“TRUMP 2016: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS,” read a button at a rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 1
One of Trump’s chief evangelical supporters, megachurch preacher Robert Jeffress of Dallas, declared in an April 2016 interview:
When I’m looking for a leader who’s gonna sit across the negotiating
table from a nuclear Iran, or who’s gonna be intent on destroying
ISIS, I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his
tone or his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest toughest son of a
gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.
They don’t want a Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, tweeted on September 28, 2018:
Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys.” They
might make great Christian leaders but the United States needs
street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government
b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub
leaders are a bunch of wimps! 3
Trump was “God’s wrecking ball,” wrote the evangelical pollster George Barna, in a 2017 book called The Day Christians Changed America: How Christian Conservatives Put Trump in the White House and Redirected America’s Future. Barna was influential in putting together Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board (EAB) from selected Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and far-right Christian media. The EAB, Barna wrote, agreed to “narrow their issues down to five: abortion, same-sex marriage, Supreme Court appointments, limited government, and ‘religious liberty.’… [keeping] their focus on what mattered: saving the United States from further moral and spiritual cannibalization by the radical Left, represented by Mrs. Clinton.” 4
“I never said he was the best example of the Christian faith,” said the Rev. Franklin Graham of Donald Trump after the midterm elections. “He defends the faith. And I appreciate that very, very much.“ 5
The Rev. Graham was correct. Never did Donald Trump claim to imitate Christ. Not even his most ardent followers maintain that he has been faithful to any known faith. For that matter, until he ran for president in 2016, he did not profess any faith to be faithful to, although he did tout the sermons of his family’s minister, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, bestselling author of The Power of Positive Thinking , whose opening sentences were, “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities!” 6 Trump added a twist: the measure of your abilities is the string of losers you leave behind you. 7 His tweets were and remain masterful moves, strings of insults and curses. He brags of his vices. He does not speak of turning his cheek. (Indeed, his wife boasted about him, “When you attack him he will punch back ten times harder.”) 8 He disdains the meek, having said “I don’t like losers,” called John McCain a “dummy,” sneered “I like people that weren’t captured,” and kept denouncing him for months after his death. 9 His idea of Sabbath activity is golf, not prayer.
His outrageousness might eventually grate on some of his followers, but if so, that was a price he was willing to pay. Indeed, he reveled in outraging liberals. “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap,” he told a South Carolina rally in 2015. 10“We can’t worry about being politically correct,” he told another, in North Carolina, later that year. 11 “Let’s get rid of PC,” he called out to another, in Louisiana. 12 It is probably not accidental that all three of these rallies took place in the ex-Confederate South. He calls out other bêtes noires—principally “fake news,” in particular “the failing New York Times ”—but people of color are his greatest hits.
Provoking the left by outraging them is so common a move on the right-wing internet as to have brought forth a special phrase: “owning the libs.” 13 Trump supporters, in the words of the journalist Ed Kilgore, see him as “a scourge for lashing their hated enemies. Every time he says or does something outrageous, he’s ‘owning the libs,’ not breaking time-honored norms.” 14 In the protracted run-up to the 2020 election, Trump presses outrage buttons even more frequently and ferociously. Race-baiting is his pleasure.
Individuals who stand in for dark-skinned people in general are useful props. 15 At Trump’s press conference just before the midterm elections, Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour introduced a question this way: “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists.” Trump interrupted, saying: “I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question.” The second sentence he repeated twice more. Why would the true observation that Trump has called himself a nationalist, and that he has “emboldened white nationalists,” be “racist”? Alcindor, of Haitian descent, is black. Trump’s scolding would be consonant with his peremptory words for another black reporter, CNN contributor April Ryan: “Sit down!” Or his contempt for CNN’s Abby Phillip: “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question….You ask a lot of stupid questions.” Trump’s brush is broad. In this way, he updates George H. W. Bush’s brandishing of Willie Horton in 1988 commercials. Bush did not repeat the Willie Horton ad—that was Lee Atwater’s brainchild, beneath Bush’s upper-crust dignity.
Trump’s thrust at Alcindor rhymes with a prime theme of the white supremacists who call themselves “white nationalists.” This theme is to be found all over the hard racist internet and its softer manifestations on Fox News and talk radio, but it looms especially large in the utterances of the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, who shouted “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” to Nazi salutes just after Trump’s election. Now, Trump is not Spencer, though Trump has been at pains to echo Spencer’s themes. The media in their overlapping orbits tell Trump’s people that the sun is setting on their whiteness—and indeed their media are joined by the mainstream media, “the enemy of the American people,” which willy-nilly reinforce their nightmares. The message is that America’s white majority is not only losing jobs and face and standing but is dwindling; they are condemned to shrivel into a minority by 2020, or 2030, or 2040 (so the media inform them with unmerited precision). The story of their downfall, the reason real incomes are stagnant, is that the globalist elites sold them out to China, to Muslims, to Hispanics.
The day before the midterms, Spencer issued a manifesto called “The Unmentionable Majority.” 16 Spencer is no ignoramus. He takes what is, for him, the high road: a pass at analytical rigor salted with references to mainstream journalists. He is a demographic determinist. The tide is running against the white majority, he warns, and Trump’s Republicans have reached the peak power that lies within their reach by electoral means:
The Republican party is the de facto White party; the Democratic
party is the de facto party of non-Whites, immigrants, and their
urban White “allies.” An America in which Whites no longer
comprise a majority is an America where a Republican majority is
simply untenable at the national level….
In the long run, in other words, Republicans hold a weak hand. Democrats are poised to cripple Trump’s power. The supremacist prerogatives—white nationalism, voter suppression, NRA politics, anti-immigrant animus—are at risk. But as the Democrats muscle their way toward counterrevolution, Spencer argues that the obstacle preventing the GOP from fulfilling its destiny is fundamentally psychological. Whites are wimps. As their numbers wane, they are failing to secure their blood-and-soil entitlement. The white majority is not bold enough. It doesn’t dare speak its own name: Whites are the only voting block that is not allowed—does not allow itself—to advocate openly for its own existence and political power.
Lurking within Trump’s insult to Yamiche Alcindor was Spencer’s scorched-earth demographic panic, a protracted theme in the white supremacist movement for decades. But however much Trump boasts of victory, apprehension rumbles below. “Majority” is now a word charged with an aura of righteousness and embattlement. It does not need to be designated “white” to reverberate for Trump’s core followers. Over recent years, they have been reminded over and over that their relative numbers are diminishing. Demographic determinism has prevailed. In 2008, the Census Bureau, taking up prophecy, went so far as to pinpoint a date when the white, non-Hispanic majority would disappear: 2042. 17 Talk about end times! As the sociologist Richard Alba argues in an important new book, the frequent use of the term “white, non-Hispanic majority” blurs the likelihood that, what with intermarriage and acculturation, the new color majority will be a mainstream that includes many Hispanics and Asian Americans as well as whites. 18
Demographic panic has a robust American lineage for more than a century. The racist standby is already virulent in Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916). It resounds decades later in the ideologue Sam Francis’s warning of “the war against the white race and its civilization.” Francis’s friend Pat Buchanan picked up the same theme in The Death of the West (2002). There’s a straight line from them to the shrieks emanating from Trump, Fox News, & Co. about the Central American caravan—including “unknown Middle Easterners,” “very tough fighters,” and many violent criminals. But there’s more. Behind the “invading” dark-skinned horde are, of course, “the Jews.” “Jews will not replace us,” was the Nazi taunt in Charlottesville. “Replacement” was likewise a theme in the manifesto posted by Patrick Crusius, the mass murderer who massacred twenty-two and wounded fifteen in El Paso, citing a French racist manifesto called The Great Replacement 19 . Blaming Central American caravans on George Soros’s funding enables the white nationalists to score a twofer. Another crass way to stir panic is with the term “white genocide, 20 ” an absurd projection that’s been a staple of white supremacists for decades. Thus, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has gloried in the fraudulent theme of South African murders of white farmers 21 . Trump’s “nationalism” is, in his terms, “nicer.” It’s still code for sticking up for an allegedly embattled white race.
