This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It is excerpted from “The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism and the Rest of Us with Coronavirus.”
In a brief video touting a new book in 2018, Franklin Graham had a theory about how Donald Trump ended up in the White House. It didn’t have anything to do with stolen emails or Vladimir Putin or even the political skills of Hillary Clinton. Rather, it was the doing of the Supreme Being.
“I think somehow God put him in this position,” Graham said, explaining how Trump was such a poor politician, saying all the wrong things and angering so many people, that it must have been divine intervention for him to win. Then he added: “We need to get behind him and support him.”
This was an idea that had already taken root among evangelicals, and Graham saying it no doubt added more legitimacy. In an interview with Christian Broadcasting in 2019, then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated Graham’s analysis. “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times,” she said from her office in the West Wing. “And I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president.”
The Trump presidency as the Lord’s handiwork hypothesis, of course, raises a number of theological questions, the most obvious being: what exactly was He doing back in November of 2008, when Barack Obama was elected? Notwithstanding the logical cul-de-sac, though, is a more fundamental question: Of all the GOP candidates running in 2016, could not the God of evangelical Christianity find even one who was a more worthy vessel than the one He settled for?
For that has been the most striking paradox of the Trump era, this willingness of supposedly devout Christians to throw their enthusiastic support to a man like Donald J. Trump. His entire life has been a showcase of possibly the most un-Christian behaviors imaginable. A bullying aspect toward pretty much every other human in his orbit. A willingness to cheat business partners, contractors, suppliers at every turn. A thorough lack of charity. And a personal life that included carrying on with a porn star while his third wife was home nursing his fifth child. All of this was public and easily known to anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention. A less principled, more transactional human probably could not be engineered in a lab. And yet, there he was — beloved by evangelical Christians far and wide.
There were many a justification of this by evangelical leaders and their apologists in conservative media. They said ordinary Christians didn’t really approve of his behavior, but were willing to hold their noses and accept it for the greater good. If he followed through on his promise to appoint conservative judges and thereby tilt the judiciary in a “pro-life” direction for decades to come, then it would have been worth it. Trump was like some of the leaders chosen by the God of the Old Testament, they explained. Like King Cyrus, whom God favored even though he was not really a good person, so as to accomplish His desired result.
This certainly sounds plausible. There sure were a fair number of Republicans making that exact argument about why, when it came down to Trump and Hillary Clinton, they wound up choosing Trump, because at least with him there was the chance of getting regulatory rollbacks, tax cuts and conservative judges, whereas none of those would be possible in a Hillary Clinton administration.
The problem was that even a cursory look at that thesis never really held up. Polling showed that halfway into his presidency, pretty much every single demographic group in the country disapproved of Trump. Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Catholics, Jews, college-educated white people. There was just the one notable exception: white evangelical Christians.
They not only approved of him, they approved of him by double-digit margins. Even after all the information that came out during the Mueller investigation, after all the news of the porn star hush money, the Muslim ban, the caging of children at the border, the separation of children from their parents, they still sided with Trump. Dig a little deeper, though, and it became clear that the support was not despite his actions, it was because of them.
None of these things, after all, had hurt people like them. White. Christian. Disproportionately rural. And hurting the “others” — non-white; in some cases non-Christian, but in other cases the wrong kind of Christian — was in fact a desirable goal, if it meant making the country more like it was in the golden era, way back in the late 1950s, before things started falling apart.
How did this world view square with the teachings of the Gospels? Love thy neighbor. Do unto others. That sort of thing?
It didn’t, of course, which led to all sorts of analyses finding that evangelical Christians had lost their way in the age of Trump, had somehow been conned by this ultimate conman into forsaking their values in return for short-term political gains.
The explanations behind this were that Christians had finally gotten fed up with being treated with disrespect by the “elites” and had turned to Trump in desperation and, really, who could blame them, with the pervasive culture of “political correctness” that elevated every minority group and religion above Christianity and made it so you couldn’t even say Merry Christmas any more without getting dirty looks and ….
At least, these were the explanations offered up on Fox News and Breitbart and AM talk radio and the other satellite campuses of the right-wing noise machine. They were the proofs in the thesis that Christians were really the victims here, and that Donald Trump was their understandable tool for striking back.
Not-terribly-distant history, though, offers a much simpler explanation.
In the shorthand of modern politics, evangelical Christianity is all about abortion. When Roe v Wade was decided in 1973 and abortion became legal just about everywhere, it served as the crystalizing moment for Christians who had lacked a unifying theme. In the coming years, they flocked to the Republican Party through Ronald Reagan, made themselves the litmus test of conservatism and, through groups like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority, became the party’s central and controlling voting bloc.
