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The New Politics of the White (Supremacist) Evangelical Republican Party

Photograph Source: hobvias sudoneighm – CC BY 2.0

No matter what Donald Trump does or says, most Republicans and white evangelicals are not going to criticize or break from him in 2020. It is a fantasy if Democrats think that they can sway them, hoping that perhaps talking about jobs, prescription drug prices, or immigration reform will move these voters. It is also a fantasy that his racist rhetoric and policies will turn off most Republicans and white evangelicals. The reason is simple—What Trump has achieved is the merger and consolidation of white supremacy, white evangelicalism and Republicanism into a party that simply is about racial identity. This is the new Republican Party.

Despite Trump’s horrendous racist, xenophobic, and misogynist language and a personal lifestyle that lives this rhetoric, Republicans and white evangelicals are with him. Recent Pew Research Center polls puts Trump’s approval among evangelicals at 69%, down from a high of 78% but still overwhelming. His strongest support according to a Marist survey is among white evangelicals with 73% approval. Similarly, among Republicans, Trump’s support is nearly 90% and after his most recent racist tweets, his approval went up. Self-avowed Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin supports Trump, and presumably were surveys among white supremacists conducted, one would find similarly high poll numbers for Trump. Trump’s base is these three groups, but in many ways they have merged.

The Republican Party today of Donald Trump is the product of three political movements that have consolidated to a core set of principles that focus mostly on race, but also on guns, abortion, and gay rights.

Consider first the traditional Republican Party. While some may argue that the GOP is about low taxes and limited government, both are only ancillary to a more fundamental issue—race. Ever since Nixon ran as the law and order candidate and initiated the war on drugs, the mantle of so much Republican rhetoric has been about race. Attacks on the welfare state, crime, and support for school choice and states’ rights have always been code words for race. Nixon’s famous “Southern strategy” in 1968 was using covert racial codewords to pry away whites from the Democratic Party to vote for him. Reagan continued that strategy, appealing to the economic anxiety and racial fears of white working class. The recently uncovered 1971 Nixon-Reagan phone call reveals the racial dimension of both of their politics. The Republican Party has become the party of white America; the only difference between what Nixon and Reagan did and what Trump is doing in the 2020 election cycle is that he has abandoned the pretense of covert racism and rhetoric for overt.

Second, think back to the 1970s with Jerry Falwell and the formation of the Moral Majority, or to Anita Bryant’s crusades. Yes, these individuals, their organizations, as well as other such as Oral Roberts, Tammy and Jim Baker, and Pat Robertson and the 700 Club all formed in reaction to Roe v. Wade and abortion. But they were also organizations opposed to gay rights and grew in the face of a perception that Christianity was under attack and that God was being pushed out of schools. These Christian organizations perceived a rising moral decadence in America, symbolized by rising divorce rates, the birth of non-marital children, sex education in schools, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a host of other policies and trends that portended Armageddon was near. Fear of the ungodly is what drove the evangelicals, much as it was fear that moved the original Puritans and Pilgrims according to historian Perry Miller.

But the fear for the Moral Majority and the new Christian movement had included a racial component. The changes coming to America they most feared was the movement away of America from a White Christian nation. Abortion, abortionists, gays, lesbians, transgenders, all were opposed, but these terms too served as codewords for “the others,” including race. Look at the composition of the Moral Majority, the attendees at Anti Bryant Rallies, the viewership for the 700 Club—all White. A composition not much different from the attendees at Joel Osteen’s televised church services, or Jerry Fawell, Jr.’s Liberty University. Christianity and the Constitution are white, and a coming world of Muslims and immigrants is something to fear.

Finally there are the white supremacists. Xenophobic and racist groups have always existed in America as historian Richard Hofstadter revealed. the Klan and the John Birch Society are the most famous. But many of the militias that formed over time did so over the issue of race. Guns and the Second Amendment were also critical to their organizations; both served as guardians against a repressive national government, preserve individual rights, and defend against racial violence. At varying times in history these groups were more mainstream than others, but largely they were marginalized from the 1970s to perhaps 1990s. Occasionally they would surface, the 1977 American Nazi Party march in Skokie, Illinois, or David Duke’s 1991 gubernatorial candidacy in Louisiana, but mainstream Republicans denounced them, and they were ignored or shunned in the mainstream media.

Yet these groups never disappeared but flourished, first under Reagan and then they exploded under Obama. In response to the identity politics of the Democratic Party, white identity politics resurged. These groups increasingly came out of their closet and moved mainstream with Donald Trump, especially after Charlottesville and his refusal to unequivocally denounce them. Trump brought these individuals into the mainstream of the Republican Party, he gave white supremacists a voice, legitimizing their rhetoric. Fox national news also provided them an echo chamber. But Trump also brought the supremacists into a coalition with white evangelicals, where it became clear that except for abortion and gay rights, personal morality did not matter. Guns were important too; still needed to defend against the government and those who threatened their world—immigrants, Muslims, and people of color.

What really matters to this new white supremacist, evangelical, Republican party is race, more than substantive policy or economics. So long as those who were undeserving—people of color, immigrants, Muslims, gays, lesbians—did not benefit, it did not matter if white America got what it deserved. Trump effected not simply fear but resentment as the basis of his political glue to hold his coalition together.

Fear, resentment, and racism are the psychological forces that forge the new Trump Republican coalition that has brought together evangelicals, Republicans, and white supremacists. It is not a politics or a party about moving an agenda; it is one based on halting the other side from securing theirs. It is defined by race, but also by opposition to everything their opponents want. They want gun regulation, reproductive rights, health care—these are all surrogates for racial politics supported by a racial party that is opposed to by real Americans—white evangelical Republicans.

 

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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