So the far right unites in the fear that their glorious victory of 2016 can be snatched out from under them. Richard Spencer fears Trump will go soft, poised to sell out the overtly white supremacist right. For his part, though, Trump knows he needs to keep that constituency aroused. When some of them are aroused to the point of massacre, he will stumble his way through a teleprompter-ready speech saying naughty things about white supremacy. Some of the hated mainstream media give him credit for presidentiality. He attacks “every side.” The white supremacists are thus content—they know Trump is a politician, that he has to say what he has to say. And the cycle resumes.
At rallies Trump frequently dispenses with dog-whistles in favor of klaxons, as during the two-week period during the summer of 2019 when he suggested that “the squad,” four congresswomen of color, “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The North Carolina crowd chanted, “Send her back!” and Trump did not interrupt their splenetic glee. A few days later, he called Baltimore (part of which is represented by nemesis-representative Elijah Cummings) “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” in which “no human being would want to live.”
A reporter at Trump’s next rally, a few days later, in Cincinnati, after talking to followers, wrote that “rather than distancing them from Trump, the accusations have only seemed to strengthen their support of this president. To back down, they suggested, would be to bow down to the scourge of political correctness.22 “ Another reporter at the same rally wrote:
About 15 minutes into his speech…Donald Trump riffed
on one of his favorite topics: American “inner cities” and how they
are utter hellholes. “We can name one after the other, but I won’t
do that,” Trump said. “Because I don’t want to be controversial.” He
paused to let the crowd goad him into being controversial.
“We want no controversy.” 23Which of course is Trump’s way of saying that controversy—that is, inflamed polarization—is exactly what he wants.
Provoking outrage commands attention, and attention has been the common coin of Trump’s realm since he expanded the family real estate business into Manhattan in the early 1980s 24 . He learned long ago that attention brings both power and controversy, both of which garner more attention. The press is, after all, as he wrote in The Art of the Deal , “always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. The point is that if you are a little different [read a lot different ], or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.” 25
Trump saw, and sees, life as hand-to-hand combat, or mixed martial arts. Human relations are zero-sum. Words are weapons in dominance rituals. Sadism is the prerogative of winners. What losers call cheating, he considers tribute. Whatever works, works. For decades he got away with lies, deploying threats and lawsuits to buy silence, so why not go for the gold? 26 He learned that a man should be known by his enemies—from Rosie O’Donnell to invading Mexicans and Muslims, and their enablers among the purveyors of “fake news,” as well as women who were “nasty” or “with blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump made that old smoothie “Make my day” Ronald Reagan look like a charming piker. Trump promised not morning in America but Armageddon at midnight complete with Roman candles.
Trump complimented his flatterers but sounded most authentic when he railed against menaces and reveled in schoolyard taunts. Like a World Wrestling star, he was the people’s bully. Unlike his rivals for the presidential nomination, he was not “low energy” (at least he did not appear to be), and whatever the size of his hands, he was big . The more rules he broke, the bigger he looked. He was titillating. He scorched the screen, once and for all disproving Marshall McLuhan about television’s built-in preference for the cool. He was grand in a time of diminishment. He would be borne to glory on the shoulders of the “forgotten.” He could not win back coal-mining and manufacturing jobs—it was not even clear that his supporters thought he could do that—but he could bring them a spectacular show of wreaking revenge in their behalf. At least he was not a Kenya-born pretender or an uppity woman. CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points were the typography of a conquering hero, bringing not peace but a sword.
He signaled from the start that he would collect recruits from among the critical mass of white Christians who felt stripped of a dignity that, for many of them, rested on an automatic entitlement of which they may or may not have been aware. Noblesse oblige, he gave them the gift of his own embattlement. For them he was backlash personified, standing, in the words of the evangelical historian John Fea, “as an embattled outsider—as many evangelicals now saw themselves—who always rose triumphant over the myriad forces trying to bring him down.” 27 In his melodramatic imagination, Trump lived under siege, but he wielded the gilt-edged weapon of his emphatic, indefatigable will. Rules were for suckers, not Christian soldiers. Thus did The Apprentice’s sorcerer barge to the front of the Republican parade. Leading the parade would be the most reliable bloc of Republican voters: White evangelicals.
To be sure, he needed more than that bloc, but he surely knew that white evangelicals have been decisive supporters of Republican presidential candidates ever since Ronald Reagan ascended to the White House with the help of the Moral Majority in 1980. White evangelicals made up slightly more than one-third (34 percent) of Trump’s voters; another one-sixth were Catholics; about one-seventh were white non-evangelical Protestants. The total amounted to almost two-thirds of his overall support. Trump did best among white voters who attended church, winning 58 percent of those who said they attended weekly or more often. 28 Most Trump voters were not evangelical, but remarkably, in the 2016 general election, he won the votes of four of every five white evangelical Christian voters—a higher percentage than voted for Ronald Reagan and slightly more than had voted for George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. 29 Outside New England and Minnesota, Trump won every state with a majority white Christian population, including the three decisive rust-belt states Wisconsin (63 percent white Christian), Michigan (51 percent), and Pennsylvania (57 percent). 30 Trump sustained evangelical approval into his White House years. According to a January 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 69 percent of white evangelicals approved of Trump’s performance—down from 78 percent at the beginning of his administration, but at least 19 points higher than any other religious population. 31
This might have been mysterious, for evangelicals affirm they have a personal relationship with Christ. Unsurprisingly, outsiders wondered how they could reconcile their beliefs with Trump’s conspicuous sinfulness. Connoisseurs of consistency were quick to note that Trump supporters who condemned Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky had become highly selective about the sins they were prepared to overlook. Had not the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1998 on the moral character of public officials?
Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience
of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in
the society, and surely results in God’s judgment…. Therefore…we
urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that
character does count in public office, and to elect those officials
and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate
consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character. 32
From that point of view, in other words, character was all of a piece. Critics quickly charged that today’s Republicans lack it. But the charge of hypocrisy missed something essential. The Republican evangelicals were, and continue to be, practical. They are of this world. They know what they are doing.
One way religious voters could embrace Trump was opportunistically, which is to say politically: grit their teeth, swallow hard, invoke lesser evils and allow that they were making the most of an imperfect world. What they are angling for is protection—protection of their faith, in an institutional sense. This is what Franklin Graham meant when he said that Trump “defends the faith”—that Trump appoints anti-abortion judges, defends the right not to bake a cake for a gay couple, favors religious schools, and so on. “The faith” in this context is institutional: it is the church.
In this spirit, many—perhaps most—supporters of Trump practiced politics conventionally. They cared about consequences. They reasoned their way to conclusions. When the 2016 primaries began, many of these evangelical voters chose Republican candidates associated with organized religion: chiefly Ted Cruz, the son of an evangelical preacher, and Ben Carson, a Seventh-Day Adventist fond of quoting Proverbs 3: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” 33 But Trump proved he could win primaries while Cruz and Carson couldn’t. Evangelicals wanted a winner. He pursued them relentlessly, and the opportunistic majority came over to his side.34 They would go with the flow of the Republican vote, for their support was, in the end, instrumental—a means to an end. They were more render-unto-Caesar than imitation-of-Christ.
In other words, for Trump’s opportunistic followers, moral shortcomings were outweighed by practical exigencies. These adherents were not purists. They were not voting to canonize Trump. However reluctantly, they understood what was required of them in the fallen world of politics. The cause of defending America’s embattled Christians was the great override. Trump’s personal imperfections melted in the heat of the culture war.
Evangelicals in particular felt embattled on two fronts—first, by an amalgam of evil forces including culture-war liberals, aborters, secularists, and practitioners of alien religions (especially Muslims); second, by big government. The first category spoke for itself. There was a “war for the soul of America,” as Pat Buchanan had proclaimed at the Republican Convention of 1992. 35 To anchor its evangelical support, Republican leadership from Reagan onward threw open the gates. In 2016, they Christianized their platform and chose the outspoken evangelical Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate. As the political scientist Kevin R. den Dulk put it, Republican strategy consisted of “doubling down on one side of the culture wars, with an emphasis on Judeo-Christian heritage and repeated clarion calls about threats to the traditionalist vision of family and community.” 36 Moreover, for most evangelicals, loathing of big government was equally essential, for the ambitions of big government flew in the face of their prime doctrine about the route to salvation. In the words of the political scientist John C. Green, who has studied political evangelicalism for decades:
…a comprehensive improvement of the world is largely beyond
the scope of government because it is fundamentally the work
of faith: a voluntary, spiritual renewal, one individual at a time….
