Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, in late January 2016, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced to an audience in Sioux Center: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible.”
Trump, who has always been prone to fantastical overstatement, was derided at the time, but here and now—more than two and a half years later—the statement seems prescient.
You could list the scandals—from Robert Mueller’s probe to Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels, from Tom Price to Scott Pruitt to Ben Carson, from Bill Shine to Ronny Jackson to Jared Kushner, from the Trump Hotel to the Trump label, from Charlottesville to Ukraine—and while it would be very long, it would not (at least in the eyes of Trump’s supporters) be disqualifying. Politically speaking, the president is standing with his guns blazing in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and he’s not losing anyone. Miraculously, Trump remains on top; so far this year, Gallup has registered an approval rating among the members of his own party ranging from 81 to 90 percent. Despite it all, those numbers have barely budged.
How is such a thing possible? In part, it’s a symptom of contemporary politics—Barack Obama enjoyed similarly high approval ratings from Democratic partisans during his terms in office. And there’s some evidence that Republicans disaffected with Trump are ceasing to identify with their party, leaving only the president’s supporters behind. But Obama never endured a comparable string of scandals; the erosion of the GOP’s ranks doesn’t explain the fervency of those who remain.
Is it Trump—or something larger than Trump? Possibly, it’s both. Last spring, my colleague Peter Beinart looked at the increasing secularization of American society and how it had contributed to the rise of political tribalism:
As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
This tribalism has infected both the right and the left—but in particular, Beinart cited the work of W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who has concluded that “rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college.”
Non-college-educated whites are the Trump base, now set adrift:
Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful.
You could draw a straight line from a disenfranchised, pessimistic, resentful audience to Trump’s brand of fear-driven, divisive politics, but this would leave out an equally important part of the Trump phenomenon, and something critical to its success: the elation. Go to a Trump rally, speak to Trump supporters, and the devotion is nearly evangelical. Their party line is less a talking point than a sermon: His voters have talked to me about the “bad deal” with Iran, the “drug mules” crossing the border, the Mueller “witch hunt.” The language is uniform, as they quote chapter and verse. Here are the true believers: It is no surprise that Trump’s numbers won’t move.
In his research, Wilcox noted the particular isolation of the white working class in the institutional church:
Moderately educated Americans may feel less attracted to churches that uphold the bourgeois virtues—delayed gratification, a focus on education, self-control, etc.—that undergird this lifestyle. As importantly, working class whites may also feel uncomfortable socializing with the middle and upper class whites who have increasingly come to dominate the life of religious congregations in the U.S. since the 1970s, especially as they see their own economic fortunes fall.
The declining economic position of white working class Americans may have made the bourgeois moral logic embodied in many churches both less attractive and attainable.
Trumpism proposes a system of worship formed in direct opposition to bourgeois moral logic, with values that are anti-intellectual and anti–politically correct. If mainline Protestantism is a bastion of the educated, upper-middle class, the Church of Trump is a gathering place for its castoffs. Trump’s rhetoric about the “silent majority” is indeed a racial dog whistle, but it is also a call to his supporters to unmask themselves. He offers a public embrace of a worldview that has been, at least until this point, a mark of shame. There is belonging in this—but there is also relief.
That part of the Trump phenomenon remains mostly unnoticed, except by those who have witnessed it firsthand. Reporting from a rally in South Carolina in 2015, Molly Ball observed:
Despite all the negativity and fear, the energy in this room does not feel dark and aggressive and threatening. It doesn’t feel like a powder keg about to blow, a lynch mob about to rampage. It feels joyous.
“There is so much love in every room I go to,” Trump says, near the end of nearly an hour and a half of free-associative bombast, silly and sometimes offensive impressions, and insane pronouncements. “We want our country to be great again, and we know it can be done!”
At a rally in South Bend, Indiana, that I attended earlier this year, there were offensive T-shirts (Hillary Sucks … But Not Like Monica) and angry chants, but there were also goofy costumes and free sandwiches. There was name calling, but there were also group selfies.
I spoke to Wilcox about this aspect of Trumpism—the strange joy inherent in the shouts of self-designated “deplorable” status—and whether that might signal a substitute for the rapture of the church. “The Trump rallies have collective effervescence,” Wilcox said. “Émile Durkheim wrote about the power of collective effervescence—of engaging in common rituals that give them meaning and power and strength. And those things can be wonderful, or they can be dangerous.”
Durkheim’s theory—that a gathering of the tribe can create a certain energy that renders particular people or objects sacred—goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s infallibility among his supporters. But it also brings to the fore something that Trump critics have missed so far when focusing on his (not insignificant) negatives: Trumpism, like many forms of non-secular worship, makes its believers feel good.
“Among the poor and the working class,” Wilcox told me,“when it comes to both marriage and religion, there has been a real erosion. And that has hit them harder than the upper classes.”
He continued: “These two important sources of solidarity and meaning are now much less a part of working-class American’s lives—and leaves them that much more disenchanted and disenfranchised.”
If Trumpism is endowing certain Americans with a sense of solidarity and support that were once found in institutions like the church (or marriage), the implications for the Republican Party—to say nothing of American society writ large—are consequential. At its core, the Church of Trump is irreconcilable with a society that values equal protection, free speech, and the separation of powers. And yet strident efforts to convince the faithful of a prophet’s fallacy may backfire, producing redoubled faith. To deconstruct the complicated and visceral relationship between Trump and his supporters, those on the outside must begin to grapple with the oddness of the proposition itself: Trump, in all his baseness, offers his believers something that is, strangely, spiritually elevated.
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