Simple, logical … and wrong.
As it happens, by the time abortion opponents recruited politically active Christians to their cause, “conservative” Christians were already mobilized, particularly in the South. Their issue, though, was far less palatable than opposing abortion, which all but the most strident abortion-rights activists can agree is a morally understandable position.
Rather, the unifying cause for these Christians was the “right” to keep their children separate from Black children in the schools. This had become an issue following the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, as the federal government, first under Eisenhower, then Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon, had steadily increased pressure on public schools to end segregated classrooms.
While there were white parents who didn’t want their children attending schools with Black children all over the country — recall the loud protests in Boston — the sentiment was especially strong in the South. There, groups openly organized to fight desegregation. The White Citizens Councils, for example. Parents who could afford to do so moved their children into private, Christian schools that would not accept Black kids. Far more astonishing, even parents who could not afford private school tuitions, or lived in places where there weren’t any close by, pulled their children from public schools and invented their own private academies for them. Sometimes they took turns teaching. Sometimes they hired someone. Often that someone had absolutely no business in front of a classroom. It didn’t matter. A lousy education for their own offspring taught by incompetent teachers was better than having them around Black people, even very small Black people.
What these parents then started demanding was state support for their new schools — in essence a way to reinstate publicly financed, segregated schools. In 1976, the IRS rescinded the tax exempt status of whites-only Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which enraged segregationists to the point of galvanizing them into action.
And it was on this issue that evangelical Christian political activism in the South was based, not abortion. That only came later. In fact, according to Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer, Republican operatives worked hard to persuade them that they were better off making their public focus an opposition to abortion, on which they could make a moral argument, rather than a return to segregated schools, on which they could not. To a large measure, the segregationists heeded that advice. Jerry Falwell became a national figure with his Moral Majority in the late 1970s and 80s. But before that, he ran one of those all-white “segregation academies,” Liberty Christian Academy. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan spoke to 10,000 evangelicals in Dallas, he did not mention abortion even once (Reagan had actually signed into law the most liberal abortion rules in the country as California governor in 1967). But he did attack Jimmy Carter’s IRS for going after “independent schools.”
Given this history, of course, it all makes perfect sense why “the evangelicals,” as Donald Trump calls them, would go for someone like Donald Trump, who has never evinced the slightest bit of interest in spiritual matters. In a candidates’ forum in Iowa in 2015, he was lobbed softballs like: When are times you’ve asked for God’s forgiveness? Trump responded that he’s never needed to do that.
For genuinely religious Christians, this is apostasy. A foundational doctrine in modern Christianity is that all humans are sinners, even the best among us, and that we all need to ask God’s forgiveness. Trump was mocked for not knowing that the New Testament book 2 Corinthians is known as “Second Corinthians,” not “Two Corinthians.” But Trump’s admission that he is so prideful as to believe he does not need God’s grace should have been the deal-killer for wear-it-on-their-sleeves Christians. Again, imagine Barack Obama saying that he never needed forgiveness. What might the reaction have been?
But for Trump, it was barely even a blip. Trump won a substantial share of self-described evangelical Christians in Iowa, even though he finished second. He won South Carolina easily, where they make up an even larger share of the Republican primary electorate, and then he rolled to enormous victories in the South on Super Tuesday, where Texas Senator Ted Cruz had assumed he would score decisive wins on his way to the nomination.
The Cruz camp seemed truly dumbfounded by this when it happened. Even years later, they pointed to polling showing that the more truly religious a person was, the less likely they were to support Trump.
Perhaps, but polling also showed that two years into his presidency, white evangelical Christians were the one and only slice of America that continued to approve of Trump — a full 69 percent, according to a March 2019 Pew survey. It was the underlying driver for every other demographic group in which he appeared to have a slightly positive or not-so-terribly-negative approval rating. White men, for example, appeared to still support Trump. But once you removed white men who described themselves as evangelical Christians, that number fell into negative territory. Same with white women. Or “working class” whites, those without a college degree. In each case, pull out that set who are evangelical Christians, and Trump’s approval numbers plummet in that category.
The irony could not be richer. Those Americans holding themselves out to be more moral than everybody else constituted the only group in America who continued to support the most amoral man, if not the most actively immoral, to occupy the Oval Office in modern times.
Once it’s understood that evangelical Christians are in fact the demographic group most gung-ho about building a wall along the southern border, the most supportive of breaking up migrant families as a deterrent to border crossings, the most eager about rounding up “illegal” immigrants and deporting them, then everything else fits into place. There is no longer a paradox to explain. No convoluted parables from the Old Testament are necessary to understand any of this. They like him for who he is, and he understands that and works to give them the “Make America White Again” policies that they desire.