Protecting the religious activities of the faithful is thus
crucial to the well-being of the world. 37
Throughout its long alliance with the evangelicals, the Republican Party has been a school for realpolitik. The political scientist Geoffrey Layman has ascertained that “the longer devout evangelicals are active in the GOP, the more likely they are to adopt pragmatic political norms such as supporting compromise for the sake of electoral victory.” 38 Republicans and evangelicals consolidated, one might say, a merger—not only of policy positions but of spirit. Thus, writing in March 2016, one evangelical Trump supporter, Alex McFarland, deplored what he called “theological perfectionism,” insisting that “piety and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive,” and that “many evangelicals are supporting Trump not because he is the best Christian, but because he is the leader best suited to defend them,” adding that “sometimes growth as a Christian is a messy thing.” Purist Christian leaders who opposed Trump, McFarland wrote, were “not being honest about human nature or the pragmatic needs of their flock.” 39 McFarland had no illusions about the goodness of human nature. Like other evangelicals, he cut a lot of slack for human frailty. 40 To be “honest about human nature” was a matter of conservative principle.
McFarland was not unusual in his commitment to practicality in a fallen world. The lesser-of-two-evils argument can even be couched as an imitation-of-Christ argument; and indeed, in his wildly popular fifteenth-century book by that name, Thomas à Kempis wrote, “Of two evils, the lesser is always to be chosen.” There might be virtue in collaborating with evil. In this spirit, Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of an evangelical minister, told a reporter in 2018:
I’m not going to my office expecting it to be my church. Frankly,
if people of faith don’t get involved in the dirty process, then you’re
missing the entire point of what we’re called to do. You’re not
called to go into the places where everyone already thinks like
you and is a believer —you have to go onto a stage where they’re
not. You have to take that message into the darkest places, and the
dirtiest places, and the most tainted and dysfunctional places. 41
Bearing punishment in the here and now might even win exemption from eternal hellfire.
But McFarland and other opportunists overlooked a different tribe of the faithful. For surely there were and are supporters whose idea of piety, however perverse in the eyes of the faithless, led them to embrace Trump with a devotion beyond any practical expectation of worldly rewards. What they felt for Trump was a kind of faith that had nothing to do with reason—a faith that might cite evidence here and there, might scrape up “alternative facts” as justifications, but ultimately rested not so much on reasons as on a combination of fright and confidence—fright in the face of mounting evil in the world, confidence in an eventual happy ending. It was faith in faith, faith because of faith; faith matched with joy. Even non-evangelicals could share the thrill.
Such faith echoed Trump’s faith in himself. What these faithful supporters saw and admired in Trump was precisely what his enemies feared and despised—his sheer will to triumph. Beholding Trump’s brand of confidence, they wrapped themselves in it. Trump, in turn, reciprocated. His confidence in his base was like St. Paul’s addressed to the Corinthians: “I rejoice therefore that I have confidence in you in all things” (2 Cor 7:16). 42 Confidence rewards the confident as well as those who place their confidence in them. The gullible know what all confidence men know. As one of Herman Melville’s confidence men confides, “when through weakness everything bids despair, then is the time to get strength by confidence.” Confidence is, after all, “the thing in this universe the sacredest.” Such self-justifying faith is sometimes known (mainly by its critics) as fideism, which holds (in the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) “that reason is unnecessary and inappropriate for the exercise and justification of religious belief.” 43
In 2017, when Trump blamed “many sides” for white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, one of his most prominent evangelical supporters, Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College and a longtime official of the Southern Baptist Convention, cited the example of Jesus when he refused to resign from Trump’s Evangelical Faith Advisory Council. “To retreat during the challenges of a national leader is not the Christian way,” Land said, “nor what Jesus called us to do; Jesus did not turn away from those who may have seemed brash with their words or behavior.” 44 Courage, in this view, is willingness to dirty your hands in a good cause.
Evangelicals have no monopoly on willingness to overlook their leaders’ transgressions. But it isn’t only the fact or the scale of the devotees’ support for Trump that requires explanation—it is their fervor . In Jamelle Bouie’s words:
Both he and his crowds work from a template. He rants and
spins hate-filled tirades; they revel in the transgressive atmosphere.
The chants are their mutual release. Sometimes he basks in them. 45
They went overboard for Trump. He excited them. If it was strictly his commitment to appoint right-wing judges and oppose abortion and gay and transgender rights that swayed them, why did they end up supporting Trump by a higher percentage than his three Republican predecessors, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, all of whom shared his judicial agenda? Bush himself not only affected to share their culture but offered a personal redemption story. He once was lost—to alcohol—but now he was found. He was, he said in one occasion in 2003, “on a mission from God.” 46 Trump did not claim any redemption story.
By vivid contrast, Trump did not claim to have been born again or accepted Jesus. At times he acknowledged his sins, even bragged about them (though after the release of the “grab ‘em by the pussy” video in 2016, he denied its authenticity for a while). In 2015, before he started cultivating evangelicals in earnest, he said he was “not sure” he has ever asked God for forgiveness. 47 A year later, the influential right-wing evangelical leader James Dobson promoted him with a declaration that Trump has recently come “to accept a relationship with Christ” and “really made a commitment.” 48 Still, other evangelicals did not step forward to confirm, deny, agree or disagree, and even Dobson followed up by dampening his praise and converting it to a lesser-evil move: “If anything, this man is a baby Christian who doesn’t have a clue about how believers think, talk and act. All I can tell you is that we have only two choices, Hillary or Donald. Hillary scares me to death.” 49
You are, after all, face to face with Satan. This is “the Flight 93 election.” 50 If Hillary scares you to death, if apocalypse looms, you have no time to spare. Overcome fear, summon courage, and storm the cabin. Follow your leader, whatever his flaws. He is your champion. He knows that you are righteously aggrieved. Don’t suffer pushover leaders. In a sinful world, the absence of a righteous biography is no disqualification. 51 What you need is not a saint but a winner. His strength is yours.
So a standard calculus of interest-group politics appears to offer one explanation for the enthusiasm of Trump’s white crowds, which are probably disproportionately evangelical. You know very well that bad people have prospered at your expense. Now Trump steps up to honor your neglected, trampled, forgotten communities, not only to voice your ressentiment , but to pledge resurrection. He will build a wall, punish China, vanquish all enemies, foreign and domestic, who declared “economic surrender.” In this sense, Trump’s hard-core enthusiasts in Louisiana were pursuing conventional interest-group politics. But what his crowds felt was more than agreement. It was embrace. It was recognition.
There was an edge to their rage that carried it to the far side of interest group politics—to ethnonationalism. He was always addressing an embattled white majority . Trump knew, and they knew he knew, that they were more than an interest group—they were the true America that had been unfairly weakened and cast into disrepute. Once strong, they had been crippled. Trump not only took up their cause but targeted an enemy that had stifled their voice throughout all of America—the fake news, which rejected, demeaned, and silenced real Americans. On the symbolic stage where everyone seeks recognition, these real Americans had been not only demeaned but muffled and muzzled. No longer!
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild observed among Trump’s enthusiasts in Louisiana “a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.” They once were lost but now they were found. Now that they had come home, they were unbridled, even ecstatic. They felt “released from politically correct rules of feeling.” “To be in the presence of such a man!” exulted one supporter with uplifted arms. 52 “We’re not silent anymore,” Trump told them; “we’re the loud, noisy majority”—loud because aggrieved, noisy because resistant, destined to prevail because they were, after all, the majority. “The silent majority is back”—this was one of his favorite refrains during the 2016 campaign. His older voters would nod at the Nixon reference, in tune with his invocation of “law and order” in his acceptance speech, but the word “majority” did double duty. When Trump invokes the silent majority he does not state outright that the majority he evokes is white. He does not have to speak the word. He does not have to bring racial tribalism to consciousness. Knowing implication will do. He will be artful enough with his equivocations, nudging listeners toward assent while hiding under cover of plausible deniability. Indeed, the words “white majority” would provoke trouble. As much as Trump enjoys skirmishes, he chooses them—in general—with some care. He needs exits through which, later, if necessary, he can make a getaway—an exit to placate the less incendiary fringe of his crowd while he bulls, and bullies, to satisfy his core that he is, once and for all, their guy.
