Identity Crises in American Politics

Armed with faith. Virginia, December 2018.

To read the press in the United States, one might as well conclude we are living through a period of flux. Hardly a day passes without some organ of the serious media publishing a paean to the passing of the nostrums that had governed American political life since time immemorial (or at least since the Kennedy administration).

But to do so is get the situation exactly backwards. Mr. Trump is certainly more revolting than his predecessors, although not to the degree or for the reasons commonly asserted.

His true innovation, if such it can be called, is to compel both Republicans and Democrats to come clean about who they really are. As with all such moments of introspection, what emerges can be both profound and profoundly troubling.

In an article published recently in The Guardian, the former British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron proposed to address the question of why it is that evangelicals support Mr. Trump, and have continued to do so unwaveringly throughout the vicissitudes of his tenure in power.

What he does, in fact, is to rehearse the many reasons why people of faith ought to be repulsed by him. To look at the relationship between Mr. Trump and the evangelical community in this way is to mistake the outward appearance for the underlying substance.

The rhetoric of evangelical Christianity in the United States since the 1980s has stressed commitments to biblically-based values. Perhaps it should be noted at this point that, although Christians like to present the doctrines of their faith as coherent and univocal, Christian doctrine has always comprised two messages: mercy and discipline.

Taken together, these competing things compose a circle that is difficult to square. One could look at this distinction as that between the teachings of Christ and those of the Old Testament, which they were meant to correct rather than supplant. That mapping is not precise but suffices for purposes of discussion.

Christians of a more liberal bent are fond of quoting Christ’s social teachings, especially those found in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew where the respective fates of sheep and goats are addressed at length.

Those of a more conservative bent tend to favour the passages in the Old Testament, especially those found in texts such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, at least to the extent that they do not disrupt the free enjoyment of professional sports and spirituous liquors.

Mr. Trump is an almost flawless avatar for the latter, and herein lies the key to why evangelicals are comfortable with the leadership of a man who is the poster child for mendacity and every kind of sybaritic dissolution.

The question is not one of appearances but of actions. Mr. Trump may be a serial divorcee. He may have engaged in conduct with women hardly consonant with biblical commandments. He may be locking children in cages and causing them to drink from toilets in a way that seems distinctly goat-like. But what he does (in terms of policy), as it turns out, is just the kind of thing that politically engaged evangelicals want.

American evangelicals have always been defined by race and gender. From their earliest days, they have been associated with the white power structure predominantly, although not entirely, due to the movements roots in the Jim Crow south. And it has always been a gendered, centred on a fundamentally natalist account of the role of women in human society.

The evangelical obsession with abortion is particularly interesting given their utter lack of concern about the condition of children once they clear the confines of the womb. This is particularly true of those children who have the misfortune not to be white.

In this light, the establishment of concentration camps for children on the southern border simply isn’t a problem, so long as those confined there are brown and post-fetal. Moreover, since Mr. Trump has nothing even vaguely approximating moral convictions, his social policy is a tabula rasa on which his peer group on Fox and Friends can inscribe any sort of restriction.

There is no reason to believe that Mr. Trump cares one way or the other about women’s access to birth control, or about the service of transgender people in the military. But he can be convinced to have a view about these topics.

Compelling businesses to offer birth control as part of health coverage constitutes a restriction on the purview of the owners of capital. The costs of healthcare for transgender people to the military budget (a myth which Mr. Trump has been convinced to espouse) is a bottom-line issue of the kind that he understands.

What holds for evangelicals can be expanded without loss of precision to Republicans more generally. See, for instance, the recent book by Peter Wehner, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan.

The author expatiates on the failure of Mr. Trump to embody true Republican values for 270-odd pages. But this is yet another exercise in futility. Mr. Trump’s politics are not a deviation from the practical values of the Republican Party but rather their most honest expression.

This illustrates the vanity of the question as to when some sort of tipping point will be reached after which Republicans will abandon their support for Mr. Trump in favour of a return to the dogmas of the quiet past.

One frequently hears people of a policy-wonkish bent expressing surprise that Mr. Trump’s obsession with protectionism and tariffs hasn’t caused more turbulence with “mainstream” Republicanism.

But these actions have more to do with a sort of negative integration based on whipping up jingoistic feelings toward others (predominantly the Chinese). His bungling in the management of the federal bureaucracy has the effect of causing it to disintegrate which dovetails well with the view of the right-wing anarchists that currently run the party.

Since the Republicans found themselves comprehensively out of power in the 1960s, forces in the party have been working to rebuild their influence by abandoning the nostrums that had guided its politics throughout the first half of the century. These were replaced by naked xenophobia and neoliberalism.

While Mr. Trump’s trade policies may seem to diverge from the latter, they conform with the overall arc of his politics. In supporting him, Republicans are getting what they want in practice, and so the less savoury trappings can be easily overlooked.

Photograph courtesy of Eli Christman. Published under a Creative Commons license.