Ordinarily I try not to become too mired in political debate on this site because, well, there are only so many hours in a day, and the Facebook discussions already in progress scratch that itch just fine, thank you. I largely write about religion and its intersection with American culture, with my own life, and with the lives of my friends.
But the current presidential race in the United States has already produced some of the most fascinating and unpredictable political theater I’ve ever seen. The election itself isn’t until next year and the primaries are still a couple of months away but already we’ve had an entire election year’s worth of drama. Most intriguing of all has been the rise and unanticipated dominance of Donald Trump, who talks less like a man running for president and more like that kid from the playground who keeps taking the other kid’s lunch money and then giving him a wedgie. He is clearly a narcissistic megalomaniac who will say and do whatever it takes to keep people talking about him every day of the week (just like I am right now). My social media feeds are already supersaturated with the man’s name and image.
I’ve done my best to avoid contributing to that end, but there comes a point at which you have to eventually say something. That’s partially why I wrote my latest post about the unconstitutionality of barring all Muslims from entering the country as Trump so brazenly began suggesting a few days ago. While many high profile religious spokespersons condemned this move as surely as I did, not all of them were united against the suggestion.
Most ironically of all to my mind was the response by Franklin Graham, who went so far as to say that we are at war with Islam—not merely with extremist individuals and organizations, mind you, but with the whole religion.
“For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.”
At any other time in my life I wouldn’t have believed that the founder of an organization called Samaritan’s Purse would openly support a call to bar foreigners from entering his country. But this year, and this particular election cycle, nothing strikes me as unbelievable.
I had been puzzling for a while about how a character like Trump could consistently lead the polls for his party in every state where they conduct them. Even his own party is beginning to panic at the notion of surrendering a nomination to a man whom many of them deem utterly unelectable, besides posing a potential threat to the party’s image for at least the next four to six years, perhaps even much longer.
But I read something a couple of days ago that finally made it all click. I had completely forgotten about the “missing white voter” strategy, and it had not yet occurred to me that Trump is the embodiment of that strategy, whether anyone in the party had thought of it or not.
A Party Seeks a Second Opinion
If you follow American politics very closely you may remember that the GOP seemed genuinely surprised by how badly Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the 2012 election, and that the chairman of the Republican Party commissioned a post-mortem report to help the party diagnose what went wrong.
What that report showed was that the Republican Party has been steadily losing ground among minorities and women with each successive election cycle. Since you can’t really gerrymander the electoral college, the Grand Old Party is fighting a losing battle with an inevitably diversifying demographic landscape. They have fallen out of favor with a changing electorate which is increasingly female, black, Latino, young, and more socially progressive. This vote, the report explained, must be sought or else the White House will belong to the Democrats for many years to come.
“We have become expert at how to provide ideological information to like-minded people but, devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive with or welcoming to those who don’t agree with us on every issue…”
But that would entail completely reinventing the Republican Party, and constituencies don’t change overnight. So within months a second report was issued, this time from a pollster, suggesting exactly the opposite of what the first one recommended: Instead of rebranding or “re-messaging” in order to better reach women and minorities, the GOP could simply work harder to get out the white vote, and that move alone could reverse the tide for at least a couple of election cycles.
At first I didn’t think they could be that short-sighted, and I gave them more credit than they evidently deserved. Early in 2013 Marco Rubio came forward as the face of a new step toward softening on immigration, and it looked like they were going to finally begin courting Latinos in order to improve their image among a rapidly growing American demographic. I quipped at the time that the GOP was going to have to learn to fall in love with a new Jesus if they wanted to survive the next couple of national elections.
But that change was short-lived. That immigration reform never got off the ground, and the conservative pollster’s perspective quickly became the preferred strategy of the Republican Party. Since their base wasn’t going to significantly change within a short four-year time period, they decided it would be a much more attainable goal to simply get out the white vote and stop worrying about how to repackage supply-side economics to the poor and the middle class.
At first their moves were all defensive. A fortuitous Supreme Court decision in the summer of 2013 invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it possible for 9 states—all of them Republican and almost all in the Deep South—to make immediate changes to the voting registration process which they swear had nothing to do with making it harder for minorities and the poor to vote. These moves were all about fighting voting fraud, they insisted, and it’s purely a coincidence that the same people who argued this also tend to argue that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights.
But defensive moves alone are not enough. In any game that is won by getting the most points on the scoreboard, they say the best defense is to have a good offense. It wasn’t enough for the GOP to push through reforms which lower the voter turnout among minorities, among the poor, and among the young. They needed something to energize the older white vote and get them out of their homes and into the polling places come Election Day.