Indeed, moments of effervescence at Trump rallies are just ephemeral, for they are coupled with an idea —an eschatological expectation. “To be in the presence of such a man!”—this experience is not simply the means to an end but an incarnation. The rally experience is itself a reward. A Trump crowd is frequently “rapturous.” 53 In November 2015, Molly Ball describes a Trump rally in South Carolina: “Despite all the negativity and fear, the energy in this room does not feel dark and aggressive and threatening. It doesn’t feel like a powder keg about to blow, a lynch mob about to rampage. It feels joyous .” 54 Jamelle Bouie writes of “The Joy of Hatred” at a 2019 rally in Greenville, North Carolina:
The chanting was disturbing and the anger was frightening,
but what I noticed most about the president’s rally …was the pleasure
of the crowd. His voters and supporters were having fun. The
“Send her back” chant directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of
Minnesota was hateful but also exuberant, an expression of racist
contempt and a celebration of shared values. 55
At the extreme, Trump’s presence is a whiff of deliverance. A Trump rally stops and reverses historical time. History, with its tangles and burdens, collapses into a black hole. Normally, life is a prologue to death, but in the collective effervescence the self shakes off mortality. The expectation of End Times overcomes time limits. You will die but America is immortal. Make America Great Again and it will stay great.
This is where the evangelical core of Trump’s base “gets him.” Most evangelicals seem to believe that they are living in End Times. They feel it. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, fifty-eight percent of evangelicals expect the Second Coming. 56 They feel expectant. Eschatology comes to their rescue. The establishment of the State of Israel was a milestone along the path of deliverance leading to Jesus’s return, fulfilling God’s pledge to Abraham; when Trump moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, this was further proof that he was a true servant of God. 57 Indeed, in 2016, many evangelicals rejoiced that Trump’s election heralded the return of the Messiah. “God showed up!” said Franklin Graham. “God miraculously intervened,” said the Texas televangelist Marcus Lamb, before continuing, in tears: “God gave America a second chance!” “Thank you, Lord, for bringing Jezebel down!” exclaimed the Alabama-based revivalist John Kilpatrick, as exuberant supporters trembled and waved their arms. 58
Now, the significance of such proclamations is hard to evaluate. It’s not clear how much sway the celebrity evangelicals had. It’s not clear how many evangelicals embraced such maximalist thinking, or, if they did, what temperature of embrace resulted. But undeniably, some went maximalist. Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University helped fund The Trump Prophecy , a film directed by the head of its film program, making the case that God chose Trump to be president. 59 Pentecostals and Charismatics, especially drawn toward End-Times prophecy, promoted him. The popular Charismatic televangelist Paula White, the head of his Evangelical Advisory Board, shared Trump’s inaugural prayer duties with Franklin Graham. (She declared, “I know Donald Trump is saved.”) 60 Some evangelicals went so far as to say that Trump was the reincarnation of the Persian King Cyrus, who released the ancient Jews from their Babylonian captivity. In the same spirit, as noted by one evangelical minister, “God, moving in his mysterious ways, can sovereignly use an ungodly leader to accomplish godly ends.” 61 62
What drives feeling, thought, and conduct? The world beneath the human surface is—by definition—opaque. What counts as evidence of deep belief? When people tell interviewers that they “think” or “believe” something, are they doing any more than checking a box? Do they intend more than a gesture, a signal of virtue? How do outsiders know what, really, makes people tick? (How do the ticking people know themselves?) It is all too easy to cherry-pick—to scavenge for evidence that confirms one’s assumptions and junk counterevidence and doubt.
Then what? Abandon the struggle to understand? Resign ourselves to the conclusion that because depths are murky we ought not to try our best to foray into them?
Instead of shying away from central questions because they are hard, suppose that we grant the entanglement of the human psyche. Suppose we take seriously that spectacular performances enable human beings to project onto others values that we ourselves, being good, consistent, and transparent to ourselves, deplore and renounce. Suppose we acknowledge human wiliness and self-contradiction and stare unblinkered at the crooked—indeed twisted and rotten—timbers of humanity.
Suppose, then, by way of hypothesis, that Trump clicked and continues to click, for much of his base, at a level deep below the threshold of consciousness and contrary to his, or their, professed values. Suppose that Trump ignited and confirmed a perverse—unconscious—emotional circuit. Accept that even if Americans want to think of themselves as a people who (in Bill Clinton’s terms) “work hard and play by the rules,” 63 they are not so simple.
Acknowledge, in other words, that desire does not play by the rules. Acknowledge that thrills are harnessed to perversities. Acknowledge that the mind is inhabited by odd couples and bad marriages.
In particular, legions of Trump followers receive him on a distinctive frequency. They are not necessarily suffering from deindustrialization, at least not directly, and they are not necessarily poor—in fact, their incomes in 2016 were above average—and yet their comfort did not put them at their ease. Their white, Christian majority feels like a beleaguered minority—rebuked and scorned, put upon and cheated. For years they have seethed, forgotten, diminished, feeling that their communities (though not necessarily their persons) had been passed over by corrupt elites who had permitted immigrants and blacks to “cut in line” ahead of them. 64 Their political leaders have sold them out. By contrast, Trump’s transgressions, his downright bad manners, serve as recommendations. He is a winner who speaks the language of losers. He is not “a regular politician.” 65
He is exceptional. He has the gift, the grace, the charisma. He does not put on airs; if anything, he takes them off. His jagged speech, his harshness, his staccato delivery, mark him as master of the ineffable. As the historian Eli Zaretsky has keenly observed,
The liberal complaint that Trump makes everything about
himself– his egoism or narcissism – misses the point that
charisma must be personal. One way that this element of personal
responsibility shows itself is by uninhibited associative speech,
which presupposes a suspension of ego control – what is often
regarded as Trump ‘running his mouth’. Here, taken more or less at
random, is an example of Trump’s speech: ‘We have people coming
into the country, or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of
them. And we’re taking people out of the country, you
wouldn’t believe how bad these people are.’…Democrats reduce
this to Trump’s obviously egregious racism.
Intellectuals condemn this sort of rant as “word salad”—senseless, incoherent, untutored. It is that. But as Zaretsky argues, “it is also an example of how [Trump] lets his guard down to convince his followers that they are seeing a ‘real person’, not a scripted persona. Zaretsky points out that Weber’s prototype for ancient charisma, the Hebrew prophets, frequently made public appearances in which they lacked control, behaved unpredictably and exposed themselves to abuse.” The Jeremiah of the Hebrew Bible, one of Weber’s favorite prophets, is especially choppy and incoherent. This is how Trump makes it clear that he doesn’t lord it over his people. He is them, writ large. Zaretsky goes on:
The followers idealise the leader as they once – in childhood –
idealised themselves. For this to work, the charismatic leader has to
possess not only exceptional qualities but also the typical
qualities of the individuals who follow him, in a ‘clearly marked
and pure form’ that gives the impression ‘of greater force
and of more freedom of libido’. The charismatic leader thus
appears as an ‘enlargement’ of the follower, completing the follower’s
self-image rather than, as in other forms of charisma,
being out of reach. 66
Trump partners with his base in ressentiment . This French word is Nietzsche’s term, systematized by Max Scheler—a quality of emotion crueler and more obscure than is suggested by the English resentment . Scheler defined ressentiment as “the repeated experiencing and reliving of a particular emotional response reaction against someone else,” and likened it to rancor , “a suppressed wrath, independent of the ego’s activity, which moves obscurely through the mind, [taking] shape through the repeated reliving of intentionalities of hatred or other hostile emotions.” 67 Many of Trump’s long-suffering faithful have awaited a leader to strut their protest and speak their rancor out loud, to take them into battle against the smoothies of the cultural elite, the “fake media” who belittle the white race, look down at them, make jokes at their expense (and their very communities in flyover country), mock their patriotism and their bad grammar and their overuse of quotation marks and CAPITAL LETTERS, and make unremitting war on their Christmas, on the unborn, on their grade-school rendition of American history, on the Second Amendment, on school prayer, on marriage between one man and one woman, on the sacred separation of men’s and women’s rooms.
