For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. . . .
(1 Thessalonians 4:16)
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)
I would think that the above excerpts, especially the lines from “One Corinthians,” would be among Donald Trump’s favorite verses, since they mention him by name, associate him with the return of Jesus Christ, and suggest that after the final vote the faithful will be incorruptible winners.
Is that a superficial reading that takes a few words out of context and uses them to generate fake warm-fuzzies in voters? Yes, of course. Welcome to the 2016 US presidential campaign!
Just before the 2016 Iowa caucus, Trump pulled out from a debate among Republican presidential candidates. A blogger asked whether the actual reason was not because the female moderator was unfair, as Trump said, but rather because Trump did not want to debate a genuine principled conservative such as Ted Cruz.
I don’t think Trump was concerned about contending with genuine principled conservatives, since polls have shown that a lot of “conservative” Republican voters don’t seem to care about principles:
[N]ational polls suggest that Donald J. Trump has forged a real connection with this voting bloc. In a recent New York Times/CBS News survey, the Republican frontrunner earned the support of 42% of evangelicals, far outpacing the rest of the GOP field, including his top rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who garnered 25%. A January NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll also showed Trump with the deepest support among white evangelicals, at 33%. . . .
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, believes many evangelicals feel “beaten down” by political correctness, especially on issues such as gay marriage. “Now they see Donald Trump, who is taking on that same elitist politically correct mindset and not backing down,” Perkins says. “They find common cause in this guy, even though he comes from a completely different world.”
In an election driven more by foreign policy than social issues, “fear is dominating more than faith,” Perkins continues. “Fear of what has happened to our nation, and fear of what may happen. . . .”
“It’s almost impressive, his disregard—he doesn’t even pretend to have a sophisticated position on questions of faith,” says Stephen White, fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If Trump wins the nomination, he will have demonstrated that social conservatism is an unnecessary part of the Republican coalition, he will pull the rug out from social conservatism as it relates to the Republican Party.”
Trump has continued to garner hefty support from evangelical voters, even as prestigious theological conservatives such as Russell Moore — head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and an actual reverend — openly criticize his candidacy as out-of-step with evangelical beliefs.
A good segment of evangelical voters appear to have blithely abandoned both the Christian-nation candidacy of Mr. Cruz and the kinder, gentler social conservatism of Mr. Rubio in favor of Mr. Trump, who is unabashedly ignorant of the biblical imperatives that form the foundation of evangelical culture and politics. That Mr. Trump is a Presbyterian and not evangelical is not the issue. It’s that he doesn’t pretend to understand evangelicalism, or even his own mainline Protestantism, failures that would have been, in recent elections, disqualifiers for evangelical Republican voters.
Yet for months, polls have shown Mr. Trump attracting a quarter to a third of white evangelical support. A Pew Research Center survey released on Wednesday found that half of white evangelicals believe that Mr. Trump would make a “good” or “great” president. Although Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio are viewed by more voters as “religious” than Mr. Trump is, both run behind him among white evangelicals as a potentially “good” or “great” president. . . .
Mr. Trump’s standing among evangelicals shows just how little those issues matter to a good many erstwhile culture warriors, at least when picking a president. If he turns out to be their standard-bearer, this once-cohesive movement will have to spend this election season asking itself what it really means.
So, what could possibly be going on here? Have all the “principled conservatives” decided to just vote for whoever promises them to “make the trains run on time”? That sure is how it seems to me.
There is an old tradition in American politics, in which “grass-roots” movements are cultivated as a way to get people excited about politics. A political party takes up populist issues and political candidates start talking about them. The people feel better, because it seems as if politicians are listening to them; and politicians feel better, because it seems as if a lot of people really like them for saying the right things. Everybody is happy, at least for awhile.
Then, after it turns out that the wheels of bipartisan bureaucracy turn really slowly and democratically elected politicians can’t really work miracles, the excited people get a little frustrated. At this point, the political parties are supposed to find a more believable politician who can make better promises; but they can only put off fulfilling the promises for so long:
Trump is resonating within the ranks of the “sick and tired.” Evangelicals are fed up with politicians telling them one thing and doing another. We saw this play out in the 2004 presidential election. The GOP establishment pleaded with evangelicals to get out and vote, promising that in his second term, George W. Bush would champion a Federal Marriage Amendment constitutionally limiting marriage to a man and a woman. They showed up in droves, and then the issue was dropped like a hot potato. They’re sick and tired of being lied to and played like pawns.
Ever since the rise of the modern evangelical conservative, or “religious right,” political movement about four decades ago, these activists in the GOP usually have backed either one of their own (Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee) or an establishment Republican who pledges support for their agenda (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney). The “fellow travelers” never win, so no gain there.
The establishment types sometimes win, but once in office they focus their agendas on the economy, foreign policy, fighting wars, fighting terrorism — and they then tell the religious conservatives to be patient because social issues just can’t be the focus right now.
In either scenario, the evangelical conservatives end up burned. Their past four decades of political activism have produced both a realistic assessment of the chances of fellow travelers to win the White House (none), and a deep disdain for establishment Republicans who say the right things in the primaries but always revert to mainstream agendas in office.
