathy Brennan, Sheena Malhotra, and others all reacted to my attempts to engage them in authentic conversation with paranoid recoil, feeling the need to repudiate or even viciously attack me in public lest their liberal allies think they were really in league with me. Other liberal feminists such as Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy and Laura Kipnis were hot & cold interlocutors, willing at times to share thoughts but then prone to close doors on key positions such as defense of life and/or the opposition to sodomy.
From time to time, there would be gay men who looked willing to engage in real discussion. I brought queer theorist Tim Dean to my campus to deliver a speech on Tom Jones in 2013. I agreed to speak on a panel hosted by playwright Tony Abbatemarco after a performance of Forever House. I even exchanged some messages with Frank Ligtvoet, a gay adoptive father, and hired a gay actor to play the lead in the premier of the play I co-wrote with Michelle Shocked, Sunlight. All these attempts ended up leaving me drained and exhausted, because in the end, such crossover discussants always wanted a veto to block discussion of the central issues they considered non-starters. I call this phenomenon “lefty creep.”
Highly esteemed conservative straight men can be nearly as frustrating. If they have sinecures or some kind of emeritus status in the movement, most likely they only want new advocates to emerge if they have personally mentored them. The effect of this is that the movement remains small, incestuous, and dull.
The beauty of church-focused social movements is that they offer a quick route to the grassroots and rely on long-established networks of trust and familiarity. Churches are a good offense against propaganda because of the physical resources alone: for instance, the multitude of multipurpose rooms, reading rooms, furniture, and props that spend much of the American workweek unused. Additionally, churches are a badly needed defensive theater, because the left has spent large amounts of money on promoting a false theology favorable to their pet causes like same-sex marriage. If churches at the local level block people with false theological grounding from taking over pastorates, this will protect the whole conservative movement as anti-propagandists fight on other fronts, such as…
As an academic of two decades, I will state a painful truth: there is no engaging with academia. The universities long ago passed a point of no return and are unsalvageable. Conservatives who have sought to “influence” or “reclaim” parts of academia by mentoring like-minded youths to enter doctoral programs are really just running around in circles. Such tepid attempts at a counter-intelligentsia require too much pre-tenure deception (“hiding” one’s conservative beliefs) and lead, at best, to a tenured sinecure that all but guarantees the protégé will remain cowardly and toothless, or else be converted to liberalism.
On the front of campus life, the task for conservatives is to seize the day with Trump in office, and cut off the pipeline of money into universities. By now it is clear that besides teaching students nothing of value and encouraging embarrassing “protest” displays of ignorance and petulance, universities are extorting trillions of dollars from the country by making their degrees necessary for people to get jobs and then practicing price-gouging. The only reason the entire apparatus looks sustainable is because the federal government funds colleges through 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status on endowments, backing of student loans, and direct grants.
The most important mission is to use our affinities with Congress and Trump to push laws that would (1) strip eligibility for federal funding based on basic criteria like financial responsibility or protection of academic freedom, and (2) disempower accreditation agencies that discourage start-up degree programs and protect the corrupt academic establishment. Remember—the war on academia’s propaganda is not a question of defending any particular idea or of protecting value-neutral concepts like “free speech” or “balance of viewpoints.” This is merely a question of shutting down the channels of support that are propping up an academia that we know we cannot change and which is a blight on the culture.
As an alternative to what exists, we can fight for a regulatory landscape that encourages more trade certificates, associate’s degrees, and master’s degree, while de-emphasizing doctorates and bachelor’s degrees. Also, to any extent possible, we should push the Trump administration to work on phasing out the practice of tenure.
Broadway and Hollywood
The pompous speech delivered by Brendan Victor Dixon, a star of Hamilton, to a theater-going Mike Pence, punctuated an insight that we’ve suspected a long time. Broadway, like Hollywood, is essentially abusive. These heavily institutionalized cultural institutions aren’t even producing good performances anymore. We really don’t need them, and they hate us.
One thing I learned from writing the play Sunlight with Michelle Shocked and premiering it in London on November 11, 2016, was that there’s no big secret to putting on a play. If you have a good script and a couple of people willing to give you a space, even with minimal funding you can put on a good show and captive the audience for a while. Storytelling through acting is something different from purely musical performances, and this distinction is important to note. Christians have made a lot of inroads into the music industry by promoting Christian singers and songwriters, but songs have a very limited economy of narration. You need acting and performed narrative to make a lasting impact on people.
Until now, unfortunately, Christians trying to break into narrative have focused on producing movies like God’s Not Dead for distribution. Films are capital-intensive and often depend on distributors and financiers over whom the creators will have fading influence once the process has started. Plays are directly engaging with the audience and can be easily corrected or tweaked. Also, as stated earlier, conservatives have a great advantage in this arena, because so many churches have spaces that can be used for performances.
The time is now to mount a rival metropolitan area to Hollywood and Broadway. This is the perfect time because both Hollywood and Broadway are overpriced and stale; there are so many people who are restless with their neoliberal preaching, vulgarity, and lack of imagination. Perhaps conservatives could funnel resources into a metro area like Dallas-Fort Worth, which has a large number of sympathetic institutions, or else a medium-sized city such as Jackson, Mississippi, where one could transform a tight geographic area into a site of renaissance. Once you develop and perfect performances they can graduate from stage to cinema.
Right now, with Trump in office, there is a real possibility that we can shut down the funding of biased and corrupt institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities. With alternative funding we could build up a base of talent, write new stories, and present them as competitors in the marketplace of culture.
Trump won against all odds and let us know that what looks impossible isn’t always beyond our reach. But we cannot lose this rare opportunity—we must strike while the iron is hot and build a foundation on which to construct both our offense and defense against the left’s propaganda. There’s nothing stopping us but our own hesitation.