Trump’s Evangelical Support in the Gut, not the Theology

Donald Trump in 2011 / Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

“Why not triple it?”

In the final season of NBC’s The West Wing, Democratic congressman Matt Santos debates Republican senator Arnold Vinick on live television in the contest to succeed President Jed Bartlet.

Vinick has just proposed that the budget for the border patrol has to be doubled. Congressman Santos responds: “Double the border patrol. Sounds good. Sounds tough. Why not triple it?”

Santos’s answer tells us something about the way politics is done in the U.S. today, and it helps us solve a puzzle at the heart of the extraordinary candidacy of Donald Trump.

The puzzle is this: how can a twice-divorced candidate with a history of pro-choice leanings, no clear interest in religious faith, and increasingly violent rallies have attracted the support of so many white evangelicals?

What Trump has tapped into, with flair, is a particular style of conservative politics. What passes for conservatism nowadays is not so much a set of ideas as it is an uncut politics of defiance.”

Jessica Johnson addressed this question in a recent RD post linking Trump to the bad-boy habits of evangelical macho-pastor Mark Driscoll. Johnson argues that it’s simply a mistake to assume that evangelical politics will align with religious teachings on sex and society. Instead, she concludes that Trump’s ascendance, like Driscoll’s, is based on an affective politics, not on a doctrinal convergence.

“Best to consider Trump and Driscoll’s seemingly paradoxical ascendance in popularity among U.S. evangelicals not as anomaly but as trend—one that signals the tenuousness of ideology or theology as moral guides,” Johnson writes. “The laughter elicited among audiences during Trump and Driscoll’s performances garner more political pull and spiritual authority than appeals to either virtue or morality.”

Johnson’s analysis is right on. It’s the only way to explain how a candidate with no cohesive policy positions can be steamrolling towards victory in a Republican primary, even surpassing Ted Cruz, a candidate who has tailored his brand to conservative evangelicals.

What Trump has tapped into, with flair, is a particular style of conservative politics. What passes for conservatism nowadays is not so much a set of ideas as it is an uncut politics of defiance. That defiance appeals to many conservative evangelicals (who make up a majority of evangelicals in the U.S., although by no means all), who resist what they see as an encroaching secular order—a new America that does not belong to them.

It makes sense that pundits would fail to predict Trump’s foothold among evangelicals—and that, when the foothold became apparent in the polls, they would treat it as a puzzling anomaly.

Pollsters and pundits rely far too much on what people say about what matters to them and they miss the deeper, affective picture that characterizes how we actually act. At some point, among certain kinds of evangelicals, the desire for a defiance of those who were “taking their country away from them” took on a life of its own. That desire seems to have primed the public stage for a figure like Donald Trump.

Trump’s speeches are a glittering kaleidoscope of little scraps of defiance. They draw on the fierce hatred of immigrants and racial others that has been carefully cultivated by the far right for decades. He remixes the recipe made famous by Sarah Palin, insisting that liberals are traitors for “apologizing for America.”

Trump’s speeches also reflect a fierce, widespread, resistance to the notion of political correctness. At its most basic level political correctness is about teaching people to talk in more considerate ways about each other, but for those who’ve never experienced the violation of language, being taken to task for something that’s invisible to them is awkward and annoying. Some seem to experience it as hot shame. Trump’s followers are thrilled by his refusal to accept this shame, even in the face of criticism over his mockery of a disabled reporter.

The Republican repudiation of the scientific consensus around climate change is part of the same spirit of defiance. In this case, defiance politics want to take the scientific elitists down a peg. “Make America Great Again” isn’t an idea: it’s an emotion. Surveys have shown that many Republicans “want to hear blunt talk” about Islam. The truth is thrown over in favor of a carefully curated selection of exhilarating falsehoods.

Trump’s appeal to voters with authoritarian tendencies indexes not an ideology, per se, but a desire for the theater of force. Trump seems to make people feel proud, strong, and a little bit dangerous. His speeches are a feast of purified extremist affects, an operatic concoction that draws the crowds. This is where the rueful sarcasm of West Wing‘s Santos is still so timely: contemporary conservative politics have been evacuated of policy ideas. They’re now animated by little more than the desire to sound tough.

Contemporary conservative politicians succeed by mastering the art of affect-masking: they must be able to reverse the emotional valence of their political proposals—like making people work until they’re 70 or cutting off publicly-funded education for poor children—presenting unpalatable ideas with a friendly face. Trump has no mask. His politics are nakedly ugly and offered with a sneer.

The irony is that the candidates who are best at affect-masking this year (Rubio and Kasich) are falling behind. They seem moderate, which would make them palatable in November. But the Republican rank and file—including a plurality of right-wing evangelicals—don’t want politicians who seem moderate. They want the masks off and the lights on; they want double the fury, double the contempt, double the fear. Trump’s supporters are watching his performance in the way they would watch an action movie. They want to be swept up in the explosions, not the plot details.

This is not to lapse into the classic partisan mistake of announcing our preferred side to be rational and the other side to be susceptible to emotion. To paraphrase the cultural theorist Elspeth Probyn, there can be no such thing as affectless politics. It’s not about choosing between a purely rational appraisal of a complex cultural scenario and one that is awash in emotion. Instead, reason is itself laced with affective pulses that make thinking about things possible. The alternative isn’t a bloodless technocracy in which we are ruled by emotionless beings. Even political intuitions that don’t traffic in the far-right menu of fury, fear, and ferocity are emotionally grounded.

Bernie Sanders’s campaign, for instance, may be bending over backwards to avoid mudslinging, but he nonetheless offers a viscerally emotional campaign, built around felt intuitions about hope, compassion, and frustration. As neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio have suggested, feelings are so integral to decision-making that the elimination of emotion leads to paralysis rather than efficiency. We simply don’t have a way of assessing what the best politics are without a “feel” for them. All politics are affective. The question is “Which affects do we want to use to organize our politics?”

Pundits and political scientists often see the public sphere as a set of competing interests focused on access to material resources. You vote for the candidate who will strengthen your hand and get you more of what you want. Those who take this approach too far are mystified when some voters seem to “vote against their interests,” preferring candidates who don’t actually agree with them—such as evangelicals who don’t seem particularly concerned that Trump is not one of their own. This is the problem that the affective approach helps us understand. Political factions are made first by emotions, only secondarily by policy proposals.

The new craze among non-Trump conservatives is to blame leftists or Democrats for Trump’s rise. It’s totally consistent with the party of personal responsibility’s fierce insistence that it can do no wrong. Republican elites can’t see that their own cult of defiance has risen to terrorize them. They are once again doubling down on “blunt talk.”

Why not triple it?


Also on The Cubit: Prisoners in the hands of an angry God