From the very start of Trump’s candidacy, those on the opposite side have been dumbfounded how a man lacking gravitas—remember that buzzword? —could capture such a large portion of America. We laughed at the absurd demagogue as he spewed one inappropriate remark after another, thinking to ourselves that any day, he would fall away into obscurity. Trump has denigrated war heroes, made racist remarks against Mexicans and the disabled, and has called one of his daughters “a nice piece of ass,” among a host of other verbal assaults. We laughed out of nervousness; we laughed because we thought he was an idiot. Yet he still stands, and no one is laughing any longer. Across the nation, the tension is palpable.
An overwhelming number of his followers are white, poor, working-class citizens. To many of us, the idea that blue-collar workers who scrape by with meager paychecks and government assistance could have anything in common with one of America’s elite is baffling. But that a member of the rich, blue-blooded elite could appeal to working-class America is not a new phenomenon, as proved by George Bush. The Bushes are part of the American aristocracy, yet G.W. managed a marketing campaign that turned him into one of the most cherished icons of American history—the ranch cowboy. The images released of G.W. chopping wood and riding horses on “the range” resonated with Americans who grew up idolizing Hop Along Cassidy and John Wayne. Now we have Trump, an icon of the American elite, pretending to be a born-again Christian.
Like Bush, Trump has managed to capture America’s evangelicals through similar marketing techniques. The 2015 photo of a group of pastors laying hands on and praying for Trump sent a clear message to the Bible Belt—Trump is a believer. Yet, contradictions definitely exist between Trump’s lifestyle and a devout “walk in Christ.”
This is where a divide is clearly evident between Trump’s camp and the rest of us—faith. One could look at the aforementioned photo and see that Trump is an opportunistic hypocrite who used the power of images and a group of pastors as a marketing ploy to capture a large evangelical base. Grassroots evangelicals hold a different perspective, however, and it behooves the rest of us to understand where they’re coming from. In June 2015, James Dobson, one of America’s foremost evangelical leaders, declared that Trump had accepted “a relationship with Christ” and was a “baby Christian.”1 Even though only a few days later Dobson would cast doubt on the belief that Trump was born again, the evangelical base had already accepted Trump as a brother-in-Christ—and more.
Indeed, when Trump declared that he was born again, he transformed not only into a Christian, but a messiah figure to a large portion of his followers. Middle America is no longer seeking ‘Joe the Plumber.’ American evangelicals seek a strong, elite messiah who will bring them in the here and now. The messiah complex in play now with his followers dictates that Trump is indeed an elite, just as the rich plantation owner-messiah stood as a guardian over the white way of life during the Civil War.
Indeed, Trump’s devotees are akin to poor whites in the slavery-era South who idolized the white plantation owner as the paragon of their civilization and fought in the Civil War to protect that master's right to own slaves. Even though poor Southern whites were not part of the master’s elite world and privileged status, they believed that the master thought they were, that they were part of the grand system, that one day they might attain his status. The badge of whiteness worn by poor Southern whites during and after the Civil War served as cultural glue that transgressed class, binding together the poverty-stricken with white elites. Poor and working-class whites today are looking for something to attain to, something more to reach for, placing their faith in romantic notions of a great America in the same way poor Southern whites placed their faith in Dixie.
A particular strain of Christianity has elevated Trump to messiah status, one that is homegrown Americana. In the early days of the nineteenth century, a type of Christianity was born in the States, one at odds with the intellectual currents espoused by men like Jefferson, one given over to irrational belief rather than a faith born of rigorous study. The revival camp meeting flourished not long after the Revolutionary War and was a thorn in Jefferson’ side during his later years.2 A newly-born evangelicalism became the Christianity of the unlearned masses, of the American people living out in the woods, something more visceral. The modern evangelical movement is a direct descendant of that early nineteenth-century phenomenon.
Trump is like the T.V. evangelists many of his followers grew up with in their homes – Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim Baker, Paul and Jan Crouch, Benny Hinn. All of these evangelists are also direct descendants from the early revivalists. All espouse a Southern-leaning Baptist and Pentecostal type of American Christianity. This strain is characterized by unique attributes, among them that many leading evangelical leaders have been caught up in immorality or financial crimes, but, because of the foundational Christian cycle of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, they were accepted back by their followers, and returned as even stronger leaders.3 What appeared to outsiders as blatant hypocrisy is a core value of American evangelicals—the return of the “bad boy” leader, what I call the “King David phenomenon.” Like King David, who committed adultery and murdered his lover’s husband, and afterward repented to God for his actions, American evangelical leaders often come back stronger after immoral infractions. This is one reason why Trump can do no wrong—he is sacrosanct in the eyes of his evangelical followers. His flaws and moral failings are not negatives against his character, but prove that he is just like them, or, as many of his followers put it, “Donald Trump is real and very sincere,” as one Florida backer stated.
Another unique attribute of this style of American Christianity is the “prosperity gospel”—that Christ wants his followers blessed on earth with riches and the evidence of that is how much Christ has blessed the T.V. evangelists. In 1988, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jimmy Swaggart Ministries brought in $150 million a year.What is the demographic that supports these television religious entrepreneurs? For the most part, poor and working-class whites hoping to win the Jesus lotto. Evangelists promise that their money will be increased many times over if followers just had faith and sent in their money.
Each and every evangelist listed above has grown filthy rich of the backs of the same demographic that is now following Trump. The vast holdings of capital and lands that T.V. evangelists openly flaunt is no contradiction to American evangelicals, just as the Master’s house was no contradiction to poor Southern whites, and just as Trump’s golden toilet is no contradiction to his followers. These are items that they all can attain one day through faith, prayer, and the romantic belief that America will one day be made great again.
1.New York Times, June 26, 2016, A14
2.Hatch, Nathan The Democratization American Christianity, Yale University Press, 1989.
3. Job 42:10; Galatians 6:1; Luke 15:4-7; 2 Corinthians 7:8-10
Patrick Fontes received his PhD in American History from Stanford University. His research involves American Immigration History, Mexico-USA transnational history, Latin American religion, and the Criminalization of Chicano culture. Patrick’s poetry has appeared in The Más Tequila Review, the Acentos Review, The James Franco Review, Suisun Valley Review, Silver Birch Press, as well the online poetry site La Bloga.
Floricanto Press published Patrick’s first novel, Maria’s Purgatorio in Jan. 2016.
Patrick’s FB author page: www.facebook.com/Patrick-Fontes-883011615080869