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White Evangelicals are why Trump’s support remains high
Pundits argue that Democratic elitism is the reason Trump’s support, despite his indictments remains high, but the real answer is found in the pews of White Evangelical churches.
As if one indictment of a former president weren’t enough, Donald Trump has just been indicted a third time. As far as I am concerned, Trump’s crimes are apparent, but his support among Republicans is undiminished, as he remains neck-and-neck with Joe Biden in the polls, and leads the Republican candidates for president by a very significant margin. In the midst of criminal investigations, after two impeachments and three indictments, we have to ask ourselves why Trump continues to enjoy such wide support.
David Brooks, the conservative perennial columnist for the New York Times, argues that it is because the anti-Trump world is composed of elites who isolate their less-educated counterparts. Brooks argues that America’s elite academic institutions are extremely selective and exclusive– which is a fair and valid point. There is no shortage of irony, however, in the fact that a Supreme Court that coddles Donald Trump just overruled a major tool for undoing that very kind of exclusion and selectivity, i.e. affirmative action. David Brooks said he “was probably sad” that affirmative action is being eliminated (even though ten years ago he wrote in favor of such a prospect). However, in his column, he mentions only the exclusion of less-educated people–without citing the way this intersects with race.
While Brooks is right that elite institutions must be more inclusive of students across class and race, I found one of his signifiers for elitism to be troubling. He writes:
“Like all elites, we use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others. Using words like ‘problematic,’ ‘cisgender,’ ‘Latinx’ and ‘intersectional’ is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells because they never know when we’ve changed the usage rules so that something that was sayable five years ago now gets you fired.”
Brooks is arguing that inclusive language, particularly when it comes to gender and race, is designed to exclude and punish less-educated people. But elite institutions are not actually bastions of progressivism. In fact, there has been a significant backlash to progressive identity politics at those institutions (see Stanford, for example). Moreover, these terms are not abstract, they are used with the goal of making gender and racial diversity a reality that is seen and understood. For Brooks, they may sound “academic,” but to those who feel recognized in such terms, they can be freeing.
Brooks goes on to say that “Trump understood that there was great demand for a leader who would stick his thumb in our eyes on a daily basis and reject the whole epistemic regime that we rode in on.” Yes, some less-educated people find comfort in Trump’s message, but let’s remember that it was only less-educated white Republicans who voted for him disproportionately. Less-educated BIPOC voted for Biden by significant margins. More-educated white Republicans voted for Trump by significant margins. Importantly, the group that supported Trump most disproportionately were Evangelical, white Christians. Exit polls showed that individuals with higher incomes were more likely to vote for Trump as well. The idea that Trump was a candidate for the less-educated class only works when we are talking about white people.
Brooks’ argument becomes much less convincing in light of these facts. Trump tapped into white anger, not just at educated elites who challenge white supremacy, but also at the victims of white supremacist racism, who seem to be gaining ground in the public sphere. I certainly believe that the Democratic Party has not done enough to champion the rights and dignity of the working class, but to argue that this is why working-class white voters didn’t vote Democrat ignores the fact that BIPOC working-class voters did.
While the new and evolving lexicon of diversity is not perfect, to blame that language for Trump and his continued support—despite his indictments—is truly to blame his victims. The use of terms such as “cisgender,” “Latinx”, “intersectional,” and “problematic” is not limited to academic circles, by the way. Those terms are being used outside college campuses by generation Z and millennials. The biggest critics of those terms are those who are suspicious of LBGTQIA people—many of whom are led by conservative Christians. Support for Trump isn’t bolstered, then, by working-class white rage alone, but by White Evangelical intolerance. It is simply pointless to talk about Trump without talking about his support from this massively important voting bloc. And although one often hears the observation that most Evangelicals do not actually attend church, that turns out to be irrelevant, given that the church-going segment still voted for Trump in greater numbers than the non-attenders.
David Brooks wants to argue that academic and Democratic elitism, signaled by inclusive language, accounts for Trump’s massive popularity. Among white voters, there does seem to be an element of class in play. However, Trump’s policies attract white voters not because those policies advance their economic interests, but because they accommodate and amplify their prejudices. Their prejudices are sadly informed by White Christian supremacy, which is gaining its political power through hostility toward LBGTQIA people and BIPOC. There is room for Biden to improve his policies, which would begin with advocating for working people across race and gender categories. Nonetheless, support for Trump is not fueled by his interest in the liberation of the working class and less-educated class. It should be clear to anyone paying attention that what stirs up his base is a rhetoric that affirms their bigotry and prejudice. Democrats may be more elitist than they were fifty years ago, but their opposition isn’t made up of less-educated workers who are resisting elitism. Trump remains blameless despite his indictment because of White Evangelicals, his most influential and solid bloc supporters.