What exactly is religion? I don’t intend to answer that question here because this is meant to be a short article. Suffice it to say, simplistic answers like ‘a belief in a god or gods’ fall down as soon as you try to define any of the operative words. Whatever definition you go for will apply to some religions, but not others – or will be so broad as to encompass things that most people would be surprised to see described as a religion.
Which brings us to the actual subject of this UnPacked: Trumpism – and, in particular, Alex Wagner’s argument in the Atlantic that Trump worship, if not quite a religion in its own right, is a religion substitute:
“You could draw a straight line from a disenfranchised, pessimistic, resentful audience to Trump’s brand of fear-driven, divisive politics, but this would leave out an equally important part of the Trump phenomenon, and something critical to its success: the elation. Go to a Trump rally, speak to Trump supporters, and the devotion is nearly evangelical.”
As Henry Olsen explains in regard to both America and Germany, there’s strong evidence for a link between support for populism and decline of religious adherence among previously religious populations. The loss of churches – and also other community institutions – leaves a gap which populist politics is well placed to fill.
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Of course, it’s a poor substitute for community, let alone true faith. Populism is to social capital what junk food is to nutrition, but on it other hand it’s cheap, accessible and habit-forming.
Wagner quotes W Bradford Wilcox who has tweeted a wealth of evidence on the difference between Trump voters who do attend church regularly and those who don’t. Those who never or seldom went to church were significantly more likely than the weekly congregants to have less favourable views of ethnic minorities, to say white identity was very important to them, to want stricter controls on immigration and to have supported Trump in the Republican Primaries. Perhaps most significantly, the ‘unchurched’ group were less likely to be satisfied with their family relationships, neighbourhoods and communities than those at the other end of the churchgoing scale.
Of course, Trump has at least gone through the motions of appealing to actively religious Americans. But his strategists will be well aware that it is among social groups and geographical areas where church attendance has declined fastest – i.e. the white working class and the ‘rust belt’ states – that Trumpism has made the greatest advances.
What he offers them may be junk, but for those with nothing else at hand it is hungrily consumed:
“If mainline Protestantism is a bastion of the educated, upper-middle class, the Church of Trump is a gathering place for its castoffs. Trump’s rhetoric about the ‘silent majority’ is indeed a racial dog whistle, but it is also a call to his supporters to unmask themselves. He offers a public embrace of a worldview that has been, at least until this point, a mark of shame. There is belonging in this—but there is also relief.”
Alex Wagner adds that if anti-Trumpers want to “deconstruct the complicated and visceral relationship between Trump and his supporters” then they must deal with its binding force, which is that “Trump, in all his baseness, offers his believers something that is, strangely, spiritually elevated”.
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I would add a warning; which is that the “unmasking” that Wagner describes – the public expression of a previously inexpressible identity – has taken place entirely on an upswing (of sorts): i.e. Trump’s breakthrough in the Primaries; his shock victory in the Presidential election; his disruptive progress through the corridors of power.
But what happens on the downswing? One day Trump will leave office – perhaps in dramatic (and, for his supporters, traumatic) circumstances.
Trump humiliated may prove more dangerous Trump exalted.