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As The Culture Wars Shift, President Trump Struggles To Adapt

Nearly a month after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody and the launch of massive protests against police brutality across the country, President Trump was asked what part of his response would he have handled differently.

"I think that tone is a very important thing and I try to have a very good tone, a very moderate tone, a very sympathetic — in some cases — tone, but it's a very important tone," Trump said.

Though when pressed on what he would change, the president said, "I would say if I could, I would do tone."

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 criticized Black athletes who knelt during the national anthem. He championed police officers but promoted rough policing, telling law enforcement officers in a 2017 speech, "please don't be too nice" when making an arrest. Recently, he announced over Twitter that he would never consider removing the name of Confederate generals from military bases.

Trump has also fixated on the historic phrase "law and order."

"I will fight to protect you — I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters," Trump said in the Rose Garden on June 1, as law enforcement began firing pepper spray on peaceful protesters in nearby Lafayette Park.

"Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa and others," Trump said.

Culture wars have been part of American politics for decades. Hot-button issues like immigration, family values and respect for the American flag can get a more powerful reaction from voters than dry debates over taxes or Medicare.

But at a time when the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, an economic recession and, above all, heightened levels of racial unrest, the culture wars are changing, and Trump, who has always relished a fight over white identity and culture is struggling to adjust.

Many of Trump's culture war allies are defecting — NASCAR decided to ban the Confederate flag and the NFL apologized for punishing its athletes who knelt to protest police brutality.

According to David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, the most notable rift came when military leaders, whom Trump likes to call " my generals," broke with him. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said they would not onlyconsider renaming military bases but also rejected Trump's threat to use the U.S. military against protesters.

"That was a seminal, I think, development in this story," Axelrod said, who is also a CNN senior political commentator and host of the Axe Files and Hacks on Tap podcasts.

Axelrod added that Trump also faced opposition from retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, his former defense secretary, and several prominent military leaders who criticized his decision to take a photo in front of St. John's Church following the removal of protesters on June 1.

"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 that '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.' And that was an incredible rebuke for him." Axelrod said.

Despite a visible push away from Trump on many of the culture war issues, not every part of the conservative coalition is ready to call a truce. There has even been a backlash to the new positions of institutions like the NFL.

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich says kneeling athletes will still be a cultural flashpoint and disagrees with the NFL's decision.

"Refusing to stand for the national anthem is an insult to America. 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," Gingrich said.

"I can tell you I probably won't watch the NFL this year, and I'm a big Green Bay fan," he said.

Gingrich, an experienced culture warrior in his own right, argues that Trump will be able to find new issues to push as his Democratic opponents find new ways to overreach. And that's why he believes the culture wars are not over.

"The nice thing in my entire career about dealing with the left is they can't contain themselves," Gingrich said, adding, "so they go from very legitimate demand to reform the police, to defund the police because they just can't help themselves."

Specific culture war issues can also come and go. In 2004, Republican strategist Karl Rove harnessed the backlash to gay marriage during President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign to help get him reelected. Although, less than a decade later, the same issue faded following the Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage in 2015.

Now, Rove says the same thing is happening, especially following the recent Supreme Court ruling that protects LGBTQ people against workplace discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"They'll 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," Rove said.

Another more fundamental reason why culture wars are shifting is that most modern cultural battles are racial.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons says that white voters have started to think differently in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

"The video of Black men being killed on television 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. That kind of thing really does speak to the morality that I think most Americans hold," Simmons said.

Simmons, who also hosts #ThisisFYI on Instagram, says the events of the past month have changed how many Americans respond to and deal with acts of racism and, adding, "They can't just sit by quietly and let it happen."

"It's raised the stakes on these questions of racial harmony and our ability to get past our history," Simmons said, adding, "and what it seems like — as afraid as people may be of rioters and looters — they may be more afraid of a president who is not against racism and who's not trying to bring the country together."

Trump was originally set to hold his first campaign rally since the COVID-19 pandemic on June 19 in Tulsa, Okla. After receiving criticism for scheduling the event on the holiday Juneteenth, in a city that experienced a racist massacre of black people in June 1921, Trump changed the date to June 20.

"Certainly in the television era, it's the first time that we've had a president who's been so willing to embrace a racially exclusive perspective on American politics, and that may be turning the tide against him," Simmons added.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.