They couldn’t rely solely on campaigning against cutting benefits to veterans and retirees because those are among their chief constituents. You can’t keep calling for deeper tax cuts and harsher austerity measures when your voting base is increasingly dependent upon the benefits those taxes help provide. So what would get these particular voters off their couches?
Enter Donald Trump.
They Created This Caricature Themselves
You can’t get much more offensive than this guy. In fact, offending people is practically his only trick. But it turns out that’s exactly what the previously apathetic “missing white voter” was looking for.
See, the Republican Party has been struggling to find its foothold among the electorate because for years now they’ve campaigned on practically one issue and one issue only: Defeating any and every move made by the black Muslim atheist communist foreigner currently occupying the White House. Surely somehow he stole that job from someone more deserving, because surely Americans wouldn’t intentionally put that guy in office instead of somebody more qualified, right?
Or would they? Perhaps at some point over the first term-and-a-half that President Obama served it finally began to dawn on white America that this guy was voted into office fairly and squarely, which means that a growing portion of America must be distinctively not like them. Perhaps that frightens them even worse than believing that somehow the election got stolen through nefarious conspiracies and ubiquitous but stubbornly undetectable voter fraud.
Republicans unreservedly tapped into white America’s resentment that their kind has been slowly losing cultural influence for decades, and that strategy has been about the only thing keeping their reactionary coalition together. In many ways fear of the other has been the fuel of the GOP since the Southern Strategy was first implemented, ultimately creating the awkward shotgun marriage between conservative evangelicals and the established elite that we see slowly beginning to unravel today.
Conservatives encouraged this us vs. them talk for so many years that when an individual finally came along who was brash enough to say on television what the rest of them have been saying only behind closed doors, their base welcomed him with open arms. Who would have thought that xenophobia could be a key plank in a campaign platform in the year 2015?
Anti-Hero for an Anti-Party
For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure that Trump fully believes half of the stuff he is saying. He is ultimately a showman, a performer. He will do and say whatever it takes to keep people talking about him, and his proposed policies lack any organizing political vision or substance. He speaks entirely in unreflective sound bites, crafted according to whatever his audience seems to want to hear.
Which means his audience does indeed want to hear what he is saying. And that right there is the most frightening part of this whole circus. It’s frightening because of what it says about the feelings and the opinions of a large chunk of the American population, and it’s particularly frightening for a party struggling to find a positive message after spending nearly a decade campaigning against things.
The GOP has become an anti-party. It has become a loose confederacy of disparate interest groups united only by their opposition to whatever it is that Obama has been pushing since taking office. They are against same-sex relationships. They are against government mandated affordable healthcare. They are against abortion. They are against affirmative actions of every kind. And increasingly they are against Muslim foreigners coming in to our country because surely there is something fundamentally different about whatever it is that those people believe that makes them less likely to be peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
And Donald Trump has figured out how to be what those folks wanted. He is an anit-hero who has risen to the occasion to embody those traits in a leader for which the “missing white voter” has been waiting for nearly a decade. That explains it.
I don’t know what to expect over the next few months, since we’re seeing dynamics at play which lack historical precedence. Conservative pundits living in denial keep insisting that once enough of the primary season gets underway and Republican contenders start dropping out of the race, voters will begin consolidating their support behind one of the non-Trump candidates so that his numbers will begin to drop. I am not so sure it will be that neat and clean.
I think it’s also possible that the talking heads underestimate how deeply resentful the missing white voter is of all this political correctness that’s been relentlessly overtaking his culture. I think he’s sick and tired of all these people taking over his country, and Donald Trump looks like the first guy in a long time to say out loud what he’s been thinking all this time. Even if his own party disowns him, he will run as an independent and split their ticket, effectively handing over the election to whomever the Democratic Party chooses to put against them. No matter what, this is shaping up to be one of the most interesting presidential election cycles in recent memory.
Alright. There. I got that off my chest. By no means am I the only one saying this stuff. In fact, almost everything you just read echoes what pundits from every spot on the political spectrum have been saying for weeks now, which is why I almost didn’t say anything at all. But the political process is still fascinating to me because it mirrors the way religious belief works, and that alone makes this a subject of interest for me.
At some point in the future I’d like to explore how closely the formation of beliefs in politics and in religion parallel one another. I think both of them have much more to do with emotion and social dynamics than they have to do with ideology. That means anyone interested in changing minds in either of those two domains must come to grips with aspects of human psychology that have nothing to do with the beliefs or policies themselves, and that’s a counterintuitive way to approach either subject.
We will now return Godless in Dixie to its regularly scheduled program. On to the next chapter of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God…
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