Why does President Trump continue to keep the government shut down over his demand for a border wall, when large majorities oppose it? The most obvious answer is that he senses his long-term political survival depends on keeping his wall-adoring base behind him as his legal travails mount.
What is more interesting, though, is that the core of that base support may grow increasingly dependent on the white evangelical Christians who continue fervently supporting Trump no matter what he says and does. And for these voters, it appears, the wall is an extraordinarily potent totem, one whose significance for them calls for better explication as we head into a protracted showdown over it.
On Wednesday, Trump will meet with Democratic leaders over the shutdown and the wall. Axios reports that Trump will stage this meeting in the Situation Room to dramatize “security concerns at the border,” which is absurd, since in reality the wall has little to do with border security and is only about giving him the win he thinks he needs.
But this also shows again that Trump senses just how important the wall has become as a political theater piece in the eyes of his base. And one fascinating component of this is white evangelical support for it.
Among white evangelical Christians, support for the wall has risen nearly 10 points since Trump campaigned on it. In the most recent Public Religion Research Institute poll, in September 2018, a staggering 67 percent of them favor Trump’s wall. PRRI provided me with data on this question going back to April 2016:
White evangelical Christian support for Trump may perhaps prove his strongest bedrock, an important key to holding his base. Ron Brownstein recently analyzed the 2018 election results and found that key elements of his blue-collar white base moved away from Republicans — with the exception of white evangelicals, who instead showed a “hardening loyalty” to the Trump-era GOP. There appears to be a schism on the wall in particular, with some groups of non-evangelical whites opposing it while evangelical whites continue to overwhelmingly support it.
Why is the wall so important to this segment of Trump’s base in particular? Robert Jones, the head of PRRI, told me that the wall powerfully symbolizes the deeper reasons they supported Trump in the first place.
“For white evangelicals who see the sun setting on white Christian dominance in the country, the wall is a powerful metaphor,” said Jones, who has spent many years analyzing the attitudes of religious voters, and published the book “The End of White Christian America.”
Jones added that this metaphor embodies a white evangelical view of the world “as a dangerous battleground” made up of “chosen insiders and threatening outsiders,” as well as an “embattled minority trope that is rooted deep within southern culture,” such as the “Lost Cause theology following the Civil War,” and in “evangelical culture generally.”
White evangelicals will never abandon Trump
In recent weeks, there has been renewed attention to the true nature of white evangelical Christian support for Trump, and its remarkable durability in the face of revelations of Trump’s sordid personal behavior and corruption. This has been prompted by the release of a new movie, “The Trump Prophecy,” which tells the tale of a former firefighter who experienced an epiphany in 2011 that Trump would be elected president.
Analyzing the film, Katherine Stewart, a journalist who covers the Christian right, notes that it positions Trump as a modern-day “King Cyrus,” the 6th-century B.C. king of Persia who freed Jews from captivity in Babylon. As Stewart notes, Cyrus is the “model for a nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the faithful,” and in the eyes of white evangelicals, Trump plays that role. In this telling, Trump is a savior figure for “Christian nationalism,” so his personal failings and misconduct are beside the point. Indeed, Stewart notes, his autocratic and anti-democratic conduct is a virtue, since it is being marshaled toward that end of rescuing evangelical culture from extermination.
As Stewart points out, some leading evangelical figures have even talked about this in wall metaphors. One such figure, who appears in the film, has declared that “America has become a nation without walls,” and that Trump will “restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse.”
On this score, historian John Fea has noted a longtime strain in white evangelical culture of “racial and religious fear” built on anxiety over immigrants, secularization, modernization and demographic change. While white evangelicals are not a monolith, Fea argues, many believe Trump is God’s vessel for “delivering them from the ‘captivity’ of the Obama administration,” so there’s little Trump could do that would “lead white conservative evangelicals to abandon him.”
‘Walled States, Waning Sovereignty’
All this taps into a broader global trend documented in Wendy Brown’s remarkable book, “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty.” In multiple countries, walls are becoming political totems and theater pieces that reassure those anxious about the waning sovereignty of nations. Walls appear deeply ahistorical as responses to the actual challenges to national sovereignty mounted by the facts of 21st-century globalization, Brown writes, but their overtones of long-vanished historical times are key to what makes them reassuring.
And so, it may seem unhinged when Trump tweets that...
Throughout the ages some things NEVER get better and NEVER change. You have Walls and you have Wheels.
... but he may well be tapping into deeper impulses on the part of his most fervent supporters, which could be helping to keep that bond so tight.
All of which makes it more likely that if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and probes by the incoming Democratic House close in around Trump, these voters may end up being his most loyal backers.
“Even if Trump loses support among other parts of his 2016 base, the data suggests white evangelicals may be the last loyalists standing by his side,” Jones told me. “As Democrats take control of the House and as the Mueller investigation advances, white evangelicals look to be building their own wall of defense around Trump.”
Trump may end up needing their wall as much as they think they need his.