What a time to be alive.
Both major U.S. political parties have seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse in recent months, largely due to an influx of populist frustration. This week’s Democratic National Convention has been disrupted by boos, protests, and a persistent spirit of discord in the delegation. Still, even after the resignation of DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the continued drama with Russia and Wikileaks, it strikes me that the most notable storyline to emerge from this year’s convention may ultimately be Donald Trump’s unlikely success in courting the Religious Right. There was a time (not that long ago), when any alliance between these two factions seemed impossible.
Though Donald Trump performed abysmally with evangelical Christians throughout the 2016 GOP primary, July’s Republican National Convention saw the same religious right (Falwells, Dobsons) that once clamored to impeach a man for receiving oral sex enthusiastically pledging loyalty to a guy who brags about pulling ass the world over.
Loyalties have inverted and ideologies have shifted. The GOP— party of “liberty,” “small” government, and national “security”— suddenly finds itself opposing free trade, proposing targeted policing of minorities, and sympathizing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia instead of NATO.
On the surface, this could barely make less sense. So how has it happened? What could possibly prompt conservatives to endorse the nearly point-by-point rebuttal of the William Buckley Republican agenda that comprises Trump’s incoherent and comically unspecific buffet of policy positions? The fact that Trump and cultural conservatives are both out to sock a good one to all the elitists who have attempted to erase them over the years.
You probably saw it in one of your social media feeds several weeks ago. A remarkable bit of writing by McKay Coppins traced Trump’s 2016 run all the way back to the demagogue’s days as an eager trust-fund kid in Queens who endured taunts and jeers from both his classmates at Wharton and the Manhattan establishment that rejected his father as a low-rent bumpkin from the outer boroughs— an overtly racist interloper lacking the pedigree to join the New York establishment.
The article does the impossible, humanizing Donald Trump while providing a plausible, but not exclusive explanation for his bewildering behavior (impersonating a public relations consultant to brag of his own sexual prowess in the early nineties, felling the GOP establishment with Machiavellian ease this past year). The guy has been laughed at by the refined gatekeepers of every institution he’s ever had the audacity to call on, from country club to political party. And some of the laughs are deserved and some are the unfair result of systemic prejudice against philistines like the Trumps, but the resulting effects on Donald J. Trump have been unilaterally the same: He’s really mad at anybody he perceives as powerful, mannered, or cool. They’ve been trying to bury him for years, in classrooms and boardrooms and tabloids, and he is now exacting the revenge of a spurned buffoon on all the pompous tastemakers who made fun of his hair. He seems to feel the least worthless when he’s smacking hypocritical grins off of smug, elitist faces.
Donald J. Trump doesn’t care about the difference between Austrian and Keynesian economics and the resultant implications on American economic policy. Donald J. Trump probably can’t define either of those terms.
This revenge isn’t political. It only looks that way because it’s playing out in the political arena.
This revenge is cultural. It’s about who gets to matter.
And that grievance, not ideology or theology, is the one thing he has in common with the most culturally conservative fringe of the evangelical movement; he’s beyond tired of being laughed at.
With all the drama that has embroiled the DNC this past week, it’s easy to forget the bizarre spectacle that was the 2016 Republican National Convention. An arena full of people who probably give to World Vision applauded an “actor” who has called Hillary Clinton, among other things, a “cunt.” They joined a New Jersey governor who is himself under federal investigation in cheering, “lock her up.” The very mention of a police officer who killed a child holding a toy gun brought the house down with applause.