But this is their country, their “Christian Nation,” being humiliated! How did they become losers? Who cast them out?
Trump tells a simple story, and its simplicity makes it all the more alluring: Interlopers with dark skins are eating their lunch and the big shots rigged the game to make it possible. In 2008 and 2012, as financial markets convulsed, a good many voters broke with the old Democratic and Republican orders, and a critical mass of the anti-establishment protest signed on with an African-American professor who had opposed a ruinous war and promised a new start, only to betray them (as they saw it) for the bankers and the big-government cliques and what Mitt Romney had inelegantly called “the takers” in behalf of a culture of license.
Finally, now, their hour has come around. The prince of Trump Tower descends royally via escalator to shield them from barbarians and restore their bygone glory. His wealth and celebrity echo their longings. His devil-may-care style and stumbles prove that he is their man. He caters to them, flatters them, honors them. When Trump says “I love the poorly educated,” he marks himself as a man of the real people, the majority who do not graduate college and resent those who do. Since he shares their enemy, the knowledge class—the coastal, cosmopolitan, “globalist” crowd, with their New York Times and their CBS and their corrupt climate scientists—he must be their friend.
He is their bad boy, as crude as they’d like to be. He wins. He kicks ass. He is unbridled. He minces no words. The core of his followers delight to hear him curse, taunt, insult his enemies, for his enemies are theirs, and he is unbridled in public as they are, or would like to be, in public. He speaks for them: they are secret sharers of not only his sins but his strut. With his jutting jaw, his trophy wife, and his well-advertised taste for excess, he has the stuff to lead them against “the elite.”
Suppose, in other words, that part of Trump’s appeal is his straight-out outrageousness . Suppose that his followers understand that he simulates strength at the expense of the weak but share with him the belief that his badness is perverse proof of his goodness. Suppose that his most devoted followers admire his recklessness and only wish that they themselves were so bold as to break the rules and defy good taste.
Trump is success and sin incarnate—but also, saintlike, he brings treasure. Rhetorically, he is bipolar. One analysis of his word choices over the years found that his language is “extraordinarily polarized: Everything is either great or horrible.” 68 One way or the other, extravagance is his brand. Whether praising or bashing, he is the great simplifier offering a two-extremities-for-one sale. His world is starkly divided between the pure and the impure, hence in desperate need of a big, beautiful wall. On The Apprentice (as later as a World Wrestling Federation character), he smacked down losers while elevating the elect. In his black-and-white rhetoric, the great were always being defiled by the horrible. Life was a heartbeat from Armageddon.
Suppose then that, at some level, Trump’s deepest supporters picked up the signal that he lived and thrived for their sins and (because he was a winner) washed them clean. They would make allowances for his nastiness, explain it away, because they bonded with him as a giant of a man. He was their avenger against an unholy America that wages war on their righteousness, forcing their own racist and xenophobic impulses underground (even to the point of suppressing the knowledge that they had felt and suppressed them). In the dark imagination where their longings live, they can pass through the celestial looking glass into a purified world.
Suppose, in other words, that the transgressions of this most transgressive man could be taken as proofs that he was the people’s champion. Call it nonsensical if you like, but this sort of suspension of disbelief has precedents, even in the history of religion. If sin is necessary for repentance, and repentance is necessary for salvation, then sinners are ipso facto launched upon the path of righteousness. At least they have taken the first step.
For this sort of psychic maneuver, there is a lineage in both modern culture and religious history. The cultural historian Sharon Marcus makes a strong case that certain defiant celebrities of the nineteenth century—in particular, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, and Sarah Bernhardt—catered to a widespread desire to get away with nihilistic rebellion. For the new individualism inspired eccentricity but also throttled it. “Defiant celebrities perform shamelessness,” she argues. And shamelessness is enviable, even if the envy must be disguised, since it ill-comports with certainty about one’s goodness.
If shame consists of covering weaknesses and abnormalities and
hiding when they are exposed, shameless stars make a show of
demanding credit for their obvious indifference to exposure
or censure…. The widespread affection that many publics feel
for openly defiant actions suggests that ordinary people
often identify with figures who publicly enact the fantasy
of enjoying society’s benefits without having to pay
its costs…. Celebrities…flaunt indifference to the consequences
of defying society and appear to deny social debts while
claiming boundless social credit. While this may offend us as
shareholders in the social collective, it appeals to a common wish
to be freeloaders, shirking the obligations created by our
dependence on others. Social belonging comes at a cost: society
demands conformity, and then asks those who fail to conform
to participate in their own exclusion by feeling shame.
Who at some point does not dream of reaping the rewards
of social belonging without paying the price of
Marcus argues that modern societies churn up nihilistic rebellion that individuals must stifle for fear of punishment. “Complex societies generate fantasies of individual autonomy and omnipotence; celebrity outliers cater to those fantasies. While some outliers plead for tolerance or aspire to assimilation, many dare to presume privilege for themselves alone, and often the public loves them for it. Defiant celebrities appeal not only to the marginal and to the outcast, but to anyone who has ever wanted to bypass conventions, gatekeepers, and experts, or who has savored the prospect of receiving society’s benefits without reciprocating them—which is to say, at one point or another, just about all of us.” 69 Who doesn’t want to get away with murder?
Marcus notes that “in 1891, a reporter for the Boston Herald noted that actress Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘special boast’ was ‘that she does what she pleases on all occasions and doesn’t hold herself amenable to any law.’ The article then quoted her directly: ‘Whenever I want to do anything I do it… . untrammeled by any consideration of what others may think or what may happen.’” For his part, Oscar Wilde “advertised himself as liking to annoy the public—because the public ‘likes to be annoyed.’” In our own time, bad-boy celebrities like James Dean, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Madonna, and Mike Tyson have parlayed defiance into grand appeal. Some, like Muhammad Ali, have invested their rebelliousness in just causes. Why not Donald Trump?
There is even a precedent in the history of religion, a precedent that led the great Jewish historian Gershom Scholem to follow on the heels of Freud’s Group Psychology . “Even more than the psychology of the leader,” wrote Scholem, “it is the psychology of the led that demands to be understood.” 70 True and essential: the circuit connecting leader to led and led to leader carries the life-blood of authoritarian and totalitarian movements—that is, the driving forces of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Scholem reclaimed the demonic in order to grasp Jewish history. As a young scholar, he was already preoccupied with kabbalism. The seizure of his native Germany by Adolf Hitler and his followers could only have redoubled his attention to the force of the irrational in history. In the first version of his masterwork on the heretical would-be messiah and seventeenth-century Jewish leader-turned-apostate, Sabbatai Zvi, he saw deeply into modernity—more deeply, in many respects, than either Marxists or liberals, who for all their differences shared a faith that history could be made transparent and comprehended as a rational unfolding of social forces.
In the run-up to the scripturally significant year 1666, Scholem tells us, amid a general End Times uproar inspired by the Book of Revelation, the Jew Sabbatai Zvi of Smyrna, in the Ottoman Empire, declares himself the Messiah. To prove he is for real, Zvi spoke the forbidden name of God. “Great masses of people,” Scholem writes, “were able to believe in perfect simplicity that a new era of history was being ushered in and that they themselves had already begun to inhabit a new and redeemed world.” Even after Sabbatai Zvi is forced to convert to Islam in 1666, some of his followers remain faithful, persisting in this “mass revival” of a “lawless heresy,” believing that they lived in a “restored world,” “a world made pure again,” no matter how much this belief was “contradicted by…outward facts.” 71 For true believers, “the apostasy of the Messiah was itself a religious mystery of the most crucial importance!” 72 Thus is resurrected “the old rabbinic concept of…‘a commandment which is fulfilled by means of a transgression.’” This story, Scholem writes, tapped “a hidden wellspring of deep religious emotion.” 74 One might be "good within but clothed in evil garments.” “The new doctrine of the necessary apostasy of the Messiah was accepted by all the ‘believers.” 75 The most radical Sabbatians, affirming “the potential holiness of sin,” go so far as to believe that “the “’true faith’ must always be concealed. In fact, it is one’s duty to deny it outwardly, for it is like a seed that has been planted in the bed of the soul and it cannot grow unless it is first covered over.” 76
A seed planted in soul-soil, “the potential holiness of sin,” “good within but clothed in evil garments”—just as such rationalizations for moral dissonance run through the history of Judaism, so can they be discovered beneath the surface of Christianity. This may seem an outrageous claim, but one need not be a full-fledged Gnostic or a Satanic zealot to observe that the good news of the gospels is built on a fundamental paradox: Apparent evil is the anteroom to the greatest good. Without the Crucifixion there is no Resurrection . From the martyrdom of Jesus, did not redemption follow? Sadistic persecutors enabled salvation. This is an insight of Shakespearean proportions, so expansive and explosive it must be buried in what we might call the collective unconscious of Christianity.
