I do keep getting asked IRL about how evangelicals could possibly support–and even actually like–Donald Trump. On the surface it is inexplicable as he barely even pretends to understand or care about their faith (though, perhaps more importantly, he does deliver on their political priorities). I do think that there are a couple of things going on–for one thing, evangelicals are, generally speaking, insecure people who constantly need to be told that they’re good and special, and decades of being held to account by people they see as lesser than has tended to have an unhinging effect. This is why they’re so obsessed with making liberals angry, while liberals generally don’t evince a nihilistic urge merely to piss off conservatives. (Perhaps this will change with Trump…) But on a fundamental level, what you have to understand about the religious right is that they are, actually, utopians. This is not, in my opinion, a very accurate interpretation of Christianity, but Roy Moore’s oft-stated view that faith in Christ immunizes you from any sort of hardship or disaster is far from uncommon among that community. Typically it’s put in political terms, not personal terms, because if you scaled it down then everybody would understand what a ridiculous joke it is. You hear how God will withdraw his “protection” from disobedient countries. It’s the same basic logic undergirding Jerry Falwell’s notorious “abortion and gays caused 9/11” speech. The ultimate implication of this is that a maximal religious right society will not suffer from such disasters. Or, in other words, utopia.

History tells us that the best way to disprove these sorts of things is to actually try to implement them, though history also tells us that it’s never wise to give the reins of power to utopian fanatics. So we must fight them. This is another post, but I’d also argue that your harder-core libertarians are also utopians of a different sort. Their expectations of the invisible hand don’t match any actual observed effects of how laissez-faire capitalism actually works in practice. One can also argue that gun nuts are utopians as well. Their arguments are, empirically, a total airball, and while I hardly find a future of universal gun-toting anything other than dystopic, they seem to see it otherwise. (Obviously there is significant overlap among all these groups.) Not that Christianists really have much use for empiricism themselves, as any study on the effects of abstinence-only sex education can tell you. But if you see Trump as viewed by conservatives less from the lens of all these clueless “Trump voters like Trump” mainstream media tourist pieces, and more in the sense of “these people think he’s going to bring about an actual utopia,” then things start to make more sense. If you thought that a single charismatic leader was going to bring about all your wildest dreams, you’d pretty damn well back him, wouldn’t you? Even if you had some private reservations, I’d bet. And Trump, ignorant but intuitive as he is, frequently phrased his communication in precisely in utopian terms. Just a random sample of this tendency, which is reflected in pretty much every speech ever of his. The guy, obviously, prefers rhetorical hyperbole. But it couldn’t be a better match for the what utopians want to hear.

Is there a line Trump can’t cross, even for the religious right? I think this is the wrong question, it’s a matter of degree. No doubt some evangelical whites who voted for Trump are already turned off by what he’s done, and he may well lose more depending on what he does next. Generalize all you want, but these are ultimately individuals and some will diverge from the larger group. But I think that this sort of question misunderstands the religious right altogether. We still think of utopianism as something of a left-wing phenomenon, hippies and Stalin and Mao and all that, but we live in a time and place where the utopians are on the right, which at one point fancied itself as the backstop against utopian thinking. This presents a particular problem in that the right is more comfortable with appeals to mythos, especially when advocating something that has no real precedent. And as somebody who has read dozens of books on left utopians (specifically the Soviet Union), it’s worth stating that people who have utopian dreams can rationalize away tremendous amounts of repression very easily if it’s seen as helping to build that glorious future, even if they touch very close to home. And that isn’t all. Utopians of all stripes simply have to launch attacks on institutions that threaten the basis of the utopia. The institutions that Trump attacks, that George W. Bush attacked, are the same ones that were attacked in the Soviet Union. Science was tightly circumscribed. Any media that didn’t adopt the party line was attacked. Admittedly, Tsarist Russia didn’t really have a strong, independent legal system, though what they had was, of course, wiped out by the Soviets. It’s not a perfect analogy. But liberalism and utopianism can’t really coexist. Their premises simply contradict. No utopian dream can survive scrutiny because if it were possible to build a utopia, someone would have done it already and everybody would be a part of it. But the dream of it is a durable, and consistently tragic, element of human nature. If only there were some system of beliefs, some creed, which argued that all people were flawed and corrupted and that building that sort of perfection was a doomed enterprise. Alas, nobody has ever come up with anything like that!

Looking at the 20th century, virtually all of the murderous regimes that took power had some form of utopia as the goal. Commonly a component of this utopia, of course, was racial and ethnic purity. Such has been a central component of Trumpism from the start. I cannot say for certain what would happen if they did wield total power, freed from all constraints of democracy, but I would not bet against it turning out much like so many other utopian drams: with blood. I’m not entirely sure myself how to deal with this problem, but it is long past time to stop pretending that this is a group that merely has different means for achieving the same goals as liberals. I’ve heard people say that it’s puzzling that evangelicals would wield such stalwart support for someone worse than any of them. Outside of the realm of actual killers, this is probably true. But while he may be as bad as any of them individually, I find it hard to believe that he’s worse than them collectively.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    the enemy of my enemy is my friend

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