Much ink has already been spilled trying to parse Donald Trump’s appeal to evangelicals. Are the “Trumpvangelicals” more concerned with “immigration, Islamophobia, and guns” than abortion and gay marriage? Or just bad evangelicals? Or are they Appalachian rednecks, the descendants of the Scots-Irish who colonized the southern highlands with a distinct cultural folkway that combined a fierce distrust of central authority with the worship of charismatic leaders, seething xenophobia, a penchant for retributive justice, and, in the words of David Hackett Fischer, an “intense hostility to organized churches and established clergy … and an abiding interest in religion.”
My vote is with the latter. Trump’s appeal to evangelicals is more folkway than religious. But as the last couple of election cycles have demonstrated, the evangelical vote doesn’t deliver the general election. If it did, we would have Mitt Romney in the White House. But the Catholic vote does. And now the conservative Catholic cabal that teamed up with evangelical power brokers to deliver us George W. Bush, and tried to shove Romney down the nation’s throat, is in a full-fledged panic that white, Catholic, working-class voters might throw their support behind Donald Trump and upset their neocon apple cart.
In “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics” published in the National Review, “natural rights” proponent Robert P. George and Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel lament that the Republican Party, which has been a flawed but “serviceable” vehicle for “promoting causes at the center of Catholic social concern in the United States,” is about to be hijacked by one Donald J. Trump.
Their list of concerns about Trump are now familiar, especially to readers of the National Review: Trump is “unfit to be president of the United States,” he’s vulgar, he engages in no-holds-barred demagoguery, he “promised to order U.S. military personnel to torture terrorist suspects and to kill terrorists’ families.”
This is, of course, hysterical coming from people who sat by and let the Bush adminstration demagogue LGBT people to get the crucial margin of victory in states like Ohio to win a second term. (Remember when “judges from Boston” were going to force sodomites on the good people of the heartland?) And who were similarly silent when the party tried to capitalize on the coded racism of the anti-Obama forces in 2012 or upend the Affordable Care Act, even though the Catholic Church has been advocating for universal health care since Model Ts were on the road.
And it’s even funnier that those who helped put Bush and Cheney in office and watched as they led the nation into endless, unwinnable wars, and justified torture to prevent an ever-present Code Orange threat of terrorism, are lamenting that Trump’s stance on torturing terrorists and killing their families are “actions condemned by the Church.” I guess the crucial difference being that the Bush adminstration didn’t kill terrorists’ families—except by accident.
But what George and Weigal are really worried about when it comes to Trump is that he won’t support the real priorities of the Catholic Church:
1) providing legal protection for unborn children … and other victims of what Saint John Paul II branded “the culture of death”; (2) defending religious freedom in the face of unprecedented assaults by officials at every level of government … (3) rebuilding our marriage culture, based on a sound understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (4) re-establishing constitutional and limited government.
Wow, 12 years of Catholic school and I missed that “re-establishing constitutional and limited government” is a core Catholic value. The priorities they list may be priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has long had an alliance with Catholic pro-business conservatives and neocons, but, it turns out, not the white working class voters who are supporting Trump. It seems that if you don’t have a job and are watching your community crumble around you from years of economic stagnation, “defending religious freedom” or “rebuilding our marriage culture” as defined by the Catholic right are of little concern. And while George and Weigel give lip service to “wage stagnation,” it’s still wrapped up with their pet concerns of “grossly incompetent governance, profligate governmental spending [and] inept foreign policy.”
That’s why, as Mark Silk notes, working class Catholics are flocking to Trump in states like Michigan, which he won handily yesterday. A pre-primary poll in that state found that Trump had the support of 52% of Catholic Republicans versus 42% overall. Ted Cruz’s brand of crazy “constitutional” conservatism pulled only 11% of Catholics, and poor little Marco, who actually is Catholic, captured only 16% of the Catholic vote. As Silk notes:
Michigan Catholics are concentrated in the southeastern part of the state where deindustrialization has taken away so many good blue-collar jobs. This is the white population that gave votes to Wallace in 1968 and became Reagan Democrats in the eighties.
And after almost 40 years of supporting Republicans, the gig is up for these folks. They’ve finally realized that no amount of tax or regulation cutting, no amount of abortion or same-sex marriage banning, is going to bring back their jobs. They’re culturally alienated from the Democratic Party, with it’s tilt toward educated, urban elites and people of color. That leaves Trump as their last and best bet. And as the primary contests move into the Rust Belt and Northeast, this Catholic base may turn out to be Trump’s secret weapon, exploding the elite Catholic neocon-evangelical alliance that has dominated the Republican Party from within.