Understanding the true motivations behind most self-described white evangelicals quickly illuminates other mysteries, as well.
The guns thing, for example. Jesus didn’t really mention much about weaponry in the Sermon on the Mount, nor really anywhere in the Gospels. Yet it is at the top of the list of things that so many evangelicals rattle off about why they vote Republican: The Second Amendment and how liberals want to grab their guns.
For all the claims the National Rifle Association has made about its broad base of support, how it included people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds, all over the country, there has been for decades a great deal of overlap between its membership and the universe of white evangelicals. Beneath the layers of “I like sport shooting” and “hunting is a generations-old tradition” and “need to keep my family safe,” there is a foundation of fear. There is truly a belief that the government will someday be in the firm control of The Others, and the only hope people like them have of maintaining their way of life is to remain heavily armed and constantly vigilant. When candidate Barack Obama talked about people clinging to their guns and their Bibles, this is what he meant.
For years, the NRA was able to exploit this fear to build itself a financial empire that only began to collapse, as fate would have it, when it started becoming enmeshed in the third piece of the evangelical Christian trinity, Russia.
It was one of Donald Trump’s favorite complaints, whenever details from the Mueller investigation or one of the many congressional probes looking into his campaign broke into the news: “Russia, Russia, Russia!”
So it was trebly ironic when, in the end, the NRA’s apparent demise as a political powerhouse during the Trump years also had its roots in Moscow. Bizarre though it may seem, the group that for decades had claimed to be the embodiment of America had, instead, over the last several years been in a deep courtship with Vladimir Putin’s allies.
In 2015, a Russian gun group brought to Moscow top NRA leadership, where they were wined and dined, introduced to top government officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and taken on a tour of a gun manufacturer. Granted, some of those who went had their own financial interests in mind — NRA vice president Pete Brownell was looking to expand the market for selling gun accessories that his family business produced, for example. Nevertheless, the breaking of bread with a regime led by a former KGB operative happily bringing back a dictatorship to his people would seem on its face at odds with the notion of preserving freedom — that thing the NRA supposedly had been doing for us Americans all that time.
Of course, those words “seem” and “supposedly” are doing a whole lot of work in that sentence. When the organization’s mission is instead viewed as, in roughly equal parts, advancing the interests of firearm manufacturers by keeping elected officials in line while simultaneously maintaining a customer base fearful of losing its status in a changing America — well, then an alliance with Putin’s Russia makes perfect sense.
Indeed, the more-than-a-little creepy level of admiration for Putin from white evangelical Christians and the NRA in recent years suddenly appears totally logical when you look at the country Putin is ruling. An almost exclusively white, “Christian” nation under a ruthless authoritarian who has systematically suppressed religious and sexual minorities. What Putin has in Russia is what a great number of Christian conservatives would like to see in this country — notwithstanding the rather obvious fact that Putin’s behavior over the years is hardly that of somebody living by the lessons of the Gospels.
Of course, it’s hard to argue that white evangelicals who are driven by fear and hatred of ethnic minorities and who proudly stand behind a man who has cheated thousands of contractors and suppliers, lies about nearly everything and whose personal corruption is the hallmark of his administration are themselves living by the lessons of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John either.
What would Jesus do? Here is what he certainly would not do: support the likes of Donald J. Trump.
The Russian dictator has quite naturally reciprocated the show of love by the NRA by infiltrating it and working to use it for his own purposes.
As part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Russian-born Maria Butina was indicted and ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an illegal foreign agent. Her “handler” appears to have been a Putin ally and banker named Aleksandr Torshin. Amazingly — or, actually, not so amazingly, when you get down to it — she even showed up at a Trump campaign event in Las Vegas and managed to ask him what he would do about ending sanctions against Russia.
True, increased public anger over mass shootings and the creation of groups like Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety to organize anti-gun Americans into an effective voting bloc had already started chipping at the NRA’s dominance. But it was the gun group’s dalliance with Putin’s Russia that exacerbated financial problems created by lawsuits and the profligate lifestyle spending of its own leaders. Federal investigators were quite interested in how much of that $30 million the NRA spent to get Trump elected might have started out as rubles.
By mid-2019, the NRA was mired in internal battles over fraud accusations, a threat to its profitable gun-owners’ insurance line and multiple investigations by federal and state authorities that, in the summer of 2020, even led to a lawsuit by the New York State attorney general to dissolve it entirely. The once-flush gun rights group’s finances were such that it even had to stop providing free coffee to its employees at its Fairfax, Virginia, headquarters.
The demise of the NRA. The naked hypocrisy of white evangelicals. The open celebration by white nationalists.
