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Why Do So Many Evangelicals Support Donald Trump? (Ludger Viefhues-Bailey)

Trump builds a wall

Why do so many evangelicals support Donald Trump? The Pew Foundation reports that a majority of evangelicals are voting for Trump to oppose Clinton. And the foundation notes that evangelicals over the last elections were clearly aligned with the Republican Party. Yet this staunch opposition to Hilary Clinton and endorsement of Trump requires itself an explanation. What is theologically at stake here?

To answer this question, we need to realize that theology is not a mere coating of other economic or political interests. Rather, political, theological, and economic motives interact. Theologies are not belief systems separate from secular ones. Rather, like gravity warps time, theology shapes politics. Unlike gravity and time, politics and theology warp one another. So what then is the theological-political warping that explains evangelical support for Trump?

A refrain in Trump’s acceptance speech was, “I alone…” Trump alone can save the United States from the impending apocalypse.

He described this world of doom in clear ethnocentric terms. Chinese, Mexicans, and black people threaten the forgotten whites of “America.” Terrorism and trade are the weapons of destruction that will wipe out “America.” Unless … Unless we let Trump be in charge so that he can do what he needs to do.

Yet, he never spells out clearly what needs doing. His policy proposals are vague, contradictory, and rely on fabricated facts. According to polls, his supporters understand this to be hyperbole. But the emotional content arouses them. This arousal speaks volumes. Truth or facts do not matter; what matters is that we let Trump do what he, the exceptional disruptor, needs to do.

His speech thus crystallizes Trump’s program. White supremacy cloaked as nationalism; populism; and an authoritarian leader principle. Given these proclivities, what theological-politcal goals could a Trump presidency promise to fulfill?

While comparisons between Trump and Hitler or Mussolini seem tired, classical theories of fascism can indeed help answer this question.  The political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset defined fascism as follows. “A middle class movement representing a protest against both capitalism and socialism, big business and big unions.” (11) Those displaced and crippled by the great cataclysm of World War One supported fascism.

But where did those turn whose lives militarism, authoritarianism, and nationalism devastated? They flocked to militarism, authoritarianism and nationalism, thus opening the door to even greater destruction.  Fascism’s political solution for this displacement was and is the disruption. In apocalyptic tones, the fascists aim to disrupt “the” system. Salvation requires interrupting the political and economic orders.

Likewise, Trump marshals the economic and racial status anxieties of middle class and lower middle class whites. They are displaced by the forces of neoliberal globalization and feel threatened by the demographic change within the U.S. And likewise, he promises them disruption as salvation.

Appeals to the “real” white America, “the people,” and immediate affect legitimizes this disruption. Structures of previously democratic governance are passé. Hence, fascists evoke a sea of angry and violent affect, to use the words of Gail Hamner. Thus, fascist legitimacy is not located in “the system” but outside of it. The goal is to create and modulate an extra-systemic power base beholden only to the leader.

Fascism requires blind loyalty to him because he knows best. The leader-principle is thus both a political and an epistemological principle. Embodying the people, the leader is the only center of power and of knowledge. In order to establish this epistemology of leadership, Trump has to denigrate and eviscerate all of those who oppose them.

This epistemology sets fascism apart from other forms of authoritarian or disruptive politics. Socialism postulates that the party elites have profound insights into economics and politics. A systemic analysis of capital, history, and human nature undergirds these insights. Thus, they are open for somewhat reasoned debate – at least by those in the know. Fascist epistemology in contrast rejects systemic thought and relies on the leader’s inscrutable intuition.

Critics of classical theories of fascism, however, point to the importance of elites. The destitute lower middle class alone could not have brought fascists movements to power. They needed both the financial and the voting power of the elites. [Val Burris, 45]

We can see this pattern repeated in the Trump phenomenon. Lower class whites need significant support of the Republican donor class and establishment. This raises the question of what theopolitical and economic gambit can explain such support.

The experience of the lower middle class supporters is that the post-world war consensus has failed them. Free trade may deliver Walmart prices. But the Walmartization of the American economy destroys not only unions. It also leads to the loss of well paying jobs for a work force that is less and less educated. Racial privilege no longer protects white America from the pressures of global competition.

How can a policy vision of economic nationalism benefit the Republican überclass? Besides hitching non-progressive tax plans to the Trump juggernaut, what can this class gain?

What motivates the turn away from their previous neoliberal orthodoxy?  The problem in answering this question is that Trumpism lacks a coherent set of programs. We only know that he rejects the current networks of treaties or alliances with their obligations and constraints. Trump thus positions himself as the great disruptor. He inhabits a persona familiar to the rhetoric of global entrepreneurship: the genius business titan shaping the world in his image. Trump uses an anti-neoliberal rhetoric to support his ethno-nationalism.

