The Conversion of Donald Trump

During the 2016 presidential campaign it was repeatedly asserted by various parties that a ‘presidential pivot’ would occur if and when Trump was presented with the awesome responsibility of being president. The petulant and incessant tweeting would stop, the insults that would embarrass a half-bright 12 year old would cease, and Donald Trump, a vain and foolish man who probably did not even want the job, would suddenly become a sober, if not particularly wise, statesman.[1]

The idea of ‘Statesman Trump’ remains an abstract fiction that was never taken too seriously, even by his allies (a main part of his appeal continues to be that he is the opposite of a statesman, aka. a politician). It’s bad enough to continue to hear about ‘Master Negotiator’ Trump and ‘Business Genius’ Trump, two fairy tales that continue to retain traction among the faithful.

As we all learned, and have been witnessing ever since, Trump the narcissistic sociopath has eclipsed any version that might attempt at least a modicum of comity or respect. He has taken advantage of his new, larger (that would be largest) stage to reinforce and continue the United States’ latest experiment in democracy: what would happen if a spoiled teenage boy became president and decided he was king?[2]

In any case, belaboring the lack of the presidential pivot is old and tiresome news. But there is a presidential pivot that has occurred: the fond embrace between Donald Trump and the hyper-politicized Evangelical movement in the United States.

Evangelical support for the Republican Party is by now common knowledge. The worm turned permanently in the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan, a former actor not known for his piousness, was the overwhelming choice of the Evangelical movement over Jimmy Carter, an actual evangelical.

Jimmy Carter represents a now severely diminished branch of the American Evangelical movement commonly referred to as Progressive Evangelicalism, a movement focused on social reform and a rather socialistic view of wealth redistribution, e.g., “military restraint, a less imperial foreign policy, human rights, racial reconciliation, affordable healthcare, and equal rights for women.”[3]

For various reasons, mainly a tanking economy and the foreign policy disaster in Iran, Carter was largely unable to pursue these issues. It is important to note that Carter was swept into the office by a huge evangelical turnout, embracing his “born-again” proclamations and reveling in their nascent political power.

There are disparate views over the wholesale Evangelical rush over to Reagan and the GOP in 1980. One viewpoint claims that the ‘States’ Rights idea Reagan harped on endlessly (and far more frequently than anything like outlawing abortion or suppressing gay rights) was a green light towards continued segregation of religious academies.[4] There are other points of view that claim that, like a jilted lover, the Religious Right was sorely disappointed in “President Carter’s failure to actively oppose legalized abortion, homosexual rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment”.[5]

I would offer a third hypothesis: Carter was going down, Reagan was going to win. Not only was the Religious Right eager to embrace a winner, Reagan was willing to say whatever they wanted to hear. He claimed to be born again and repeatedly stressed his “new relationship with God”[6] Hey, everything’s good. Despite the fact that being previously divorced was formerly a deal breaker in Evangelical circles, little details like that could now be overlooked in the larger scheme. [7]

Thus the moral component of political evangelism was shunted aside and the GOP and the Evangelical movement now went hand in hand. And they still do.

As the current mutation of the bankruptcy of “faith-based politics”, Donald Trump has found religion. Or more accurately, he has found religious allies. The Trump cabinet has a huge Evangelical quotient, including rather radical believers such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and Betsy DeVos, all of whom seek to bring a “Christian” perspective to national policy. What is ironic about all of this is they are in service to a leader whose personal ethics would seem to be contrary to any sort of Christian beliefs. Trump himself has played up his (nascent) Christianity, proclaiming “The Art of the Deal was his “second favourite book” after the Bible.”[8] Silliness like that has been offset by his clear unfamiliarity with basic tenets of Christianity. Nevertheless, there have been awkward attempt to put Trump firmly in the camp of what is referred to as prosperity theology – in a nutshell, if you’re rich and prosperous it means you are a good person, and if you are a ‘loser’, well, I guess that’s evidence of a lack of Godliness.[9]

Well, alright then. We’ve now reached the pinnacle; it seems, of the intermingling of the Religious Right. Trump, on his part, has aggressively nominated[10] extreme right wing federal judges to any and all vacancies, a process that has delighted even the doubters in his own party. Concomitant to the various judicial appointments (mostly Appeals court vacancies for now) is the current nomination of Brett Kavanaugh – by many accounts Kavanaugh was selected primarily for his views on “religious liberty” – one of those euphemisms that doesn’t not mean quite what it implies. In our current environment it primarily means erosion of the separation of church and state, or as one article put it: “Kavanaugh’s alleged emphasis on religious liberty is a political wet kiss for Trump. It shows Trump’s base that they were right in voting for him[11]

It is probably true that Trump has no qualms about accepting support from most any group that will give it to him (see: White Supremacists), and an opportunity to beat his chest in front of yet another gaggle of adorers is not to be underestimated. Yet there is a certain cynicism at work here that supersedes even the earlier twisted relationships between the Religious Right and the GOP. By now the mild pretensions to progressive thought that marked (some of) the pre-Reagan Evangelical movements have disintegrated and the alliance of Religion and State has become fully politicized, with no relevance to either morality or constitutional law.

  1. Even Barack Obama assumed Trump would moderate his loose approach to facts and truthfulness and moderate his attitude once in office http://fortune.com/2016/11/15/president-obama-donald-trump-wake-up-call-temperament/ Surprise!
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the ‘American Experiment’ in Democracy in America, but I wonder if he saw this phase coming?
  3. https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2014-05/jimmy-carter-and-demise-progressive-evangelicalism
  4. It seems quaint and outdated today but the furor over racially segregated Christian academies was a sensational item at one time. Bob Jones University was the poster child for the fundamentalist outrage over the IRS crackdown on “segregation academies” (including Jerry Falwell’s), ironically initiated by Richard Nixon. https://newrepublic.com/minutes/140724/bob-jones-university-probably-like-forget-banned-interracial-dating
  5. https://www.csmonitor.com/1980/0625/062555.html
  6. See previous reference
  7. Ronald Regan was the first divorced politician widely endorsed for national office by Evangelicals http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/05/5216/
  8. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5085318/donald-trump-religion-president-jewish/
  9. http://www.beliefnet.com/news/politics/the-strange-faith-of-donald-trump.aspx Despite harping on this for some degree, this article does briefly note that the main religion for Trump is money (and power), and that his appeal to Evangelicals and rural voters is his promise to sprinkle some cash their way
  10. In these divisive and bipartisan times, a nomination by Trump is a de facto appointment to office.
  11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/09/07/to-trump-kavanaughs-testimony-about-religious-liberty-made-him-worth-the-pick/?utm_term=.0d6947e877f1 For more article on the current meaning of Religious Liberty please also see http://www.rightwingwatch.org/topics/religious-liberty/