Editor's note. This is the second in a series of essays on the Trump phenomenon—or "Trumpism," if such a thing can be defined—and what it reveals about the relationship between religion and politics in America today. Be sure to check out the previous essay by Roger Griffin, and look for further installments leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
Many people were surprised when Donald Trump became the Republican Party nominee, considering him a long-shot outsider candidate. But what does “outsider candidate” mean for a political party that has brought a fringe contingent that values a lack of political experience under its umbrella?
In my research on fringe movements and the Republican Party platform, I’ve highlighted how outsider movements have successfully gained at least a symbolic voice within the Republican Party. In my article “When Fringe Goes Mainstream” I showed how the Christian Right gained a voice within the Republican Party; then, in “When Fringe Goes Mainstream Again,” I showed how the Tea Party did the same (see “Resources” below). Rather than risk the religious, social, or economic fringes developing separate political infrastructures and voting for their own third-party candidates, the GOP expanded its umbrella—or at least shifted it further to the right—to bring the outsiders in. As the GOP has incorporated their outsider ideas, these separate outsider movements have declined as their base feels that its voice is being heard inside a mainstream party.
Rather than a fringe outsider, then, Trump could be viewed as an insider candidate appealing to a post-Tea Party GOP that has already incorporated the Tea Party movement’s values and adherents. This support base is older, whiter, less educated, more evangelical, and more likely to look favorably on a “great” past to which they hope to revert. Similar to Tea Party rhetoric, Trump puts a spotlight on the economy with sometimes coded but often explicitly racialized and xenophobic language praising white Christian America. Ready and able to speak the language of his older white Christian base, Trump skillfully fuses Tea Party nationalism and racially coded fiscal conservatism with plenty of lip service to religion and social conservatism.
So, where does Trump and Trumpism leave the Republican Party? Who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside? If recent trends are indicative of broader patterns, the outside is now the inside and centrist insiders may be headed outside the shifting GOP umbrella. The top two Republican finishers, Trump and Ted Cruz, could previously have been considered fringe outsider candidates. Instead, they may represent the new GOP. This shifting party seems to have alienated some more centrist Republicans—for example, John McCain, Mitt Romney, the Bushes, and others didn’t attend the GOP convention—and, possibly, moderate voters. We will know only after the general election.
And where does Trump and Trumpism leave religion and politics? Cruz appealed to the religious and social right and lost, whereas Trump appealed to the economic and racial right and came out on top. So, does religion still matter? Certainly! In fact, Trump’s vice-presidential pick intentionally gave him additional credibility with the religious and social right. But Trump is showing us that religion cannot be understood apart from other factors such as race, gender, sexuality, and education.
Although one could make the argument that Hillary Clinton is more personally religious than Trump, Trump has skillfully seized upon the values and fears of his target audience, which correctly anticipates its demographic decline. One potential pitfall, however, is that Trump has focused his identity politics at the intersection of dominance and, therefore, he won’t get support from all whites, from all men, or from all conservative Protestants. Instead, his support will come most strongly from older, heterosexual, white evangelical men.
Polls show that white conservative Protestants support Trump more strongly than they did Romney, but Black conservative Protestants, like all Blacks, show very little to no support for Trump. That may not be too surprising given that the modern GOP rarely fares well with Black voters. But Trump is polling even worse among Blacks than either McCain or Romney did when they were running against Barack Obama. Likewise, Trump will get much of the white vote, but will likely falter among whites who are non-evangelical, non-heterosexual, and/or women.
The question we are left with is whether the GOP and Trump’s key support base—heterosexual, less educated, older, white evangelical men—still make up enough of the population to win a national election. Although polls suggest that it won’t happen (despite signs of tightening in recent weeks), polls similarly indicated that Brexit wouldn’t happen.
- Bump, Philip. “Donald Trump is getting ZERO percent of the black vote in polls in Pennsylvania and Ohio.” Washington Post. July 13, 2016.
- Cohn, Nate. “The One Demographic That Is Hurting Hillary Clinton.” New York Times: The Upshot. July 25, 2016.
- Ehrenfreund, Max. “How psychologists used these doctored Obama photos to get white people to support conservative politics.” Washington Post: Wonkblog. May 13, 2016.
- Enten, Harry. “Trump Is In Fourth Place Among Black Voters.” FiveThirtyEight. August 10, 2016.
- “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” Pew Research Center. July 13, 2016.
- Jones, Bradley and Jocelyn Kiley. “More ‘Warmth’ for Trump among GOP voters concerned by immigrants, diversity.” Pew Research Center. June 2, 2016.
- Libresco, Leah. “Trump Is Driving Catholic Voters Toward Clinton.” FiveThirtyEight. July 27, 2016.
- Schnabel, Landon. “When Fringe Goes Mainstream: A Sociohistorical Content Analysis of the Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family and the Republican Party Platform. Politics, Religion & Ideology 14:1 (2013), 94-113.
- —. “When Fringe Goes Mainstream Again: A Comparative Textual Analysis of the Tea Party Movement's Contract from America and the Republican Party Platform. Politics, Religion & Ideology 15:4 (2014), 604-624.
- Thompson, Derek. “Who Are Donald Trump’s Supporters, Really?” The Atlantic. March 1, 2016.
Image: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, at the 2016 Republican National Convention | Photo credit: Ali Shaker for Voice of America
|Author, Landon Schnabel, is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Indiana University. His current research lies at the intersection of gender, sexuality, religion, and politics. You can find out more at www.landonschnabel.com.|
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