The buried connection between inevitable sin and eventual salvation must be especially troubling for evangelicals, who draw their name from the Greek for “good news.” (The word shares a root with “angel.”) And indeed, the essence of the Christian story is twofold good news: (1) good news spreads in defiance of common sense (the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection) and (2) God’s grace, as mediated through Jesus Christ, brings remission of sin. Yet the good news presupposes the grim prologue of human transgression and Jesus’s sacrifice. Salvation presupposes sin—an inescapable truth that must be especially charged and discomfiting for evangelicals, who feel intimately bonded to God through Jesus.
When one encounters moral contradiction, a normal psychological recourse is to split the good from the bad, to project all the good onto an angelic figure and all the bad onto a demonic one. To admit into consciousness an intuition about the good presupposing the bad would be wrenching. This is where faith comes in—a leap of faith. Faith and only faith can manage the contradiction. When an evangelical Christian trusts in Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior—embraces Jesus as the only possible remedy for sin—she does not do so casually. She must will it. She must attest to her faith. Romans 10:9 says: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Galatians 3:16 understands faith as the very foundation of social reality: “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” 77 Followers of the prosperity gospel are partial to another verse: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
In the Christian variant on Old Testament Judaism, that faith was predicated on the ubiquity of sin. Faith was ferocious because Hell was ferocious—which had to be the case because humanity was awful. Weirdly, the present-day political evangelicals determined to save themselves by hurling themselves into the maw of the awfulness. The inflammatory American rendition can be traced at least as far back as the famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” with which the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards exemplified what became known as the Great Awakening by invoking “the Vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites”:
[N]atural Men are held in the Hand of God over the Pit of Hell;
they have deserved the fiery Pit, and are already sentenced
to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his Anger is as
great towards them as to those that are actually suffering
the Executions of the fierceness of his Wrath in Hell, and
they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that Anger,
neither is God in the least bound by any Promise to hold
‘em up one moment; the Devil is waiting for them, Hell is
gaping for them, the Flames gather and flash about them,
and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the Fire
pent up in their own Hearts is struggling to break out; and
they have no Interest in any Mediator, there are no Means within
Reach that can be any Security to them. In short, they have no
Refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them
every Moment is the meer arbitrary Will, and uncovenanted
unobliged Forbearance of an incensed God….
Edwards thundered on that in the eternal book of unholy life, doom was preordained for
all you that are never passed under the great Change of
Heart, by the mighty Power of the SPIRIT of GOD upon your
Souls; all that were never born again, and made new Creatures,
and raised from being dead in Sin, to a State of new, and before
altogether unexperienced Light and Life…you are thus in
the Hands of an angry God; 'tis nothing but his meer Pleasure
that keeps you from being this Moment swallowed up in
everlasting Destruction….'Tis everlasting Wrath. It would be
dreadful to suffer this Fierceness and Wrath of Almighty God one
Moment; but you must suffer it to all Eternity: there will be
no End to this exquisite horrible Misery. 78
And so on. And on. Members of Edwards’s congregation trembled. “Some fell to the ground sobbing and moaning,” writes the contemporary ex-evangelical theologian Josh de Keijzer, whose insight is that the present-day political evangelicals mirror the emotions of the Great Awakening, but perversely—by turning the tables on Edwards. “Evangelicals,” de Keijzer writes,
are a bunch of angry sinners. It’s not an “angry God” we are
dealing with here, but angry evangelicals. The emphasis here is
not so much on “sinners” as this is what all people are according
to the Christian tradition. No, evangelicals are angry; very
angry. In their anger, however, they reject the very
foundations of the evangelical movement. What has come of being
anchored in Jesus’ teachings? What has come of the
self-searching honesty before God that characterized the earlier
iteration of this movement during the awakenings? Rather, today’s
evangelicals seem to deny the very God they claim to
worship. Indeed, the phrase “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
can be flipped around….The Biblical God has become a
tribal god who goes to war against the enemies of evangelicalism
and the alleged enemies of America. The evangelical God
has thus become “A God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” 79
The angry sinners wrapped themselves in the embrace of a champion.
Now, by no means are all the Christians who support Trump evangelical. Evangelicals belong to a number of denominations and may not tick off all the boxes that surveys use for their classifications. 80 Some adhere to the “prosperity gospel,” a movement that throughout the 1980s spawned “seeker sensitive” megachurches that reaped vast TV audiences. 81 In 2006, at least, 17 percent of American Christians identified with the movement, and 61 percent believed that God wants people to be prosperous. 82 It is not hard to see why Donald Trump would be favored by those who believe that wealth is proof of worthiness, though not so many African Americans. Though many evangelicals—most prominently Rick Warren—dislike the equation, low-income Trump voters like it fine. Many of them, along with evangelicals overall, went for Trump—or rather, against Hillary Clinton.
In June 2016, according to the dissident evangelical Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, “while 78 percent of self-identified white evangelical voters planned to vote for Trump, 45 percent were mainly voting against Hillary Clinton and only 30 percent were voting for Trump himself.” 83 Hatred of Hillary Clinton bent them toward making allowances for Trump even if they were genuinely appalled by the evidence of his vices. The number of self-identified white evangelicals who believed “an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life” more than doubled between 2011 and Trump’s campaign in 2016, from 30 percent to 72 percent.” They aligned their values with their fandom—and their lust to win. 84
The proportion of Republican convention delegates who identify as frequent attenders of evangelical churches rose steadily from 1980 on, with a great leap upward between 1996 and 2000 (George W. Bush), surpassing frequent attenders of mainline Protestants for the first time in 2004, and reaching a level just short of 30 percent in 2012—double their proportion in 1992. 85 Three months into Trump’s term, white evangelicals approved of him nearly twice as frequently as the general public (seventy-eight percent), and those who said they attended church more regularly were more likely to support Trump. 86 Two years into his term, his white evangelical Protestant support was at sixty-nine percent—twenty points higher than among any other religious category, even white mainline Protestants. 87 (White evangelicals who said they attended church were more likely to support Trump than those who did not.) 88 By contrast, in November 2018, every other religious category viewed him unfavorably. 89 According to Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, “the gap in perceptions of the president between white voters who are evangelical and those who aren’t was a whopping 60 percent! This evangelical support gap transcends education and gender.” Moreover, the stereotype of the xenophobic evangelical would seem to hold up. “Sixty-two percent of evangelicals who voted for Trump listed immigration as one reason for their vote, with 15 percent saying it was the single most important factor.” 90
I am not arguing that all of Trump’s supporters—even all the evangelicals—approved of him for the same reasons and in the same spirit. I am not arguing that faith in the fideistic sense explains the entirety of Trump’s base of support. Trump surely accrues support from voters who believe that he kept his promises and specifically that his policies helped their local economies. I do not want to lump all Trump supporters into the evangelical box, since white voters without college degrees make up a larger share of Trump’s vote than white evangelicals. So do whites over fifty. 91 Whether white evangelicals will continue to loom as large in the Republican base as they have to date, or that they will remain as energized, is arguable. Perhaps young white evangelicals are beginning to peel away from the old-time religion; perhaps they will return to the fold as they age. 92 But there is no blinking the fact that evangelicals have been central to Republican victory since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. They are Trump’s base. Their fervor and loyalty will remain central to America’s political—and, I would add, cultural and spiritual—life for the foreseeable future.