But more notable than the brazen, offensive statements that received cheers of support were the inarguably wholesome statements that did not. The following quotes were met with either complete silence or rabid booing:
Real social progress is always a widening of the circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference. It’s understanding that by the true measure we are all neighbors and countrymen called, each one of us, to know what is right and kind and just and to go and do likewise. Everyone, everyone is equal. Everyone has a place. No one is written off, because there is worth and goodness in every life. -Paul Ryan
We have nothing to fear from the vast majority of Muslims in the United States, or around the world. The vast majority are peaceful. They are victims of the violence themselves. They are people we would be happy to have as friends and neighbors.-Newt Gingrich
Vote your conscience.-Ted Cruz
Now, I simply have a hard time believing any of the people at the Cleveland convention could possibly disagree with any of the above statements in a cultural vacuum. There just isn’t a good argument against, “vote your conscience.” But we don’t live in a vacuum. Context is everything. And the force that causes the GOP masses to cheer when Donald Trump spits in the face of historical conservatism is also what keeps them silent when others spout inarguably sound conservative principles— a sneaking suspicion that none of this feel-good fluff gets anybody any closer to sticking it to people like the Obamas.
It’s absurd to suggest that evangelical Christianity is marginalized in this country. If you can’t effectively run for president without at least feigning allegiance to a religion, then the practitioners of that religion are by no means, ‘persecuted.’ But this doesn’t mean that evangelical Christianity is not on the ropes, culturally speaking. A consensus of respect for organized, theologically conservative Protestantism once pervaded the national consciousness, but that’s not the case anymore. And partially for good reason: conservative local churches largely no-showed human rights causes like the Civil Rights movement, the AIDS crisis, and justice for LGBTQ victims of crime.
Now, this track record is indefensible, especially given the kind of explicit commands contained in the New Testament. But as the failures to live up to creed compounded, and as the Republican party began courting loud, hateful evangelical leaders (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson), the volume of mainstream criticism grew to the extent that, by the 1990s, admitting to new friends that you attended church began to feel like knocking on neighborhood doors to announce that you are, in fact, a pedophile.
Politically conservative Evangelicals became pariahs.
In turn, they became defensive. Pat Buchanan pounded the RNC pulpit at the ’92 RNC, calling troops to arms for an impending ‘culture war.’ The Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney World for hosting gay and lesbian guests during pride week. If this was a culture war, then by God (literally), they were going to win. And that’s when well-intentioned progressives and even compassionate Christians began lamenting that it was going to take a certain segment of the population dying without being replaced before things in this country could get any better.
Evangelical Christians may eye the whole apparatus of higher education with some suspicion, but they are not stupid. They sensed this widespread resentment. To the culture warriors strewn about the heartland, the presidency of Barack Obama represented the apotheosis of this sentiment. Who was this guy in the White House lampooning them for sticking to their guns and religion? When did everybody join his team? Wasn’t it only yesterday that things had been great and everybody had been so gung ho about Ronald Reagan?
The world is changing, as it always has been. But it’s changing faster than it ever has before thanks to the exponential proliferation of technology. As a result, the culture is changing faster than any individual person’s ability to process the change on an intellectual level. And, forfeiting that, we are left only with our emotions. Emotions tend to be binary things; we feel either one emotion, or its opposite, and this process is largely beyond our control.
Consider: A person born in 1550 died by 1620 in a world very much like the one they were born into. The rate of social, cultural, and technological upheaval was simply too slow to significantly affect reality within the span of a single lifetime. That is no longer true. The rate of change has massively accelerated. A person born in 1890 may have very well died in 1990 in a world that didn’t remotely resemble the one they were born into. To expect that person to intellectually process the industrial revolution and the great depression and the civil rights era and the fall of modern American imperialism and the loss of public trust in the Nixon administration and the resurgence of the Reagan years is absurd. It’s simply beyond the scope of what can be understood in one lifetime.
The compounding discomfort of all that constant change is alienating. It forces us to confront the notion of our own impermanence, the idea that the world that amazed us as a child has been replaced and soon we will be replaced, too. That we are being buried by the sands of time. They have already begun to cover our feet. Soon they will rise above our necks.
And so societal change is really a threatening reminder of our own mortal insignificance. It is a horse-head in our bed put there by Father time. This doesn’t excuse destructive social attitudes, but it makes it easy to see how the WWII vet could struggle to acclimate as gay people clamber for inclusion in matrimony. It’s not hard to sympathize with the septuagenarian who finds modern television programming downright pornographic. It’s practically a miracle that anybody who’s lasted more than a few decades on this planet doesn’t act downright insane.
