Today, over two months after the 2016 presidential election came to its horrifying conclusion, American liberals are still reeling from the shock of watching Donald J. Trump, a person most educated people find viscerally repulsive and unprecedentedly terrifying, assume the highest seat possible within our system of government.
We’ve now lost both chambers of Congress. In 32 states, Republicans also now control both chambers, covering 61 percent of the U.S. population.
As Trump prepares to take office next Friday, he’s been selecting the members of his cabinet, and without exception, they’ve been wealthy corporatists at war with publicly funded social services and indifferent to environmental destruction. For all practical purposes, it seems bullies across our country now have carte blanche to commit hate crimes.
We lost big this year, and unfortunately, my guess is that we’re going to continue to lose until we develop an approach that’s actually capable of winning.
To do so, we’ve got to understand how the conservative ethos, which is overwhelmingly popular across this country, operates. From Karl Rove to Frank Luntz to Trump himself, the Republicans have been great at that in recent years. Frankly, Democrats have been awful at it.
But, the good news, I believe, is that this may not be as hard as it at first appears.
For one thing, liberals weren’t the only ones who saw this election as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Many conservatives did too. They just hated her a lot more than they hated him.
At a time when many Americans were becoming increasingly isolationist, Clinton came across as virulently hawkish. She believed in globalizing trade. She wanted more open borders. She had close ties to the Saudis and wanted to end domestic coal mining. She was an avowed secularist whose followers scoffed at the kind of hard line Christianity that many Americans feel is at the core of our nation’s moral backbone.
She came across as calculating and ruthless, a veteran orchestrator of backroom deals whose insecure Blackberry was likely full of the phone numbers of nefarious warlords and crooked CEOs around the world. She’d made millions of dollars, not through being an entrepreneur, but from milking personal connections and delivering secret speeches to Wall Street financiers.
It’s easy to see why so many pissed off downtrodden white folks in rural America would have been repulsed by her.
In contrast, Trump seemed like a bad boy, a rogue, willing to speak his mind, beholden to nobody. While Clinton worked tirelessly to please the highfalutin politically correct coastal media, Trump had no problem going against them. He wasn’t afraid to be hated. He spoke directly to the forgotten heartland, validating their suffering like nobody else in recent memory. They came out in droves for him.
Some conservatives did hold out, proclaiming #NeverTrump, but the vast majority of them still voted for him, even if they had to hold their nose to do it. Now that he’s won, most everyone to the right of center has begun doing everything they can to curry favor with his budding white nationalist administration.
If progressives are to retake this country, we’ve got to turn this tide.
We’ve got to win over the hearts and minds of at least some of the millions of people who voted for him. If we can’t do that, we’ll keep losing elections to bullies just like him.
But how do we do that? How do we make everybody, not just us, hate him? Since winning he’s become substantially more, not less, popular with the American public. Clearly what we’re doing isn’t working.
To begin with, let’s remember that any working class person who openly proclaims their unwavering allegiance to Trump is largely advocating against their material interests.
Low income Americans desperately need better access to good healthcare. One of Trump’s first measures in office is likely to be gutting the ACA and cutting federal allocations for Medicare and Medicaid.
If everyday Americans are going to stand a chance at competing in today’s rapidly globalizing job market, they desperately need good public education. Trump’s appointed a billionaire to run the Department of Education whom the ACLU has condemned for doing the exact opposite and “elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools.”
So, why are so many of his supporters so loyal to him?
To answer that, let’s look at the widespread support that Americans have for the Fundamentalist notion that God created the earth in its entirety a mere few thousand years ago, something that as recently as 2014, 42% of Americans believed in strongly. 76% of evangelicals are diehard Republicans. If we could understand their allegiance to this kind of Creationism, we’d be a lot closer to understanding their allegiance to Trump.
Creationism like this is often seen as a matter of belief. But it isn’t, at least not in the modern sense. Today, most of our beliefs about the world come from research and observation. They’re fluid. You state a hypothesis and search for evidence for it. If you don’t find it, you lose the belief. If creationism were a belief in that sense, it’d be a relic of the past.
Perhaps this notion is a matter of faith? It isn’t that either. Grappling with faith looks like a recovering heroin addict grasping breathlessly to feel that a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity and lead them away from temptation. True faith is the antidote to existential despair. Believing that the earth is thousands of years old instead of billions won’t fill that kind of hole in your soul.
So what is it?
It’s about belonging to a group. It’s a password. A secret handshake. When you enter a new community in middle America, they ask you how old the world is. If you say “6,000 years,” you’re in the club. If you don’t, you’re ostracized. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t have to. It’s not about faith or belief. It’s something different – it’s a sign that you’re on the home team, like wearing a Patriots jersey or flying an American flag.
That’s what being a Trump supporter has become.
It doesn’t matter that Trump’s extreme wrath, lust and greed are the literal definition of mortal sin. The loyalty to Trump that conservative Christians continue to retain long after the election doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t have to. It’s not about ethics. It’s about belonging. It’s about making it clear that you live in the light of Christ, not the savage pagan darkness.
Until the Left is able to offer that kind of daily sense of belonging and salvation, we will continue to lose. And so will the world.