Forty-eight hours like that would be career-ending for any other incumbent president seeking reelection, to say nothing of the fact the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans rages on. But Trump’s most dependable base — White evangelicals — is an unmovable, devoted bloc, no matter what he does, which helps keep him at least within plausible striking distance of Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger.
Other voters have likely lost count of the Trump scandals that failed to move the president’s White evangelical supporters: his similar encouragement of White supremacists throughout his 2016 campaign; the “Access Hollywood” tape; paying Stormy Daniels hush money; saying there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville; family separations; impeachment; a pandemic; the tear-gassing of Lafayette Square so he could pose with a Bible; his taxes and now his embrace of the Proud Boys.
In 2016, White evangelicals made up about a quarter of the electorate, and 81 percent of them voted for Trump. Today, polls show a similar percentage intend to do so in November or approve of his job performance. This is because Trump’s bond with White evangelical supporters is deeper than a handshake or an agreement to stack the courts with conservative judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
For Trump’s most devoted followers in both White evangelical leadership and the grass-roots, God has placed Trump in office; last year the televangelist Jim Bakker urged his followers to oppose impeachment because God “anointed your president.” Trump may not be as devout as they are, but they see an unlikely leader divinely chosen to fight the perils of secularism and pluralism, which White evangelicals view as destructive to the “Christian” nation God intended America to be. Trump may be crass and disrespectful, but God has a plan for his presidency: to save a Christian nation from evil forces intent on upending the special American project.
Since taking office, Trump has thrilled the White evangelical base with immediate efforts to strip away reproductive and LGBTQ rights in the name of “religious freedom” for conservative Christians who object to them. Over his presidency, these assaults on secularism and civil rights have expanded into his broadsides against anti-racism protesters as left-wing “anarchists” deserving of punishment from their own government. Attorney General William P. Barr reprised his disgust with “militant secularists” who he says are not only destroying religion but are causing “striking increases in urban violence.”
Trump may not be a Christian, but he shares conservative evangelical contempt for the core values of liberal democracy. A free press, of course, is one of those core values, too, but together, Trump and his allies mock any negative coverage him as “fake news.” The day after the tax story broke, two evangelical favorites, Fox News’ Ainsley Earhardt and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, teamed up on “Fox & Friends,” with Earhardt questioning the timing of the publication just two days before the first debate, and McEnany decrying the story as a “hit job” and “inaccurate.”
In the days following the Times’ revelations, evangelical activists and media focused on Trump’s nomination of their preferred choice, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court, conspiracy theories about Biden using drugs or an earpiece for the debate and a recent prayer rally held on the Mall led by Trump ally Franklin Graham. All the while, churches continue to complain that state and local coronavirus restrictions infringe on their religious liberty. Trump has added covid-19 restrictions to the white evangelical grievances he is more than willing to press on their behalf, claiming to have the power to “override” governors’ restrictions on large gatherings, including in churches.
Trump knows from his long friendships with televangelists like pastor and White House adviser Paula White-Cain that the prosperity gospel sees being wealthy — particularly by adorning your $100 million Manhattan penthouse with gilded furniture — as evidence of God’s blessing.
He also knows they believe that someone in a position of authority is placed there by God and therefore untouchable. “Touch not my anointed ones, and do my prophets no harm,” the text of Psalm 105:15, is commonly used to scare off any criticism of the person in authority, even, or especially when they have engaged in wrongdoing. Obedience to authority is not only a virtue; it is required.
The prosperity gospel heard on Christian television airwaves, repeated in best-selling books, and permeating evangelical churches all over the country, also teaches miraculous healing. Trump, therefore, has a willing, credulous audience for his claims that the virus will magically disappear. The televangelist Kenneth Copeland, for example, has said the pandemic will be over sooner than people think because “Christian people all over this country praying have overwhelmed it.”
Against all the evidence (in the “fake news”), his supporters, like the popular publisher, author and podcaster Stephen Strang, maintain that led by Trump, the country “has been steadily climbing out of the clutches of the coronavirus pandemic.”
With just weeks to go until November, Trump has jettisoned any pretense of bringing new voters into his coalition. Instead, he is relying on his trusted loyalists who venerate his advancement of their vision for an autocratic, anti-democratic, White Christian America. And his base of White evangelicals will enthusiastically stand by him regardless of the results.