Monday, January 23, 2017

Trump's America and the "fallen world"

As America enters the era of a Trump presidency, I cannot help but take a glance back for a post-mortem on the rhetorical moves that enabled this outcome. These words are written as the media evaluates the now-President’s rhetoric in his inaugural address as dark, and even “apocalyptic.” This pessimistic language echoes Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which painted a portrait of a hobbled and deeply troubled America. Many commentators have noted Trump’s appeal to rural voters, and those who identify with the values of the rural. What is it about this chiaroscuro portrait of a country burdened with trouble that resonates with these rural people?

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.


Kyle Kate Dudley said...


This was an incredibly insightful and well-thought out post. I appreciated you picking on JC Watts' comment about what he observed as the underlying psychological divergence of the two political parties in our nation. It also stuck out to me when I read that Times article.

I couldn't believe how well the good/evil theory mapped onto some of the values that I have become accustomed to associating with our political parties. I appreciated that you dug into the concept deeper and really appreciated your personal astonishment that rural evangelicals aligned so forcefully with the President. I found several resources that reflected your bewilderment (e.g. JC Watts' conception of populist views of inherent goodness and evilness not only explains why the rural religious right connected to Trump, it reveals the rhetorical and divisive levers that the Trump campaign used and Trump White House is using to beguile groups of rural and religious-right focused-people into thinking that he's working for them, working to save them from a terrifying "fallen world."

Jenna said...

I am always struck by the “conservative arguments about personal responsibility that situate blame for bad actions squarely in the personhood of the actor.” More specifically I am constantly baffled (and often upset) about how this reasoning is applied in cases of mass shootings and terrorism.

Time and time again, when an individual kills multiple people, if that person is a white male, the conservative (and often even the liberal) media will classify this incident as a “mass shooting” or “multiple homicide.” Many will blame this man individually. There will be multiple members of the media and politicians who will talk about what exactly it was the caused this person to kill. Was it because they were a sociopath? Did they have a mental illness? Did they grow up in an abusive family? Or was it simply that this person turned away from God?

However, when a person who kills multiple people identifies (or is identified) as a Muslim or an immigrant, conservative media will classify this incident as “terrorism.” Instead of looking at the individual, as would seem most reasonable given their arguments about personal responsibility, many conservatives and even liberals will blame the entire group that they believe the perpetrator represents. Indeed, many will say that the other members of this individual’s “group” should apologize or take ownership of this person’s actions.

I had my own experience with this on Christmas Eve two years ago. After learning about a recent attack by a Muslim man, my conservative white parents said something along the lines of how “good” Muslims needed to apologize for the acts of this person. I responded by saying that following that logic we should apologize to the public every time a white Christian man engages in a mass shooting. My parents only response was a dark look and then a quick movement on to the next subject.