Change feels terrible and it confronts us with a binary emotional choice: will we uncritically align our consciences with “progress,” since that train is coming through whether we like or not, or will we critically question every trend, fighting tooth and nail for every inch of the social universe?
For a variety of reasons, some good, some bad, politically conservative evangelicalism opted for the latter option. And popular culture buried them alive for it.
The other factor that ultimately alienated conservative evangelicals from mainstream America is the corrosive nature of heated debate, itself. Arguments tend to entrench each combatant and erode any shared middle ground. You start out arguing about which beloved local BBQ restaurant has better sweet tea, and before long one of you is arguing that the other’s favorite is actually a money-laundering drug front.
In the case of cranky conservatism vs. self-congratulatory progressivism, what was initially the societally useful ‘caution’ mechanism (the conservative’s inclination to dip a toe before diving in) got less and less reasonable as the hour got later and the volume rose. The more heated the national debate got, the less reasonable the conservative position became. What started as questions about environmentalist claims became the assertion that thousands of unacquainted scientists across the globe were manipulating p-values in a leftist conspiracy to destroy the energy industry. What had initially been a healthy line of questioning about the elasticity of the commerce clause as it pertains to health care became the assertion that the government would soon implement “death panels” to murder our nation’s seniors.
As momentum gathered behind the progressive cause, Republicans resorted to hatefully questioning the President’s citizenship and religion, implying that the son of a black Muslim could not possibly share their savior or constitution. A Kentucky clerk irrationally refused to perform a basic clerical duty and then strutted around like Martin cussing Luther. Fearing they had been lapped by mainstream culture, the GOP frothed at the mouth.
And we don’t need to dwell on whether or not those feelings are valid in order to agree that Donald J. Trump recognized these feelings in a wide swath of the electorate because he has so often felt them himself. Since Trump was a freshly-minted Wharton grad knocking on doors in his father’s discriminatory tenements, he’s been hearing that he’s not refined enough, that he represents every barbaric aspect of society we must move past in order to evolve. He looked upon a Religious Right stuck in the same weirdo boat and thought, “This, I can use.” They were simply one more broken down boardwalk for which he could pound his chest and borrow against his name and make promises of glorious revitalization. Together they would show all the WASP-y bastards who had humiliated him by pointing out that no amount of money will ever allow him entrance into the Palm Beach Supper Club he wants so badly to join.
Despite sharing nary an ideological belief, Donald Trump and the Religious Right are a match made in heaven. And you didn’t have to watch very much of his convention-ending speech to realize that they have bonded in the face of a common enemy and are now hell-bent on extracting revenge on all the rest of us who hypocritically genuflect at the altar of progress and self-congratulatory inclusiveness. Trump’s run is really an attempt to get all the elitists (Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the NYC liberal upper crust, academics) into one figurative building and then burn the place down. And anyone who shares his feelings of alienation is invited to help pour the gas and scatter the matches.
Ironically, Trump and his white middle class followers are limited here by their life experience. They don’t seem aware that revenge is never satiating. As anybody who has ever woken up in a bad neighborhood the morning after a riot will tell you, you can’t make yourself feel permanently better by burning down the community’s lone Walgreens. In fact, the ironic reality seems to be that the more extreme a group’s attempts to express cultural grievance (no matter how justified the grievance), the stronger the popular inclination to write that group off. The Trump-led GOP’s last-ditch effort at reasserting influence may actually be accelerating the rate at which the rest of the country digs their grave.
In the end, then, Trumpian Republicans now have something in common with the rioting Compton residents they were so quick to write off twenty-five years ago: they both exist as frightening images on a screen, pixels the rest of us watch with horror, saying, “things seem pretty good right now to me. What the hell can these people possibly be so mad about?”