Our America: Grotesque Sovereignty, Revisited, Part Three

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Thomas Dumm

By Any Means Necessary

(Author’s note: The following is Part Three of a three-part series, which updates a blog post that originally appeared in The Contemporary Condition in May, 2017). Read Part Two here.

To the extent that there is anything that could be called Trumpism, it is the carrying out of the right-wing Christian agenda. Evangelical Christians embrace an authoritarian vision based on submission to a mighty God. The vehicle for the realization of their vision does not need to be pure. Indeed, Trump and Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Alabama, both have been acknowledged by Christian voters to be personally flawed. But the power agenda is all that matters, and the overt promises by Trump to fulfill a right-wing Christian agenda during the 2016 election guaranteed their support.

A comparison of the white evangelical Christian support for George W. Bush in 2004 versus Donald Trump in 2016 is revealing. In 2004, white evangelicals voted for Bush, 78 percent versus 21 percent for Kerry. They made up 23 percent of registered voters, about one-third of registered Republicans, and constituted nearly 30 percent of Bush’s total in 2004. In comparison, white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump by an even higher margin, 80 percent to 16 percent. They made up about 22 percent of registered voters in 2016, similar to 2004 and again about one-third of registered Republicans. But, quite interestingly, white evangelical Christians overall constituted 46 percent of Trump’s total vote, the largest single element of his coalition.

Now, of course there are overlapping constituencies in Trump’s coalition, and a key demographic group was Rust Belt, working-class voters who, even as they had been lost by Obama in 2012, were lost by an even greater margin in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, and constituted the tipping point in the electoral battleground states. Interestingly, the whites without a college degree—men and women—made up a third of the 2016 electorate. Trump won them by thirty-nine percentage points, according to exit polls, far surpassing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney's 25 percent margin. They were the foundation of his victories across the Rust Belt, including a blowout win in Ohio and stunning upsets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Trump beat Clinton among white evangelicals by forty-six percentage points, more than the thirty-nine percentage point advantage he had among whites without a college degree. While we must remember that there is an overlap here, and the surprise of the election was how much further the Democrats had to fall among working-class voters, what is remarkable is how deep Trump’s support was among white evangelicals.

Indeed, the most significant piece of the 2016 electoral puzzle does not concern the shift in white working-class voting patterns, but has to do with explaining why Trump—a thrice-married libertine billionaire vulgarian who explicitly demonstrated his ignorance of Christian doctrine throughout the campaign—sustained a higher level of support from evangelicals than did George W. Bush in 2004. And here seems to be a vindication of Lowi’s argument about the capture of the GOP:A mobilized morality trumps normal politics.” The escatological rhetoric advanced by the Republican campaign nationally, couching the election as being the last chance to save the country, remobilized a group that had been increasingly demoralized by the eight years of the Obama presidency. While some of these voters backed candidates like Ted Cruz in the primaries, Trump led among this group from the moment his candidacy was announced. It wasn’t because he was the most fervent Christian, but because his nationalist agenda, the identity politics of the white right, dovetailed most neatly with the moral aspirations of this group.

The rise of moralistic politics in the US has been explained in a pathbreaking work by David Pivar, first published in 1973. It is a study of the rise of the temperance movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, a work entitled Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900. In that work, Pivar developed a now fairly common explanation: that such crusades are based in the economic status-nxiety of a group being challenged by outside forces. Their anxiety translates into aggressive-defensive movements that both demonize the impure others (the Irish, primarily, during this period, but also the recently freed African American slaves) and establish their mission—to save the nation by reasserting its morality through political action. Pivar’s focus was on two branches of the temperance movement, the first having to do with the criminalization of prostitution and the second the criminalization of alcohol consumption, which eventually culminated in Prohibition. The claim was to restore the nation to greatness from out of its fallen state.

Trump’s campaign, from its very first day, fit this bill perfectly. The slogan, “Make America Great Again,” the attack on Latinos, the special virulence against Muslims, and after a slow start, the intense attack on Planned Parenthood, are all familiar to us at this point. What many commentators through the course of the campaign—and indeed, some evangelicals who took the Gospel itself seriously—thought was rank hypocrisy, was less that than simply a visceral response to Trump’s promise to undertake a national cleansing, a contemporary purity crusade, the melding of white nationalism with moralistic reformation. What they might not have appreciated was how intensely the Christian Right would support him because of these positions, despite his personal failings. In this case, they were happy, as was the libertarian capitalist branch of his coalition (for short let’s call them the Koch brothers) as long as he seemed capable of delivering for them.

Now, one year into his term, it seems clear that Trump has indeed delivered for the Christians, though not for the white working class. Not only the appointment of judges, but through the flooding of domestic Cabinet departments with anti-abortion absolutists, the pressing of a legislative agenda designed to promote “religious rights,” an overt opposition to gender rights and an increasingly overt promotion of racism (which is an underreported but real phenomenon in evangelical eschatology), all have solidified Trump’s support among this group. Interestingly, the decline of the white working class has coincided with the large-scale abandonment of the white working class from organized religion, and from religious faith itself. Perhaps more salient is the fact that the levels of economic insecurity experienced by white evangelicals as a group, and that of white working class voters as a group, are not the same. The former suffers status anxiety, the latter have already lost their status to the point that they may be too discouraged to participate in the conventional politics of voting in the future. In other words, the real base of Trump’s electoral support is a group that embraces a moral-authoritarian vision, now, the core identity group of the Republican party.

(Indeed, Trump is following the lead of another authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin. Masha Gessen, in her stunning study of Russia from 1984 to the present, The Future is History, traces how Putin’s attack on Russia’s gender minorities in the name of Christian civilization fueled his solidification of power in the 2000s.) 

Trump is fully capable of promoting this vision while remaining a buffoon. His appointments, both in the judiciary and in the executive branch, are key. Not that he even knows who he is appointing. That task has been delegated to others, as so much in his chaotic regime has been. But we may ask ourselves another question: what if Foucault also turns out to be prophetic about the grotesque power of what he referred to as the assiduous bureaucracy? Regardless of Trump’s individual fate (in a moment where many place their hopes in the work of the Special Counsel investigating the Trump campaign), there seem to be plenty of potential replacements for him waiting in the wings. If Foucault is right, this is not a coincidence, but a sign of the systemic dysfunction of a political system, our system, as it works its way through the eventual dissolution of this form of sovereign power, an imperfect form of a democratic republic—its overturning by something perhaps less obscene, but also perhaps even less democratic.

How this ominously ridiculous comedy, as Philip Roth calls it, will play itself out over the next few years is difficult to say. As Yogi Berra once said, “Predictions are difficult to make, especially about the future.” The recent short-lived shutdown of the national government was not, I think, anything close to a turning point in this increasingly black comedy, though the lines do now seem more clearly drawn between the racist right and the multicultural left (to the extent that there is a thing). And one thing does seem clear: there can be no return to the politics of the recently concluded republican era. Something new is being born, and something old is dying. Whether a more progressive social democratic party and new democracy will eventually emerge from the wreckage of the neoliberal Democratic party, or whether an intensification of the increasingly insistent authoritarianism of the Christian right—coupled with the blatant desire for power as an end in itself that is now the hallmark of the Republican party—will defeat such a movement remains to be seen. But for now, the buffoonery continues and is unlikely to abate any time soon. 

 

THOMAS DUMM is the William H. Hastie '25 Professor of Political Science and the Chair of Political Science at Amherst College.