It can happen here: Trumpism, Franklin Graham, and respectable white evangelicalism

It can happen here: Trumpism, Franklin Graham, and respectable white evangelicalism January 28, 2016

Steve Benen sums up the current state of the race for the Republican nomination for president: “Either Donald Trump will be the GOP presidential nominee or we’ll soon witness the most spectacular collapse in American political history.”

It’s still true that the dynamic of any primary race can change in a big way after Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates who seemed hopeless can suddenly gain momentum. Candidates who seemed inevitable can suddenly fall apart. Who knows?* The race so far has been so unprecedented that maybe we should expect its next steps to be unprecedented too.

Historian Rick Perlstein, who has studied the modern GOP for the past 15 years, admits to being completely baffled by the rise of Donald Trump, and by the Republican Party’s impotent capitulation to it. Perlstein says he first realized he was witnessing something new and frightening last summer:

It was when I was reading an article by [Evan] Osnos in the New Yorker about Trump. He happened to be covering the white nationalist movement, basically neo-Nazis. Coincidentally, it was right when Donald Trump burst onto the scene, and he wrote about how these guys were embracing Trump, as they never had embraced any Republican candidate before. The feeling I got was that this was the first time in a very long time that I’ve read anything about the Republican Party that I couldn’t assimilate into my normal categories. That was a very uncanny and uncomfortable feeling for me. I realized that I had to go back to the drawing board and rethink what was going on. This is something that’s very new, very strange, and very hard to assimilate into what we thought we knew about how the Republican Party worked.

Perlstein sees white nationalists enthusiastically coalescing behind a candidate, and sees the GOP embracing that candidate and, thus, embracing that support, and he is disturbed to witness “something that’s very new, very strange.”

But Eva Schloss doesn’t see it as anything new or anything strange. She’s seen it before. It reminds her, she says, of her childhood.

Schloss is a survivor of Auschwitz. She’s also the step-sister of Anne Frank, who famously wrote: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Schloss has lived too long and seen too much to be wholly confident of that. She knows what people are capable of — what nations are capable of allowing and of supporting.

Donald Trump reminds her of someone and the Trumpism sweeping the Republican Party reminds her of something too. Where she sees this similarity as a “complete disaster,” Arthur Jones sees it as cause for celebration. (“Illinois Nazis.” “I hate Illinois Nazis.”) There are not many things the Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss and the American Neo-Nazi Arthur Jones would agree on, but they share the same assessment of Trumpism and where it may be headed.

The widespread popular support for Trump and Trumpism has been the subject of much consternation among white evangelical leaders dismayed to realize that much of that support is coming from their own white evangelical tribe. This, inexplicably, suprises them.

It does not surprise me. Nothing that Donald Trump is saying on the campaign trail is substantially different from what Franklin Graham has been posting on Facebook for years now. And huge numbers of white evangelicals have been liking and sharing this stuff all this time.

The same “reasonable” and “respectable” evangelical leaders now so concerned about Donald Trump rarely said a word about Graham’s loud trumpeting of the same hateful garbage, which puts them in a poor situation now to warn against the dangers of Trump.

This is, for those white evangelical gatekeepers, “something that’s very new, very strange.” They have spent decades vigilantly patrolling the tribe’s “liberal” political boundary while ensuring all along that it doesn’t have any boundary on the far right. People like Rich Cizik or Rachel Held Evans or Matthew Vines have been swiftly anathematized, but all along people like Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Bryan Fisher, Franklin Graham, The Liar Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, and Richard Land have remained as family members in good standing.

“Christian leaders who don’t stand up to their crude brethren lack standing to evict Trump disciples from the evangelical big tent,” Jacob Lupfer writes for Religion News Service. Lupfer  is sympathetic to conservative white evangelicalism, but notes that “There’s a cost to regarding institutions like Liberty and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., as evangelical like any other.”

Yes. The same evangelical leaders now — commendably! — criticizing Jerry Jr. for his gushing endorsement of Trump were, just a few months earlier, only very mildly critical of Falwell’s gun-toting eliminationist anti-Muslim rhetoric in a chapel service. And even that mild criticism quickly pivoted into a vigorous defense of Wheaton College’s evangelical religious liberty right to scapegoat a Muslim-loving professor in an effort to appease Trumpist donors who were furious and frightened that some Wheaton students had written an open letter critical of Falwell’s armed anti-Muslim bigotry.

