Is THIS Why White Evangelicals Love Trump?

Why? Why? Why? That’s what nerds have been asking for the past few years. Why, that is, do so many white evangelical voters seem to (still) love Trump? Sometimes even more now than in 2016? Reporter Julie Zauzmer recently examined some interviews to offer a new explanation. To me, it seems like there is still something missing. It’s big and it’s obvious, but it’s not the first thing white evangelicals like to talk about.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

When asked, a group of white evangelicals explained that they like Trump because they think he is fighting for them. Finally. As Zauzmer explained,

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot.

“You’ve just got to accept the bad with the good,” Halbert [a white evangelical from Florida] said.

Makes sense. But there’s an important element missing from this explanation. Yes, many white evangelicals feel that America is a “menacing place,” but more important, with a bitter nostalgia they see mainstream America as a menacing place that used to be better. They see a mainstream America that has been warped and perverted, not just an America that isn’t the way they like it. Most important, many white evangelicals see America as a place that has been stolen from them. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, white evangelicals have long felt that America has not only declined passively; they feel America has been usurped.

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Watch out, white evangelicals–mainstream institutions have been usurped!

It is a hugely important distinction and it’s one that Trump stumbled across with his MAGA approach to the 2016 elections. Consider just a few 20th-century examples of the kind of nostalgism that has driven white evangelical politics for so long. Way back in 1909, for example, journalist Harold Bolce reported in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine that mainstream colleges had gone to the dogs. Instead of inculcating youth with revered values of God, home, and family, elite colleges taught students a devilish stew of skepticism and “science.”

By way of example, Bolce interviewed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp. As Bolce told anxious readers,

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

For white evangelicals at the time, the message was clear. Something terrible had happened. They could no longer trust mainstream institutions. The feeling lasted throughout the twentieth century and got stronger with time. By 1979, fundamentalist school founder A.A. “Buzz” Baker could warn readers,

It may come as a surprise to some that the very first public and private schools in our country had a traditional approach or philosophy of education.  Harvard, Yale, Andover Newton [sic]—to name but a few—used to be ‘our’ schools.

For white evangelicals in the 1970s, the notion that Harvard used to be a conservative-evangelical stronghold often came as a shock and a revelation. It fit with the sense of angry nostalgia that has driven white evangelical politics for so long. Not only did America use to be great, many white evangelicals feel, but America used to be OURS.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote Trump in 2016? And why do so many like him even better now, in spite of everything? Yes, they see Trump as a fighter in their corner on issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. But even more important, they hear Trump repeating their mantra: America used to be great. America used to be OURS. It has taken some hits, but together we can Make America Great Again.

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Higher Ed: The Conservative Crisis that Isn’t

Beware college! That’s the old cry today’s conservative intellectuals are pretending they invented. But they don’t mean it. The best evidence for conservatives’ real affection for American higher ed is the political campaign we haven’t seen recently.

Here’s what we know: Benedictophile Rod Dreher has grown fond of fanning the flames of crisis among his fellow conservative intellectuals. Recently for example, Dreher shared an exposé of the lamentable practices at one elite university. As Dreher’s correspondent concluded,

the balance has been tipped in higher education. It’s not just useless anymore, but it’s now actually doing harm. Not many normal people will be willing to accept that reality — i.e. that their children (and our culture) will be better served by their NOT going to (most) colleges and universities.

Tough talk! We might be tempted to conclude that conservative intellectuals are moving toward a new antipathy toward higher education, but we’d be wrong in two big ways. For one thing, there is absolutely nothing new about this conservative “crisis” in higher education. Furthermore, conservatives don’t really dislike college as a whole.

Let’s start with the history. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, conservatives have been noticing the “new” crisis in American higher education for well over a century. In a three-part expose in 1909, journalist Harold Bolce warned readers of the absolutely shocking decline in the state of America’s elite colleges.

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Beware! c. 1909

For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and breathlessly reported Earp’s shocking refusal to honor traditional ideas:

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

By the 1920s, some conservatives liked to reprint a purported letter home from a pathetic college student. As the student supposedly fretted to his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water . . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

We might remind Dreher and his correspondents, then, that their sudden crisis has been percolating for a long time now.

But perhaps something has suddenly changed? After all, we have been told by journalists recently that conservatives have recently begun to distrust American higher education. Last summer, poll results seemed to suggest as much.

pew college gone to the dogsIn fact, though, as we’ve argued before in these pages, it is not college itself that conservatives have come to distrust. Dreher and his associates will surely lose their campaign to warn people away from college as a whole.

How do we know? In this case, we can borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes and listen to the dog that didn’t bark.

True, conservative intellectuals might feel chagrined at their loss of influence in elite universities. Also true, the American public is very willing to believe that silly, leftist things go on in elite colleges. But Americans still want to go. They want their kids to go. And they think people who do go are smart and competent.

Exhibit A: The 2016 presidential campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. As journalists noted at the time, Walker was a college drop out. If there really were a widespread, popular disaffection with American higher education, we would have heard him brag about that.

We didn’t. A couple of conservative voices tried to defend Walker’s lack of a degree, but they didn’t say Walker hated college. Rather, they said he had learned from the school of hard knocks instead.

Walker himself bragged that he was a “fighter” who learned from experience instead of in a classroom, but he didn’t pooh-pooh the idea of college as a whole.

What does that tell us?

If nothing else, Governor Walker is a savvy and successful politician. If he thought he could derive political advantage from his drop-out status, he surely would. But Walker is too savvy for that. He knows—even if Rod Dreher doesn’t—that Americans still love higher education. Americans—even conservative Americans—haven’t turned their back on elite colleges. Americans still dream of sending their kids to Yale or Brown or Oberlin, even if they fret about the ideological goings-on.

The “crisis” hasn’t suddenly boiled over in the past year or so. Rather, it is a steady simmering state and has been for a long time now. Even conservatives love and cherish elite universities. If they didn’t, after all, they wouldn’t spend so much time anguishing over them.