After reaching a low of 36 percent, Trump’s approval rating has gradually inched up to 40 percent (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). On the Left Coast his (historic) low remains a source of amazement because we rarely hear anyone speak favorably of Trump. Nonetheless, after 15 months in office, and a series of epic blunders, Trump has held onto his base. What explains this?
Until recently, my primary source for understanding Trump supporters was an excellent book by UC Berkeley Sociology professor Arlie Hochshild, “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Hochschild conducted a five-year study of Louisiana Tea Party voters who eventually became Trump supporters. Hochschild details their “deep story,” a narrative shared by her interviewees: “You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male… Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Most in the back of the line are people of color… Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back… Who are they? Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — where will it end?”
There’s a blues song with the title, “I’ve been down so long that down looks like up to me.” It seems to me that the voters Hochschild interviewed have been screwed over for so long that they’re profoundly disoriented. Grasping for a lifeline, they latched onto Trump.
Recently, academics have studied this phenomenon. In their paper, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election” (https://academic.oup.com/socrel/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/socrel/srx070/4825283? ) sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry conclude that for many Trump supporters, “voting for Trump was… a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.”
Whitehead, Baker, and Perry used data from the latest Baylor Religion Study (https://www.baylor.edu/baylorreligionsurvey/doc.php/292546.pdf ) to unearth the core beliefs of white evangelical Christians — 80 percent of whom voted for Trump. After controlling for factors such as party affiliation and religiosity, the sociologists identified six questions as measures of Christian Nationalism: The first is “the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.” Christian Nationalists reject this because they believe that the United States has a special relationship with the Christian God; there’s a covenant for a Christian nation.
While Christian Nationalists reject separation of church and state, they respond positively to these five notions:
- “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
- “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
- “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
- “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
- “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”
Christian Nationalists support Trump because they believe he supports these notions. (In addition, the Whitehead, Baker, and Perry study found profound anti-Muslim attitudes among the Christian Nationalists; for example, agreement with the statement, “Muslims endanger the physical safety of people like me.” Trump appears to harbor the same sentiments.)
That explains why Christian Nationalists have stuck with Trump through 15 tumultuous months in office. In an interview with the Huffington Post ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/researchers-discover-common-thread-between-evangelicals-who-voted-for-trump_us_5abbd15ae4b04a59a313c5ea) one of the study researchers, Andrew Whitehead, noted that since his election Trump has given Christian Nationalists direct access to the White House and this has led them to forgive his conduct: “They believe God can use anyone, ‘even a thrice married, non-pious, self-proclaimed public playboy,’” to form a Christian nation]. “For Christian nationalists, the end goal is a society that favors Christianity in various aspects… How that project is achieved is of little consequence to them.”
While “Strangers in their own land” doesn’t directly address Christian Nationalism, many of Arlie Hochschild’s subjects participated in the evangelical Christianity that Whitehead, Baker, and Perry identify as the source of Christian Nationalism. (And Hochschild’s subjects who don’t seem particularly religious appear to share the same worldview as their neighbors.)
Two of Hoschschild’s observations seem particularly relevant. The first is that the Louisiana Trump supporters have no confidence in government to fix their problems. The second is that they place their confidence in business. Hochschild observed that her subjects “identify up with the 1 percent.” They believe that big business, not big government will provide the solutions to their problems, whether they are meaningful employment, healthcare, or environmental pollution. (This derives from the Calvinism that underlies white evangelical Christianity.) They voted for Trump because they saw him as a successful businessman.
Vice President Mike Pence has an important role because he’s a Christian Nationalist (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/gods-plan-for-mike-pence/546569/ ). Pence has been responsible for many of the initiatives that the Christian Nationalists held dear: the effort to flood the courts with conservative judges; the drive to restrict abortion rights and defund Planned Parenthood; the effort to provide Federal funding to church schools; the drive to restrict immigration; etcetera.
As long as Mike Pence stands by Donald Trump then Trump will have the support of the hard-core component of his base — Christian Nationalists. And when Pence steps away, and Trump falls, Pence will become President.