One of the disquieting realizations I’ve come to during this interminable campaign is just how many things I don’t understand.
Hard as it has been for me to “get” why any sentient being would support Donald Trump, I’ve been particularly confused about why Evangelical Christians would support a thrice-married admitted adulterer who boasts about his greed, talks about the size of his penis and has a long history of distinctly unChristian behaviors.
It certainly isn’t because they agree with his policy proposals. He doesn’t have any. (Martin Longman recently explained why policy has played such a minor role in this campaign: Despite the fact that Clinton has advanced multiple proposals, you can’t have a policy debate with rageoholic voters, or with a candidate more focused on beauty queens and his penis than with what is ailing America.)
Not all Evangelicals support Trump, of course, but a significant number do, and I’ve been at a loss to account for that support. I recently came across an interview with Robert P. Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America” that offers a plausible explanation.
I went back and looked at remarks Trump made at that evangelical college in Iowa in January. There it became really clear to me that he really wasn’t making the case that he was an evangelical. Instead he was making the case that he saw their power slipping from the scene and that he was going to be the guy who would do something about it. He very explicitly said in that message in January in Iowa, “When I’m president, I’m going to restore power to the Christian churches. We’re not going to be saying ‘Happy Holidays,’ we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”
In the book, Jones talks about the politics of nostalgia and grievance–important clues to Trump’s appeal.
When I think and write about white Christian America in the book, I use the term to refer to this big cultural and political edifice that white Protestants built in this country. This world allowed white Protestants to operate with a whole set of unquestioned assumptions. It really is the era of June Cleaver and Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith. This sense of nostalgia is very powerful for white Christians, particularly conservative white Christians, who could see themselves in that mythical depiction of 1950s America, but who are having a more difficult time seeing their place in a rapidly changing country….
What has become most important to the eight in ten white evangelical voters who are now saying they’re voting for Trump over Clinton is that in Trump they see someone who is going to restore their vision of America. It is a vision which really does look like 1950s America. It’s pre-civil rights, it’s pre-women’s rights, and it’s before immigration policy was opened up in the mid-1960s. And most of all, it’s a time when white Protestants were demographically in the majority. But just over the last two election cycles, we’ve gone from a majority white Christian country to a minority white Christian country, from 54 percent white Christian in 2008 to 45 percent white Christian today. So this nostalgic vision of the country harkens back to a mythical golden age when white Protestants really did hold sway in the country, both in terms of numbers and in terms of cultural power.
As Jones sees it, Trump’s real appeal to white evangelicals—how they hear “Make American Great Again”—is his promise to turn back the clock and restore their power, a promise Jones puts in the same category as “I’m going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.”
Obviously, neither is going to happen. But then, reality isn’t Trump’s–or his supporters’–natural habitat. Grievance is.
There simply may not be “a bridge too far” for these voters, but I can’t help wondering how they will rationalize away yesterday’s disclosure of a tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the p—y” ….