In a second essay in the next issue of Salmagundi, I will discuss another feature of the Trump-base dynamic. Between his announcement in June 2015 and the midpoint of his term three and a half years later, his approval ratings have been consistently low—never more than 45 percent—and relatively invariant. 93 Either fact by itself is remarkable. The combination is amazing.
1. Molly Ball, "The Ecstasy of Donald Trump,” The Atlantic, November 28, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-ecstasy-of-donald-trump/417870/ ↩
2. Julie Lyons, “Robert Jeffress Wants a 'Mean Son of a Gun’ for President,” Dallas Observer, April 5, 2016, http:///www.dallasobserver.com/news/reobert-jeffress-wants-a-a-mean-son-of-a-gun-for-president-says-trump=-isn’t-racist-8184821, quoted in Fea, Believe Me, p. 39. Fea points out (pp. 126-7) that in a 2011 book, Twilight’d Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, Jeffress chided evangelicals who thought they could “save America” by supporting the right politicians. His alignment with Trump would seem to fit the precise meaning of opportunism. ↩
4. George Barna, The Day Christians Changed America, p. 135 (n. p., Metainformation 2017), quoted in Anne Nelson, Shadow Network: Media Money, and the Secret Him of the Radical Right, p. 200-206 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019). The metaphor has global reach, having also been deployed by Ron Edwards, a retired Australian pharmaceutical executive and the author of Build a Kingdom Business: Empowered by the Holy Spirit and Living Eternal Now. Trump, Edwards writes, is God’s wrecking ball, a man who is not afraid to war against those who oppose God in the high places of darkness and deception". (“ Jesus as a Man of War,” https://livingeternal.net/ , August 16, 2019, accessed August 20, 2019. ↩
5. “Franklin Graham: Trump ‘defends the faith,’” November 25, 2018, https://www.axios.com/franklin-graham-donald-trump-6b18159f-d481-48e2-9eb3-ea48f4eb26aa.html (accessed March 18, 2019). ↩
6. Gwenda Blair, “How Norman Vincent Peale taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself,” https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/10/donald-trump-2016-norman-vincent-peale-213220 (accessed June 10,2019). ↩
7. “Mr. Trump has proved that trivial, personal fights are not a distraction from the work he is doing in office, but a core feature of the image he wants to project.” Anne Karni, “President Calls Husband Of Adviser a ‘Total Loser,’” New York Times, March 20, 2019, https://nyti.ms/2HDhJed (accessed March 20, 2019). ↩
9. “Trump on McCain: ‘He’s a war hero because he was captured,’” Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/84026237-157.html (accessed March 18, 2019). ↩
10. Nick Gass, “Trump: I’m so tired of this politically correct crap,” Politico September 23, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/donald-trump-politically-correct-crap-213988 ↩
11. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-35069227/donald-trump-we-can-t-worry-about-being-politically-correct, accessed March 20, 2019. ↩
12. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land : Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016), p.227. ↩
13. Eve Peyder, “The Summer’s Hottest Trend Is Owning the Libs,” https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/own-the-libs-meaning-703845/ (accessed May 4, 2019). ↩
14. “Has Trump Rendered the Political Gaffe Obsolete?” http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/05/has-trump-rendered-the-political-gaffe-obsolete.html (accessed May 4, 2019). ↩
15. The discussion below draws on my “The Great Race Panic,” Dissent November 18, 2018 https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/the-great-race-panic (accessed August 19, 2019). ↩
16. [Richard Spencer], “The Unmentionable Majority,” https://nationalpolicy.institute/2018/11/05/the-unmentionable-majority, November 5, 2018 (accessed August 19, 2019). ↩
17. Sam Roberts, “Minorities in the U.S. set to become majority by 2042,” New York Times, August 14, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/world/americas/14iht-census.1.15284537.html?module=inline, accessed June 12, 2019. ↩
18. Richard Alba, The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority and Minority in 21st Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2020). ↩
19. Tim Arango, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Katie Benner, “ Minutes Before El Paso Killing, Hate-Filled Manifesto Appears Online,” New York Times, August 3, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/03/us/patrick-crusius-el-paso-shooter-manifesto.html (accessed August 19, 2019). ↩
20. https://www.adl.org/resources/glossary-terms/white-genocide (accessed August 22, 2019). ↩
24. Todd Gittin, “Trump’s takeover of the American brand,” Columbia Journalism Review, January 17, 2017 https://www.cjr.org/politics/trump_brand_america_media.php (accessed August 19, 2019). ↩
25. Carlos Lozada, “How Donald Trump plays the press, in his own words,” Washington Post, June 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2015/06/17/how-donald-trump-plays-the-press-in-his-own-words/?utm_term=.3f0aad3e4dde (accessed May 24, 2019). ↩
26. Johnathan Greenberg, “Saving face: How Donald Trump silenced the people who could expose his business failures,” Washington Post, June 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2019/06/14/feature/how-donald-trump-silenced-the-people-who-could-expose-his-business-failures/?utm_term=.14650717b96b acceded June 15, 2019. ↩
27. John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 40. ↩
28. “An examination of the 2016 electorate, based on validated voters,” https://www.people-press.org/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/ (accessed May 24, 2019). The figure for white non-evangelical Protestants is my estimate. ↩
29. The exit polls are bot perfect but other estimates converge around this figure. ↩
30. https://www.prri.org/spotlight/religion-vote-presidential-election-2004-2016/ , accessed June 14, 2019. ↩
31. Julie Zauzmer, “He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term,” Washington Post, August 13, 2019, https://wapo.st/2ZaKRyl, citing Philip Schwadel and Gregory A. Smith, “Evangelical approval of Trump remains high, but other religious groups are less supportive,” https://pewrsr.ch/2z7zwVj (both accessed August 19, 2019). ↩
32. Southern Baptist Convention, “Resolution On Moral Character Of Public Officials,” http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/773/resolution-on-moral-character-of-public-officials, accessed May 8, 2019. ↩
33. Rubio’s affiliations were more elusive. “Even Mr. Rubio’s religious background is a bit of a mystery to evangelical voters in Iowa. The senator was initially raised Roman Catholic, converted to Mormonism, returned to Catholicism and now attends both a Catholic church and a Southern Baptist-affiliated church where his wife is a member.” Jeremy W. Peters, “As Marco Rubio Speaks of Faith, Evangelicals Keep Options Open,”
34. John C. Green, “Evangelical Consolidation,” p. 265, in Paul A. Kjupe and Ryan L. Claassen, eds., The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018), p. 267. ↩
35. Buchanan, Address to the Republican Convention, August 17, 1992, https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/buchanan-culture-war-speech-text/ , accessed May 24, 2019. ↩
36. Kevin R. den Dulk, “The GOP, Evangelical Elites, and the challenges of Pluralism,” in Kjupe and Claassen, eds., The Evangelical Crackup? p. 74. ↩
37. Green, “The Evangelical Consolidation,” p.265. ↩
38. Geoffery Layman and Mark Brockway, “Evangelical Activist in the GOP: Still the Life of the Party?” in Kjupe and Claassen, eds., The Evangelical Crackup? p. 36. ↩
39. Alex McFarland, “Piety and Pragmatism Are Not Mutually Exclusive for Evangelicals or Elected Leaders,” New York Times, March 7, 2016 (https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/03/07/what-does-it-mean-to-be-evangelical-today/piety-and-pragmatism-are-not-mutually-exclusive-for-evangelicals-or-elected-leaders, accessed March 17, 2019). McFarland’s website (https://alexmcfarland.com/about-alex/) boasts that “Alex is the only evangelist known to have preached in all 50 states in only 50 days.” ↩
40. But not always. In 2015, he blamed the murder of fourteen people in San Bernardino on mass abortion, gay marriage, “kicking prayer out of public schools…making sodomy mainstream and redefining marriage.” (https://www.joemygod.com/2015/12/pastor-alex-mcfarland-god-sent-the-san-bernardino-terrorists-because-of-gay-marriage-video/ , accessed May 4, 2019). ↩
