Three brief observations on the question of social conservatism’s relationship to Donald Trump:

The inability of many critics to understand Trump supporters is precisely why Trump has so many of them.

I’m aware of the inherent danger in leaning too heavily on identity politics categories, but it’s striking to me that the two social conservative writers who seem most interested in trying to sympathetically understand Trump supporters are Michael Brendan Dougherty, who grew up with a single parent, and Rod Dreher, who grew up and now lives in rural Louisiana. (To be sure, not everyone from such backgrounds is as sympathetic to Trump supporters.)

That being said, one of the recurring problems of our politics which shows up in everything from discussions of gun control to police brutality to race is that Americans have become so isolated from each other that it is very difficult for us to look at each other sympathetically or to assume the best about people. Rather, we tend to naturally adopt the most negative, hostile interpretation of another group’s actions. Trump is capitalizing on that alienation by tapping into this same cynicism as it exists within a group (the white working class) that is widely mistrusted and disdained by everyone else. Responding to this maneuver by displaying your own lack of sympathy for that very group is not going to serve any purpose other than causing Trump’s supporters to become even more entrenched.

Being sympathetic to Trump supporters does not require supporting Trump.

On that same point, it’s possible to both be sympathetic to Trump supporters and be quite opposed to ever actually supporting Trump. We’ve tried to do both here by on the one hand running a pretty blistering critique from Matt and a much more sympathetic account of Trump’s popularity from Alastair. This also relates to a point I hope to be making in longer form in a forthcoming post about Justice Scalia, but the basic idea is that we need to be capable of sympathetically making the best case for a position, even if we disagree with it. But being able to do that requires cultivating certain virtues and turns of mind that are increasingly neglected in our day. More on this soon, I hope.

This isn’t the first time evangelicals have supported an amoral, divorced Republican presidential candidate.

We’d do well to remember our history: Social conservatives faced the same question of whether or not to support a divorced, fairly amoral Republican candidate in the 2012 election. It’s actually a little unnerving to realize how much of what Matt says in this 2012 post about the Gingrich candidacy seems relevant to our current political moment. So one question we should be asking ourselves is why social conservatives (and evangelicals in particular) continue to broadly support candidates they reasonably have no business supporting.

The discussion we have just had about evangelicals and art runs parallel to the discussion about evangelicals and politics, I suspect. The fact that he’s an amoral, divorced Republican presidential candidate seeing widespread support from social conservatives does not make Donald Trump unique. There were some genuinely good people who made the mistake of supporting Gingrich back then, after all. So to understand Trump’s popularity we should also be trying to understand Gingrich’s popularity as well as why evangelicals continue to support these candidates. We also need to think about things like “what sort of things should disqualify a candidate from receiving evangelical support?” and “how far can we compromise in our own positions due to concerns over things like the Supreme Court?” (We’ll hopefully be publishing an essay by a friend of Mere O in the next week or two on that last question.)

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • We should note that the abortion issue throws many evangelicals into the Republican base. It isn’t that all Republicans are pro-life, but far more Republicans are than Democrats and so the Republicans get a free ride of Evangelical support before having to say or stand for something.

    Next we have the anti-establishment vote. The Republican anti-establishment vote is a vote against government officials as a whole. So those who are viewed as outsiders because they come from the private sector or are seen as governmental nonconformists will get this support.

    Finally, because conservatism tends to embrace authoritarianism, those with authoritarian personality types give the illusion that they have a command of the present situation and will thus get real support. Should note that because their embrace of authoritarianism, conservatives tend to have a disdain for participatory, egalitarian approaches and systems. They want a leader and so the Republican primaries are all about conservative candidates showing off their leadership street cred.

    • “””disdain for participatory, egalitarian approaches and systems.”””

      Oh, this, in spades. “Participatory” and “Evangelical” are antithetical. I am every experience/meeting more convinced this is the true underlying meme in their separatist impulse; wrapped in whatever rhetoric it may be. I have no problem understanding the appeal of Trump to those who live in constant suspicion of every system that supports their daily lives, and by extension their own neighbors who must be supporters of those systems.

      • Whitemice,
        The appeal of trump is based on the conservative believe that suspicious systems are in the public sector only. So I agree that there is no problem in understanding it.

        But I am not quite sure of the meaning of your note.

  • mintap

    “Responding to this maneuver by displaying your own lack of sympathy for that very group is not going to serve any purpose other than causing Trump’s supporters to become even more entrenched.”

    Great point, and I would think many Trump supporters totally understand this dynamic and see how Trump (with warts and all) is a very strategic pick to rally behind. It gets a LOT of people to respond with lack of sympathy. In the Obama elections we saw the power of the elite media; finding a very creative way to undermine such power is not an accident. Trump supporters are smart.

    Evangelical Trump supporters are smart too. A president is not a religious or moral guide. The president is not a Messiah. Unlike how many Progressives treat government, government is not the center of everything. Family, church, local communities are much more at the center. It is possibly to see Trump’s moral failings, but still support him. Evangelicals should have Christ at the center of their lives already. They don’t need to fill a void with their pick for president. And if we were going to do a religious test: a weak Presbyterian > a strong Mormon.

    President is simply a boring government executive position. All you need is some skilled executive (filled with common grace). It is a position that should not have all that much moral impact on the country. The Legislative and Judicial branches are where there is more of a moral impact.