Here’s the passage from Ruth Graham’s “Church of The Donald” containing the phrase that’s stuck with me since first reading this over the weekend:
[Trump] started showing up on Christian TV years ago, giving his first interview to [CBN’s David] Brody back in 2011, when he was toying with a run for president that no mainstream network took seriously. Trump discussed his “conversion” to opposing abortion, his respect for the Bible (“THE book”) and his churchgoing habits (“I go as much as I can”). Most Republican candidates make occasional stops by CBN to woo conservative Christians. But Trump seemed to take a real shine to Brody, and he must have known he would need to put in overtime to bolster his credibility with religious voters. As his 2016 run gained momentum, a steady stream of staffers and surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway, former Representative Michele Bachmann and televangelist Paula White, appeared on the network to vouch for Trump’s Christian credentials. White told Brody in June 2016 that Trump had first discovered her ministry by watching Christian broadcasting more than a decade before. “Mr. Trump has always been a huge fan,” she said. “He’d always watch Christian television.”
Whether or not that was true, Trump seemed to sense early on that the Christian television audience would be receptive to his campaign theme of a kind of resentful nostalgia for an imagined idyllic past. When I interviewed Brody last year for a profile, he said Trump shared with older evangelicals a longing for “1950s America,” characterized by patriotism, prayer in school and an absence of political correctness (though he took pains to clarify that the ’50s were not a good era for “race relations”). As Huckabee puts it on one of his promos on TBN, “If you like baseball, apple pie and you love your mom, I’ve got just the show for you.”
Graham sharply observes that Jesus TeeVee and the ongoing Trump campaign share a central theme: “a kind of resentful nostalgia for an imagined idyllic past.” This is a near-bullseye that helps us see where the actual bullseye lies.
The idyllic past that these folks are pining for — the “again” in MAGA — is, as Graham says, imagined. This is not a nostalgia based on misty watercolored memories. Remembering is not involved. It is a work of imagination — of invention and fabrication. The past is being reconstructed and reinvented in order to serve the sentiments of today. And so this nostalgia, I think, is not the key factor, but a function in service of the key factor.
I think, in other words, that we’re not seeing “a kind of resentful nostalgia” but, rather, a kind of nostalgic resentment. Resentment is the core value, the essence, the fundamental thing itself. It is the one-word description that applies to Trumpism, to Huckabee and Brody and Paula White and to the four-fifths majority of white evangelicalism that listens to them.
This resentment is nostalgic in the sense that it is sentimental. It has the wistful feeling of nostalgia — a feeling cultivated, nurtured, and savored for the sheer pleasure of dwelling on it. This resentment is their spirituality, their hobby and habit, their avocation. They are attached to it. They identify with it and identify themselves by it.
It does involve an element of nostalgia, though, in that these folks really do dimly recall something like an idyllic past. What they’re half-remembering, though, is not some bygone Golden Age of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. What they’re vaguely struggling to recall and regain is a more innocent version of themselves — of who they were before they became consumed by the perpetual, precious resentment that now defines them.