Jul 5, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump's failing culture wars

Data: Google; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Google; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

President Trump built his political brand by stoking the nation's culture wars, but search data is showing us how much harder it's been for him to replicate that success while running against another white man in his 70s — and while there's a coronavirus pandemic.

The big picture: Google Trends data shows Trump's "Sleepy Joe" name-calling isn't generating nearly the buzz "Crooked Hillary" (or "Little Marco") did in 2016. Base voters who relished doubting President Obama's birth certificate aren't questioning Biden's.

  • Tech platforms are beginning to take more responsibility. And the coronavirus is a more unifying, longer-lasting fear than the president predicted.

Why it matters: Trump's struggle to find a line of attack that takes off against Joe Biden may be driving him to diverge more politically.

  • Other factors are working against Trump's playbook. Tech platforms are increasingly moving to shut down hate speech and flag misinformation, killing the sources of some of Trump's favorite conspiratorial material.
  • And search metrics suggest that, for the most part, a nation with more than 125,000 dead from the coronavirus has less patience for the president's usual tactics.

Trump's attempts to find an alternate culture-war footing with Confederate statues and police defunding — highlighted by his Mount Rushmore speech on Friday — appear to face their own limits.

  • Google Trends data shows that searches for "coronavirus" are far outpacing those for "statues," "police" and "antifa."
  • The president's disconnect with popular sentiment on two issues of the day — the virus and protests against structural racism — has led to some self-inflicted wounds, including his sparsely attended rally in Tulsa and his tweet about an elderly Buffalo protester being shoved by police.
  • Trump's continued attack line about Biden "not leaving his basement" hasn't taken hold measurably with voters, according to the search data. Biden's actions in terms of social distancing largely align with a majority of voters' own anxieties.
  • The Trump campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.

Between the lines: Conspiracy theories that benefitted Trump in the past often were formed in dark corners of the internet before bubbling up to more mainstream pundits — but now Big Tech is more aware than ever of its influence on society.

  • The president's earlier lever for a Biden-linked conspiracy theory revolved around son Hunter Biden's work with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, which Trump tweeted about last week for the first time in months.
  • But Ukraine attacks present some challenges for Trump. They were publicly litigated at length during his impeachment trial — and serve to remind the public that Trump was impeached only months ago.

What's next: Trump isn't changing to meet the moment. He's moving away from comprehensive police reform, digging in as a law-and-order candidate and looking for another way to mobilize against Biden that can stick.

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