How Donald Trump Won Over the Religious Right

How Donald Trump Won Over the Religious Right January 25, 2016


So, it’s time we talked about Donald Trump.

The improbable presidential candidate has been flying high since his speech at Liberty University, where he was warmly welcomed by president Jerry Falwell Jr. The speech itself was underwhelming: he flubbed a biblical reference, cracked off-color jokes and made his pandering laughably obvious. Yet none of it seems to matter. The Liberty audience cheered and praised him. Among evangelicals, he’s beating his closest rival, Ted Cruz, by 42% to 25%.

If there’s a theme to this campaign season, it’s how often Trump has been underestimated. The Huffington Post initially relegated him to its entertainment section and then had to reverse course. Even as he rose in the polls, the pundits stubbornly refused to see it: the New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote in July 2015 that Trump was enjoying “a media-driven surge” that would soon “follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline”. His political demise has been predicted countless times – after his crudely racist remarks about Mexican immigrants, his call to ban Muslims from the country, his disparagement of John McCain’s military service, his feuds with Fox News – but he just kept gaining strength. Now, with just days to go until the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, he’s dominating the hapless and fractured GOP field.

Soothsayers of the conventional wisdom didn’t see Trump coming because they’re blinded by the golden-mean fallacy that the parties are mirror images, each with a small but irrelevant radical fringe and a larger, nearer-to-the-middle majority of Serious Responsible Centrists. Trump’s rise upsets that belief and forces them to confront that the Republican Party is more in thrall to its extremists than the Democrats are to theirs. It’s gotten to the point where conservative writers like David Brooks are reduced to pathetic appeals to the “silent majority” of moderate Republicans to speak out against Trump. He has no evidence that such a group exists, but he’s sure they must be out there.

Republican intellectuals are bewildered by Trump, but they shouldn’t be. He’s the monster they created. Trump’s campaign is the culmination of a trend of anti-intellectualism and nativism that the GOP has assiduously cultivated for decades.

This arguably began with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which consciously sought out the support of white racists. It was nurtured by conservative godfathers like William Kristol, who urged Republicans to never negotiate or compromise, or Newt Gingrich, who taught them to tar the other party with words like “sick”, “destructive”, “radical”, or “traitor”.* It flowered in George W. Bush’s shoot-from-the-hip presidency and its infamous dismissal of the “reality-based community”, and John McCain’s elevating the wildly unqualified Sarah Palin to national prominence.

Even today, Republican voters sneer at overwhelming expert consensus. By absolute majorities, they reject climate change and evolution in the face of all scientific evidence. They cling to birther conspiracy theories about President Obama. They insist to the bitter end that Obamacare has been a disaster, when the numbers show it’s a solid success. All this is the fruit of a decades-long effort to build an informational bubble where no fact they dislike needs to be acknowledged.**

Trump is the living embodiment of this mentality. He’s a swaggering bully, unrepentantly racist and sexist, contemptuous of experts, disdainful of experience. Like an Ayn Rand character, he’s convinced that he can solve any problem by the sheer strength of his will. His campaign message is wholly circular: he can win because he’s a winner. Neither his past record nor the utter fantasy of his promises fazes his supporters, because his appeal is emotional and visceral, not intellectual.

It’s true that he isn’t especially religious, and that might seem to be a problem for the GOP’s powerful Christian fundamentalist faction. But it turns out not to matter so much, because – contradictory though it sounds – evangelicalism isn’t especially concerned with beliefs, nor has it ever has been. Whether it’s Prohibition and communism, dancing and divorce, or abortion and gay marriage, evangelicals’ pet causes have changed radically over the decades. The issues themselves have only ever been important as a boundary marker, a way to delineate Us from Them.

For all his clownishness and hypocrisy, Donald Trump is a perfect standard-bearer for this tribal Christianity. He speaks to their insecurity, their frustrated privilege, their feeling that they deserve to be in charge and have been robbed of that entitlement. This springs partly from the persecution-complex narrative of Christians as an oppressed minority who will eventually be vindicated, but it also has a large overlap with racialized resentment. It’s no surprise that he’s been hailed by racist voters, to the point of white supremacist groups running robocalls to support him.

I have no idea if Trump will wind up as the Republican nominee, but it’s harder and harder to see what could stop him. Either way, he’s created a problem for the GOP that they’ll be grappling with for a generation. Their voters are no longer willing to be led; they’re tired of coded language and dog-whistle rhetoric, they want the strong stuff. But they’ve grown so angry and toxic that anyone who can command their allegiance in the primary may be unelectable in the general. Just when the GOP needs to broaden its appeal and cease being the stupid party, their base is dragging them in the opposite direction. If Donald Trump or someone like him becomes the nominee, he could very well drag the party down to a Goldwater-like landslide loss.

* One of the more infamous instances was when the Gingrich Congress killed the Office of Technology Assessment, a widely respected and nonpartisan body that prepared scientific advice for legislators.

** As evidence for the success of this effort, consider Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman from California, who says that the conservative media bubble is making it impossible for him to do his job. Nunes says it used to be the case that of the correspondence he’d get from Republican constituents, 90% would be about actual legislation and 10% about wild conspiracy theories and other false information. Now he says that ratio has flipped.

Image credit: Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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