Donald J. Trump is a serial adulterer and lifelong vulgarian who adorns himself with gobs of orange makeup, tweets with the grammar and spelling of a Chick-Fil-A cow, befriends brutal dictators, and incited a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol that nearly got his painfully subservient vice president strung up with a noose. Educated Americans often wonder how any of their fellow citizens could have voted for this man at all, let alone demonstrated loyalty with the intensity of a religious cult. In truth, it comes from the same place of desperation that often drives people to extreme ideology–just not a form of desperation any of us should respect.
Challenges to America’s interlocking hierarchies have often been met with a violent backlash. A century ago, as World War I drew African Americans out of the South to work in urban defense industries, pent-up racism and frustration with the war effort combusted in a series of racial pogroms in cities like Chicago and Tulsa. Within our grandparents’ lifetime, the advances of the Civil Rights movement first engendered a revival of the Ku Klux Klan (with North Carolina leading the way) and a more silent political backlash that defined American politics until the beginning of this year. Demagogic politicians like George Wallace gained a national following by playing to the rage of whites threatened by the loss of privileges they had taken for granted since the beginning of the republic.
When Barack Obama was elected, that sense of panic raced through portions of white America like a wildfire. Immediately, everything about our public life was racialized; even opinions of the Portuguese Water Dog polarized along racist/anti-racist lines. Large swathes of conservative white America had an existential freakout at the fact of a Black president, at the sight of an African American with the middle name Hussein who had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia descending the stair steps from Marine One and commanding the executive branch for the first time in the history of the nation that to date had not even given a Black person a major-party nomination for president. President Obama’s triumph was a potent symbol of the changes sweeping the nation’s demographic fabric, and it was received by the Tea Party demographic as a crisis.
Religion contributed to their apoplexy. While American religious history is complicated and evangelicals have by no means always dominated the country–indeed, they were marginalized between the Scopes Monkey Trial and the rise of the Moral Majority–an evangelical revival in the ’80s and ’90s had cemented the spiritual hegemony of conservative Protestants. They largely got to impose their moral values on everyone else. But a strong secularizing trend took hold in the early 2000’s, accelerating year by year until now, even in devout North Carolina, one in five citizens pledges no religion at all.
They were losing their country.
And then came Donald Trump. Trump had danced around the edges of the political scene for decades, but he first emerged as a major force with the rise of the Birther movement. Supposedly possessing Obama’s “real” birth certificate, he rapidly gained traction in the GOP. He was leading in the polls for the 2012 nomination before bowing out, and it didn’t take long after his anti-immigrant announcement speech to propel him to the top of the 2016 Republican primary field. What Trump offered was not policy or even a frisson of vengeance against the Wall Street-Washington elite. It was the restoration of white Christian dominance.
Scared, dislocated, and enraged, Caucasian evangelicals placed their hopes for their country in the hands of the New York barbarian. Trump was to them a literal White Knight swooping in to save their privilege. As one of his strongest supporters, Newt Gingrich, had put it, a “secular-socialist machine” had arisen as a threat to the white Christian homeland. Trump, with his ferocity and heat, presented to them a hero-figure in whose battles they invested their hopes for an ethno-nationalist restoration. The Wall, Mar-a-Lago, the pugnacious Twitter feed, and his scowling visage became symbols of the conservative counter-revolution. Even today, he commands their adoration.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.