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In response to Trumpism, respectable white evangelicalism has sounded uncertain trumpets.

And let’s be clear of the chronology and the causal chain there. 1) Jerry Falwell Jr., in a Liberty University chapel service, announced that he was packing heat and encouraged students to arm themselves so that they could “end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” 2) While most evangelical leaders — still unmanned by panic over the shootings in Santa Barbara San Bernardino– said little, a group of Wheaton College students stepped into the leadership void with an open letter “condemning Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks on guns and Muslims.” 3) Following the lead of those students, several Wheaton College faculty made public expressions of solidarity with Muslim Americans. 4) Wheaton’s donor-base freaked out because this white evangelical flagship school was not getting in line with their Trumpist ideology. 5) Wheaton’s administration singled out a black female professor as the sacrificial scapegoat and moved to fire her to mollify donors. 6) Reasonable and respectable white evangelicals everywhere pleaded with us to be civil about this, framing Steps 1 through 5 as an abstract matter of Wheaton’s religious liberty and its fidelity to its own elastic notion of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Step No. 1 there was an explicit evangelical endorsement of Trumpism. So was Step No. 6. That last step wasn’t as cartoonishly ridiculous as Jerry Jr.’s Yosemite Sam routine, but it’s an essential part of the mechanism that has — for decades — functioned to ensure that Trumpism (or Franklin Graham-ism) would be able to take root and to flourish within white evangelicalism.

If you want to survey white evangelical support for Trumpism, or if you want a glimpse of what has Eva Schloss so worried, go read the #ThankYouWheaton hashtag from back in December (before it got hijacked by us snarky, uncivil hippies).

That’s why I have a hard time reading, say, this handwringing piece by Alan Noble — “How Trump Happened: The Wages of Fear and the Brave Way Forward” — even though what he’s saying there is belatedly constructive.

Noble’s description of the fearfulness driving white evangelical Trumpism is helpful. So is Morgan Guyton’s insightful exploration of support for Trump and Cruz as an expression of “white evangelical nihilism.” But the description that rings truest for me comes from that Rick Perlstein interview, as the historian grasps for some framework to account for what we’re seeing right now in Republican Party politics (and thus, in white evangelical religion):

I’ve thought about Donald Trump in the context of a sociological concept called herrenvolk democracy. Herrenvolk was a word coined by a sociologist in 1967 that basically means social democracy for the favored race as a way not of expanding liberty to the entire citizenry but drawing a line between the accepted in-group and the hated out-group. There is a tradition of fascist-tending political movements being quite forthright about the favored group. That’s what’s freaking out the people in the National Review set. National Review freaked out a while back because [Trump] had been so aggressive about using eminent domain and talking about how he didn’t hold property rights so sacred. This is a fundamental conservative idea. He breaks away from conservative policy. It’s a lot like what George Wallace was doing in Alabama. Conservatives were distrustful of him because he was perfectly fine about starting social programs as long as they didn’t help black people.

This is the framework, I think, that best helps us to understand this not-so-new new thing. It helps to explain Trumpism and Graham-ism and a decade of white “teavangelicals.”

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* Part of the problem is that Republicans don’t have a clear anti-Trump option. The leading contender is Ted Cruz, but Cruz has battled for months to out-Trump Trump on immigration and anti-Muslim demagoguery. He’s not really an alternative to Trump as much as the same stuff in a different package.

The rest of the field has a similar problem in that they initially responded to Trump mainly by trying to prevent him from outflanking them on the right. Instead of clearly criticizing Trump’s ideology or challenging his premises, the other candidates spent last summer and fall trying to keep up with it. So now instead of being able to rally support as the alternative to Trump, they all just look a bit like Trump-lite — thus making an uninspiring set of options for Republican voters who’d prefer a more “respectable” candidate.

The hope, I suppose, is that if someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or John Kasich were to eventually win the nomination, the fever would break and they’d be able to walk-back from their Trumpish stances in the early primary. Maybe.

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