Yet, the resulting global disruptions fit very well into the neoliberal scheme. Disruption of existing bonds of obligations and the fragmentation of society are central for neoliberalism. Thus, Trump’s critique of the global and national economy uses neoliberal tools.

In Trump’s vision of America, he appears as the father of the nation, the decider, and leader. Trump’s patriarchial sense of self is on clear display. In his world, women’s power is dependent on his. Trump links his masculinity with the image of the unquestionable leader and genius entrepreneur. Thus, he performs to the fullest the core of the evangelical gender system. This allows him to side step the hot button issues of the culture wars, gay marriage or bathrooms.

After all, at the heart of the evangelical theology of gender lies the preservation of patriarchy and the celebration of unbridled divine (male) power. In a well-ordered state, divine inscrutable power flows from God the Father. In the family, the father occupies this position as the font of rightful authority. This vision does not imply that women cannot occupy powerful positions in the work force.

They can as long as they remain tethered to the male source of all authority. Women can claim derivative power as long as they signal submission to divine masculinity. (Sarah Palin’s performance is instructive in this context.) Disrupting this flow of rightful power leads to social disintegration, chaos, and divine wrath. According to this logic, women, like Hilary, usher in the apocalypse. And only He/he can save us from it.

Some scholars argue that religion is dangerous because it projects unmediated cosmic oppositions into the world of politics, where compromise is necessary. This model may not work for all religions. Yet it does seem to work for contemporary American evangelicals.

Today, evangelical theopolitics appears as a sequence of cosmic contrasts. Here is world destroyed by sinful rejection of divine authority. There is the world aligned with unbridled divine will. Here is the proper sphere of male power. There is that of female empowerment. Here is a world of women out of bounds. Here is that of men in charge. Here is chaos. There is structure. These cosmic oppositions energize the culture wars and they make meaningful the Trump vs. Clinton conflict.

This threat of apocalyptic doom is part of this imagery of cosmic oppositions. The other part is the person of the messianic savior.  Why then does Trump’s appeal to white evangelicals? The answer lies in the convergence of Christian, fascist, and neoliberal values. Both the Republican Party and Trump attract voters attached to authoritarianism. This attraction can link with evangelical theologies of gender, which envision unbridled divine authority and an absolute need for human submission.

The decades of the culture wars have incessantly gendered this theological framework. The entrepreneurial spirit energizing evangelical political culture has even deeper historical roots. Evangelical entrepreneurs mobilized their business and faith values in resistance to the New Deal. More recently, entrepreneurship inspires the running of evangelical churches and organizations.

Trump embodies appeals to divine authority packaged within a fascist, messianic style of leadership, which in turn relies on the disruption of social  ties and economic security nets wrought by global neoliberalism.  To do so he promises to visit on the same neoliberal order the fires of hell with unspeakable, patriarchal, divine power.

Ludger Viefhues-Bailey is Professor of Philosophy, Gender, and Culture at LeMoyne College.  His work integrates philosophical modes of analysis with those pertaining to gender and cultural studies. He is the author of Between a Man and a Woman? Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Beyond the Philosopher’s Fear. A Cavellian Reading of Gender, Origin, and Religion in Modern Skepticism (Ashgate, 2007). Currently he is working on a book entitled No Separation. How Religion Makes the Secular Nation State

(2) Comments

  1. The one thing not mentioned in this article is the one thing I hear evangelicals say when they say they support or are considering supporting Trump. They may concede his is ill prepared, untruthful, boorish. But he has promised to oppose abortion, and to appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion. That’s it for them. They are on a holy crusade about this, and this alone. You can argue with them about who will reduce poverty more effectively which leads some women into choosing abortions — they may agree, but if the number of abortions is the only thing which matters (each one “a child!”) — then prohibiting them entirely is their most important goal and they are virtually blind to all else.

  2. Ludger Viefhues-Bailey - Reply

    Thank you, Paula, for your comment. The puzzle for me is that Trump has not consistently supported restrictive abortion policies. He has knowingly flip flopped. And when Evangelicals could chose between Cruz with his impeccable abortion credentials and Trump, they were split between them. If abortion was the central concern we should have expected Evangelicals supporting Cruz overwhelmingly. More recently, the Pew Foundation showed that white Evangelicals prefer Trump over Clinton on every issue. But surprisingly abortion is not the top issue. Only 65% of Evangelicals think that Trump reflects their values on abortion. Contrast that to 79% of say Trump would do a better job on guns or the 78% on terrorist attacks. While, important abortion alone does not seem to explain support for Trump. Historically, a majority of Evangelicals have supported candidates with varying views on abortion, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes. The penchant for authoritarianism however is a constant in Evangelical politics.

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