Are the white Christians whose decline you document the Trump voters?
The most straightforward answer is “yes.” But this is not as dramatic or unexpected as it may sound at first. Since the 1980s, the American electorate has been settling into partisan divisions that are starkly marked by racial and religious divides. Generally speaking, Republicans have become increasingly reliant on white Christian voters, while Democrats have a more diverse coalition consisting of majorities of Latino Catholics, African American Protestants, Jews and other non-Christian religions, and the growing group of religiously unaffiliated voters. In the last presidential election, for example, about eight in ten of Mitt Romney’s supporters were white Christians, compared to only about one third of Barack Obama’s supporters. White Christian voters have been favoring Republican presidential nominees for nearly four decades now.
But the surprising story of the election is why white evangelical Protestant voters, who staked their identity and reputation as “values voters,” have been so quick to abandon their own stated principles to support Donald Trump, especially in the Republican primaries when they had other candidate choices who clearly aligned more closely with their values, such as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz. The key, I believe, is that Donald Trump successfully converted these “values voters” into “nostalgia voters” by tapping their anxieties about the massive demographic and cultural changes the country has recently experienced. When he promised to “Make America Great Again,” white evangelical voters heard a familiar refrain about taking back the country and restoring their more prominent place in it.
In the election we seem to think of Trump voters as economically displaced people. You suggest they are culturally displaced. Are both at work here?
There is no doubt that economic anxiety is playing a prominent role here as well. It’s important to remember that a majority of white evangelical Protestants are also working class Americans, and tend to live in harder hit rural areas that have seen slow recovery from the recession. In fact, more than seven in ten white evangelical Protestants also say that they believe the country is still in a recession.
But you can’t understand the depth of the loss and anxiety, or really understand Trump’s appeal, without understanding cultural displacement. And this is a mistake too many journalists and pundits are making.
Trump’s promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and to bring back manufacturing jobs are not just appeals to economic wellbeing. These appeals are often coupled with promises to restore power to the Christian churches, although that part of Trump’s appeal is not prominently reported. For many white evangelical Protestant and white working class voters, those appeals are about restoring a sense of place and a lost cultural world. Trump’s promise is that if he is elected, the factory gates will reopen, the boards will come down off the storefront windows, the pews will fill, different races and genders will be clearly defined and will know their place, and America will make sense again.
Any thoughts on how right-wing media stirs the resentment and anxiety of these white, Christian Americans?
Both the far left and the far right media are capable of trading in conspiracy theories and extremist rhetoric that exploits fear. Notably, some recent studies have shown that Americans are less ideologically siloed in their media consumption habits than conventional wisdom has suggested. But there is a higher density of these media outlets on the right, and they also have a deeper pool of Christian apocalyptic culture and language to draw upon.
Most importantly, over the last decade, conservative whites have experienced more cultural changes that they perceive to be threatening. Within the last two election cycles, for example, we have become a minority white Christian nation, witnessed a black man win the White House, and watched the U.S. Supreme Court lose its last Protestant member (the court is currently comprised of five Catholics and three Jews). And, while many on the left do not grasp this, the sea change in public opinion on gay marriage—from roughly four in ten support in 2008 to roughly six in ten today—and its legalization nationwide have been nuclear events in conservative white Christian circles. Add to this context the concerns generated by the growing number of Latinos in the country and racial tensions around the Black Lives Matter movement, and you’ve got a pretty volatile cocktail.
It’s clear that we’ll continue to hear apocalyptic rhetoric, especially on the right. Ann Coulter’s recent book title says it all—Adios America: The Left’s Plan to Turn our Country into a Third World Hellhole. We also heard a lot of this “last stand” kind of language, for example, at the recent Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., where Trump argued that if he didn’t get elected, Republicans may not see a Republican president for a generation. And there was this from Gary Bauer: “This country is the equivalent of that hijacked plane right now. We’re headed to a disaster, unless we can get control of the cockpit again. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Flight 93 election. This may be our last shot. It’s time to roll. It’s time to run down the aisle and save Western civilization.”
Many liberals simply dismiss these anxieties. But you can’t understand our current historical moment without grasping their significance.