The frustration level among evangelical conservatives is wide and deep at this point. They don’t know who to trust, and some have suggested exiting political activism altogether and putting their energies instead into their communities where they feel they can make a difference.
This sentiment is understandable when considering the amount of dedicated effort the activist core of the movement has devoted to the Republican Party and its nominees, only to have marginal progress on the social agenda at the national level. From their standpoint, mainstream politicians use them, powerful institutions — government, media, public and higher education — are aligned against them, and political correctness is running amuck.
What they believe to be a “Christian nation” is, they think, being turned upside down.
The rise of Trump is not an accident. Erick Erickson of the popular RedState blog was succinct: “The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them. . . .”
For half a century, the history of American conservatism has been a story of disappointment and betrayal. Conservative leaders have denounced decades of change, pledging what would amount to a return to the government and economy of the 1890s, the cultural norms of the 1950s and, in more recent times, the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s. But no conservative administration — not Richard Nixon’s, not Ronald Reagan’s and neither of the Bush presidencies — could live up to the rhetoric that conservative politicians regularly deploy to rally their supporters.
. . .the victories Republicans have won over the decades have produced neither the lasting electoral realignment that conservative prophets keep predicting nor the broad policy changes that the faithful hope for. For the rank-and-file right, the sense that their leaders have failed them and the political system shortchanged them has created a cycle of radicalization.
With each disappointment, movement conservatives have blamed moderation and advanced an ever-purer ideology, certain that doing so will eventually bring them the triumphs that have eluded them over and over.
This rift has widened to the point that many “business conservatives” have abandoned any pretense about supporting social conservative issues, and the Republican Party is following the money.
So what is the brilliant electoral strategy that the Trump campaign has hit upon? It is nothing other than a populist strategy that was recommended long ago to Pat Buchanan by Sam Francis:
To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots. But they are also threatened by conservatives who would take away their Medicare, hand their Social Security earnings to fund-managers in Connecticut, and cut off their unemployment too. . . .
The political left treats this as a made-up problem, a scapegoating by Applebee’s-eating, megachurch rubes who think they are losing their “jerbs.” Remember, Republicans and Democrats have still been getting elected all this time.
But the response of the predominantly-white class that Francis was writing about has mostly been one of personal despair. And thus we see them dying in middle age of drug overdose, alcoholism, or obesity at rates that now outpace those of even poorer blacks and Hispanics. Their rate of suicide is sky high too. Living in Washington D.C., however, with an endless two decade real-estate boom, and a free-lunch economy paid for by special interests, most of the people in the conservative movement hardly know that some Americans think America needs to be made great again. . . .
What is so crucial to Trump’s success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy. He is doing the very thing Pat Buchanan could not, and would not do. And in this, he is following the advice of Sam Francis to a degree almost unthinkable. . . .
What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump’s success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is. His campaign is a rebuke to their institutions. It says the Republican Party doesn’t need all these think tanks, all this supposed policy expertise. It says look at these people calling themselves libertarians and conservatives, the ones in tassel-loafers and bow ties. Have they made you more free? Have their endless policy papers and studies and books conserved anything for you? These people are worthless. They are defunct. You don’t need them, and you’re better off without them.
When I first started hearing snippets of Trump rhetoric second-hand over the past year, I recognized how he was echoing previous right-wing populist campaigns. During the George W. Bush administration, I had spoken to many people in the Patriot Movement who had been excited about Republican politics during the Reagan years, but who had become increasingly bitter and angry after repeated disappointments. They had spoken glowingly about candidates such as Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and Ross Perot, but they despised George H. W. Bush and many congressional Republicans. They tended to become more vocal during Democratic administrations, but had kept quiet during the George W. Bush years because they didn’t want to lose a chance for progress on their issues within the Republican Party. In this presidential election season, Trump has identified the soft spots in Republican populist support that most of the professional politicians were afraid to poke.
There is a similar problem within the Democratic party, in which some left-wing populists are rejecting the disappointing neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton for the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between Bernie Sanders 2016 and Ralph Nader 2000, except that Sanders, like Trump, is willing to work within the established party apparatus. However, Sanders has a disadvantage in that he can hardly attract anyone from the right. Trump ultimately has an electoral advantage, apparently, since in polls he seems to attract supporters who are not traditionally conservative or Republican, as well as attracting disaffected conservatives and the far-right.
I wrote the above post prior to the New Hampshire primary. After the primary, more columnists started to fall in line with the populist narrative about a general failure of Republican leadership; for example, see Nicholas Kristof’s bitter tirade. On the other hand, some sources on the fringe are quite consistent in their message, as in this Washington Examiner article:
[In response to a question about why so many members of the New Hampshire state Republican power structure were unable to recognize the extent of Trump’s support.]
“I think like most establishment Republicans, they thought if they kept promoting the narrative that Trump was a passing fancy and he would collapse, it would happen,” Gargiulo told me. “But this phenomena is the result of 25+ years of failed promises and lackluster leadership over multiple administrations from both parties. People have had it, and those in power don’t want to accept the reality they can no longer maintain the status quo.”