41. Paige Williams, “The Mouthpiece,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2008, p. 52. ↩
42. In his scathing novel The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville has his eponymous anti-hero quote that precise verse. ↩
44. Bruce Henderson, “Evangelical leader stays on Trump advisory council despite Charlottesville response,” Charlotte Observer, August 17, 2017, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article169163722.html (accessed March 17, 2019). ↩
45. Janelle Bouie, “The Joy of Hatred,” New York Times, July 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/opinion/trump-rally.html (accessed August 19, 2019). ↩
46. Julian Borger, “How born-again George became a man with a mission,” Guardian, October 7, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/07/usa.georgebush (accessed March 20, 2019). ↩
47. Eugene Scott, “Trump believes in God, but hasn’t sought forgiveness, https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/index.html (accessed March 19, 2019). ↩
48. Trip Gabriel and Michael Luo, "A Born-Again Donald Trump? Believe It, Evangelical Leader Says,” New York Times, June 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/us/politics/a-born-again-donald-trump-believe-it-evangelical-leader-says.html (accessed March 19, 2019). ↩
49. http://drjamesdobson.org/news/dr-james-dobson-on-trumps-christian-faith (accessed March 20, 2019). ↩
50. Micheal Anton (writing as Publius Deceus Mus), “The Flight 93 Election,” Claremont Review of Books, September 15, 2016, https://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/the-flight-93-election/ , accessed June 14, 2019. ↩
51. Dobson himself might have counseled that Trump was entitled a certain exemption on the grounds that (in the italicized words of the website of the organization he founded, Focus on the Family), “every Christian in the world wrestles with sin every single day of his or her life….” He might have added, as the website says: “None of us is conformed to the image of Christ overnight. Sanctification is a moment-by-moment challenge. It’s a process that will not be complete until we leave this world and see the Lord face to face.” https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-q-and-a/faith/willful-sin-after-salvation-and-eternal-security , accessed March 19, 2019. ↩
52. Hochschild, pp. 224, 225, 228. ↩
53. Ball, “Ecstasy of Donald Trump.” ↩
54. Ball, “Ecstasy of Donald Trump.” ↩
55. Bouie, “Joy of Hatred.” ↩
56. “Jesus Christ’s Return to Earth,” http://pewrsr.ch/T4uCxO (accessed April 8, 2019). See Hochschild, “Donald Trump, ‘The Apprentice,’ and secular rapture,” Boston Globe, September 6, 2016, https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/09/05/trump-the-apprentice-and-secular-rapture/7Z0wiDi3efnG41oqasEzGN/story.html (accessed March 20, 2019). ↩
57. Philip Bump, “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy,” Mary 14, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/05/14/half-of-evangelicals-support-israel-because-they-believe-it-is-important-for-fulfilling-end-times-prophecy/?utm_term=.db4c85de761c (accessed May 6, 2019). ↩
58. All depicted Christopher Alan Maloney, “In God We Trump,” https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B07JKWZMB/ref=at_dl_rdr?autoplay=1. ↩
59. Tara Isabella Burton, “Christian nationalism, explained through one pro-Trump propaganda film,” https://www.vox.com/2018/10/8/17941066/the-trump-prophecy-liberty-university-christian-nationalism (accessed March 21, 2019). ↩
60. Leah Payne and Erica Ramirez, “The Christian sect that has always cheered on Donald Trump,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/03/21/the-christian-sect-that-has-always-cheered-on-donald-trump/ (accessed March 21, 2019). ↩
61. Paul Prather, “Evangelicals recast Trump as an Old Testament king. Will he usher in second coming?” Lexington Herald Leader, March 16, 2018, https://www.kentucky.com/living/religion/paul-prather/article205469924.html (accessed March 21, 2019). ↩
62. How many evangelicals went to see The Trump Prophecy, and to what effect, is another question, not easily answerable. The organizers claimed that it played for two days on more than a thousand screens. In New York, it was sparsely attended, but what would anyone expect in the heartland of American secularism? Payne and Ramirez, “The Christian sect.” ↩
63. https://clintonwhitehouse1.archives.gov/White_House/Publications/html/briefs/iii-8.html, accessed April 8, 2019. ↩
64. Hochschild. ↩
65. Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016) p. 58, https://stanford-universitypressscholarship-com.exproxy.cul.columbia.edu/view/10.11126/stanford/9780804796132.001.0001/upso-978084796132-chapter-004 (accessed May 6, 2019). ↩
67. Max Scheler, Ressentiment (1915), trans. Lewis Coser, p. 2, https://mercaba.org/SANLUIS/Filosofiaa/autores/Contempor%C3%A1nea/Scheller/Ressentiment.pdf, accessed May 8, 2019. ↩
68. Dana Milbank, “For Trump, Morning in America never seems to dawn,” Washington Post, May 10, 2019, https://wapo.st/2E4N07e (accessed May 11, 2019), citing a calculation by “Bill Frischling, founder of Factba.se, the indispensable online collection of all Trump’s rhetoric.” ↩
69. Sharon Marcus, The Drama of Celebrity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 24-27. ↩
71. Gershom Scholem, Redemption through Sin (1936), https://ia802903.us.archive.org/12/items/REDEMPTIONTHROUGHSIN/REDEMPTION%20THROUGH%20SIN.pdf/ accessed March 19, 2019), pp. 10, 12. ↩
72. Schloem, p. 16. ↩
73. Schloem, p. 20. ↩
74. Schloem, p. 18. ↩
75. Schloem, p. 20. ↩
76. Schloem, p. 30. ↩
77. Pentecostals take the idea of a personal relationship one step further: they believe that God speaks to them. Luhrmann. ↩
78. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas (accessed September 5, 2019). ↩
79. Josh de Keijzer, “A God in the Hands of Angry Sinners: How the Evangelical Misconstrual of God and Politics Spells Doom,” “End of God” blog, June 18, 2018, https://joshdekeyzer.com/a-god-in-the-hands-of-angry-sinners-how-the-evangelical-misconstrual-of-god-and-politics-spells-doom/ (accessed September 5, 2019). ↩
80. Robert Wuthnow, “‘No One Loves the Bible More than Me’: The Political Continuities of Political Evangelicalism,” in Kjupe and Claassen, Eds., The Evangelical Crackup?, pp. 260-1. ↩
81. Bowler, Blessed, p. 102 ↩
82. David Van Bierna and Jeff Chu, “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” Time, Sept. 10, 2006, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1533448-2,00.html (accessed May 11 2019). ↩
83. Ed Stetzer, “Debunking the 81 Percent,” Christianity Today, Vol. 62, Issue 8 (October 2018). ↩
84. Fea, Believe Me, pp. 39-40. ↩
85. Layman and Brockway, “Evangelical Activists in the GOP,” p. 37. Layman and his colleagues tried to et the equivalent figures for the 2016 Republican Convention, but did not gain access to the whole roster. For the sample from whom they elicited responses, evangelicals who were frequent attenders (more than once a week) amounted to 32.5 percent. (Personal communication, Geoffrey Layman, May 29, 2019) ↩
86. Gregory A Smith, “Among white evangelicals, regular churchgoers are the most supportive of Trump,” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/26/among-white-evangelicals-regular-churchgoers-are-the-most-supportive-of-trump/ (acceded May 14, 2019). ↩
87. Support from white Catholics, however, the next fell by fifteen percent, from fifty-two to forty-four. ↩
88. Philip Schweden and Gregory A. Smith, “Evangelical approval of Trump remains high, but other religious groups are less supportive,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/18/evangelical-approval-of-trump-remains-high-but-other-religious-groups-are-less-supportive/ (accessed March 19, 2019) ↩
89. Alex Vandermaas-Peeler.et al., “Partisan Polarization Dominates Trump Era: Findings from the 2018 American Values Survey,” https://www.prri.org/research/partisan-polarization-dominates-trump-era-findings-from-2018-american-values-survey/ (accessed May 14, 2019). ↩
90. Amy Walter, “Getting to Know White Voters,” Cook Political Report, August 29, 2018, https://cookpolitical.com/analysis/national/national-politics/getting-know-white-voters (accessed May 14, 2019). ↩
91. Sean McElwee, “Who is Trump’s Base?” August 23, 2018, https://www.dataforprogress.org/blog/2018/8/21/data-for-politics-14-who-is-trumps-base (accessed May 14, 2019). ↩
92. See the essays in Kjupe and Claassen, eds., The Evangelical Crackup? ↩