A recent New York Times analysis seizes on a philosophical underpinning of rural thought that may explain the appeal of Mr. Trump’s dark rhetoric. In his piece “Why Rural America Voted for Trump”, Robert Leonard states that it took this explanation from a long-term Republican political operative and Baptist minister, J.C. Watts, to understand the difference between the psychology of the political parties (in a neat conflation of evangelical/Republican and godless/Democrat):
The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.
This difference is not fully explored in Leonard’s piece, but it is a part of a worldview common to many of the branches of evangelical Protestantism that are popular in rural places. Watts’ explanation focuses on a religious view of people’s fundamental nature as flawed sinners, savable only through the grace of Christ. This is the underpinning of many conservative arguments about personal responsibility that situate blame for bad actions squarely in the personhood of the actor, instead of allocating blame to structural or historical contingencies. Because evangelical Christianity is more popular in rural places (and non-rural places that embrace rural values), evangelical rhetoric is a powerful tool for garnering the support of such rural people.
Not explored in Leonard’s piece is the affinity between Trump’s rhetoric of a benighted country and the broader worldview created by this conception of humans as inherently bad. Christian commentators frequently refer to a society run by those unwilling to acknowledge their sins as evidence of a “fallen world.” Multi-ethnic pluralism, tolerance for lifestyles and practices considered sinful, and economic failures can all fall into the umbrella of proof that God has withdrawn his favor from the United States. At its most extreme, this rhetoric of the fallen world produces messages like the shocking “Thank God for IEDs” signs waved by the Westboro Baptist Church, who believe that all the evils that befall the United States are signs of God’s disapproval of American’s unwillingness to recognize their sins and repent. At times, evangelicals reference 2 Corinthians 4:4 to stand for the proposition that the material world is actually ruled by Satan. This is a very old concept, that would likely have been familiar to early colonists intending to start a new society in the Americas.
Many on the left found it hard to locate actual evidence of the ailing America described by Trump in empirical observation of the country. Indeed, by many metrics, the United States has been on a modest upswing the past eight years. However, to evangelical Christians, who voted overwhelmingly for Trump, this rhetoric from Trump’s inauguration speech describing the country as a trapped in a cycle of despair and degradation is in fact somewhat tame:
[M]others and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
From the evangelical standpoint, this rhetoric is boilerplate description of the consequences of living in a society alienated from God’s grace. Criticisms from the left and from the media that Trump’s tone was too negative, too pessimistic to succeed as political rhetoric ignored the fact that such descriptions would be familiar to any person raised in contact with evangelical worldviews. Trump’s speech, playing to this, closes the loop with a pronouncement that “...we will be protected by God.”
Trump’s campaign rhetoric was not merely successful with white rural evangelicals because he tapped into their conception of the world as a fallen place, governed by sin. He also made nods to rural evangelical views of urban spaces as particular sites of degradation and distance from God, describing them in florid (and heavily racialized) terms over and over in his campaign as riddled with crime and drug addiction. Situating this characterization of the mythic ‘inner city’ in a broader discourse of an America drowning in sin, the appeal to evangelicals becomes more apparent.
Many pundits questioned how a thrice-married, sexually lascivious New York billionaire could connect so strongly to rural evangelicals in rural places. Trump’s theological bona fides remain fairly thin: See his brain fart in naming a single book of the Bible. But perhaps when analyzing his pessimistic rhetoric in the context of evangelical views of a sinful, degraded world, we can better understand how Trump captured the votes of evangelicals by aligning his view of America with theirs.