How can conservative, Christian, values voters back a thrice-married, philandering, candidate for the presidency, who trails a record of stiffed creditors, broken promises, and ruthless practices behind him?
Maybe because communities that feel themselves besieged tend not to look for moral exemplars—instead, they seek out champions.
Saturday night’s report in the New York Times that Donald Trump apparently claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns, and may have used it to avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years, is the latest in a long string of revelations that might have doomed any previous Republican nominee. Yet Trump has repeatedly rebounded from these disclosures. That must surely be, at least in part, a testament to the power of partisanship in this increasingly divided age. But that is hardly a sufficient explanation.
“I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president,” Trump tweeted in response, “and am the only one who can fix them.”
That echoes the pitch he made in his acceptance speech at the Cleveland convention:
I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.
Ascendant political coalitions can afford to impose litmus tests on their candidates. They look for politicians who not only endorse their favored positions, but embody them. But coalitions that believe the moral consensus is cracking, that see their values under attack, and fear their own eclipse may turn away from candidates whose own lives exemplify a moral vision that the broader society no longer endorses. Instead, they seek out figures who seem strong enough, tough enough, ruthless enough to roll back social change, or at least to hold it at bay. They look for a champion.
And there’s no question that Trump voters feel themselves besieged. A PRRI/Brookings survey from June makes it possible to quantify. It found that 81 percent of Trump supporters believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities; 77 percent believe that discrimination against Christians in the United States today is a major problem.
The eclipse of white, Christian America is not a paranoid fantasy, so much as an empirical reality. As PRRI’s Robert P. Jones has written, fewer than half of Americans now identify as Protestant, and white Protestants comprise less than a third of the country. For the moment, a slender majority of actual voters remain white Christians—but they fear their racial and cultural eclipse. It’s among them that Trump exercises his greatest appeal. When a group has, for centuries, had its values and beliefs operate as the default assumptions of a society, the loss of that privilege is real, painful, and alarming. And when a politician promises to arrest its slide, even to reverse it—to make them great again—it can be a hard pitch to resist.
Trump takes this a step further. He paints a dark picture of decline and dysfunction, that—for all the factual problems with its specifics—matches the mood of a majority that finds itself in the minority. And he offers up his ruthless pursuit of his own self-interest not as a vice, but a virtue. He will, he promises, be equally ruthless as the champion of his voters.
That represents a repudiation of America’s civil religion, an abandonment of the notion that Americans share an individual and collective obligation to carry out God’s will. But perhaps Trump’s voters are content to carry this forward on their own, in their religious and civic communities. Perhaps if they believe American society is tipping away from them, they are content to find a champion who promises them the space and protection to do that, instead of an exemplar who will lead a unified nation to do it together.
The logic at work is not particularly partisan. When FDR appointed JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to lead the new Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934, liberal commentators howled in protest. Jerome Frank, who would later lead the agencies himself, likened it to “setting a wolf to guard a flock of sheep.” How, Roosevelt was asked, could he appoint a crook to police the markets? “Takes one to catch one,” he replied.
On Saturday night, the Trump campaign steamrolled into Manheim, Pennsylvania. “The world looks at us like we’re stupid people,” he told the crowd. “But we’re not gonna be stupid people much longer, folks.” Soon, he promised. Soon he could reverse the tide. “We’re gonna bring our country together,” he told the crowd. “So my only loyalty is to you. That’s my loyalty.” And if they put him over the top in November?
“We are going to make America wealthy again. We are going to make America strong again. We are going to make America powerful again. We are going to make America safe again. And we are going to make America great again.”