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.)