Perhaps the one useful feature of the Trump presidency will be the clarity it has brought regarding that element of the voting base. When literal neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans and the president of the United States defended them and “Christian” conservatives stood with him and them, it was an illuminating moment.
Some academics and many progressives have long argued that the loudest faction of white evangelical Christianity in this country has for years been more about racial and ethnic animus than it has been about advancing the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, which is literally what “evangelical Christianity” means. This comes into stark relief when contrasted to the adherents of other religions, even other strains of Christianity, who deeply disapprove of the president. Donald Trump has done pretty much the exact opposite of Jesus’ teachings, behaving like a selfish, dishonest jerk his entire life, in ways so numerous that they have filled both biographies and courthouse dockets through the years. It turns out that for nearly 70 percent of white evangelicals, this was a feature, not a bug.
Again, the open admiration of Putin’s Russia is instructive. Has Putin created a society that Christianity can be proud of? Does locking up critics, even having them murdered, jibe with do unto others? How about invading and annexing other countries? And what of the NRA’s supposed ideals? Do they seriously believe that an aspiring dictator wants a heavily armed citizenry?
To the contrary, Putin has demonstrated exactly zero interest in living and leading according to the New Testament, notwithstanding the crucifix he wears around his neck, and has about the same level of commitment to Russians’ “rights” of any kind, including the right to stockpile guns.
The admiration was, obviously, unidirectional. Putin had clear goals for himself and for Russia that installing Trump into the White House has helped him advance. Weakening NATO, increasing Russian hegemony over its former republics, hanging onto stolen territory, straining trade partnerships among Western allies — all of these things either help Putin’s ambitions directly, or do so by degrading his adversaries.
And in each and every one of them, Putin was able to count on Donald Trump to do his bidding. Whether Trump was a willing participant or simply a dupe is an open question and yet, for all practical purposes, of little consequence. Whether Trump agreed to explicit requests made at their one-on-one meetings — Helsinki comes to mind; Trump confiscated the American interpreter’s notes — or whether Putin has been able to manipulate him into carrying out his orders is not known. It could well be that he has promised the American president some future benefit. That long-sought Trump Tower in Moscow, say. It could well be that Putin has some leverage over him that allows him to coerce such behavior. It is possible, maybe even likely, that the American public will never know those answers. What matters is that, with or without leverage, Trump’s actions — those that he took on his own; not those that Congress forced him to take, such as sanctions — invariably aligned with Putin’s interests.
Disparaging the European Union, encouraging Brexit, unilaterally pulling American troops from Syria and, in late spring 2020, even announcing a drawdown of troops stationed in Germany all inured to the benefit of Putin’s Russia. It is possible that Trump did not understand that. There are a great number of things Trump does not understand. But Putin sure does.
Way back in the summer of 2015, when much of America saw Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy as an absurdist joke, I went to Atlanta to where Red State was holding their annual convention.
It happened to coincide with the first Republican presidential debate, which was the main reason I wanted to be there. Red State was oriented heavily toward religious conservatives, the evangelical Christians who have disproportionate pull in the Republican primaries. I was interested in how they would respond to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the perceived moderates of the bunch, compared to Ted Cruz, who was already making it clear that he intended to be the most Christian candidate and win Iowa, South Carolina and then the southern states on Super Tuesday.
So it was stunning, then, that as the debate got rolling, the most raucous, most sustained whooping and cheering in the ballroom where the debate played on giant screens was for Donald Trump and his constant insults and attacks against the real Republicans on the stage. Even as the audience of Republican National Committee members and their friends booed Trump in Cleveland, actual Christian conservatives, the base of the party, who had gathered in Atlanta, applauded wildly.
They gave the rationales I would hear so, so many more times in the coming months. He tells it like it is. He’s willing to fight The Left. He’s not going to lay there and take it.
They knew about the multiple affairs and divorces, all the lawsuits, the lack of charity, the belittling demeanor — all of the un-Christian boorishness from this supposed billionaire. They didn’t care.
Four years later, with hundreds of similar and even worse examples, they still don’t. The rest of America may wind up turning on Trump this November, but he will, again, win evangelical Christians in a landslide.
This article is excerpted from “The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism and the Rest of Us with Coronavirus,” by S.V. Dáte. Copyright © by S.V. Dáte. Published by Sounion Books September 2020. Excerpted by permission.
S.V. Dáte is a senior White House correspondent at HuffPost. He is the author of five novels and two political biographies, including one of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He has been a journalist for three decades, with stints at the Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, National Journal and NPR. He is a bluewater sailor, with 35,000 ocean miles, including a two-year trip aboard a 44-foot cutter with his two sons, as they sailed across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean and back via the Caribbean.