Events are moving so quickly. We all want understand what happened on Nov. 8th when Trump won the election, what to make of what is happening right now with his top staff and cabinet picks, and what is going to happen.
How concerned should we be about the future and what can happen here? Suddenly no worry seems too far-fetched.
I jokingly commented to my like-minded pals last week “Well, at least we’ll get to say ‘I told you so.’”
“No, but the surviving cockroaches will,” replied my friend Eugene Finerman.
Arguments among my friends about who elected Trump revolve around these issues: it was the less educated, or the unemployed, or the white folks because they want a white male president who promised them jobs.
Instead, I think Michael Leeden, a very conservative writer close to Trump’s inner circle, got it right, way back in May, when he wrote that Trump will win because he is a “religious leader,” who is charismatic and appeals to the irrational. But, let’s step back to examine this process.
The Pew Research Center came out with a cogent analysis the day after the election, “How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis.” A significant voting block that Pew analysts have followed since 2004, that they call “White, born-again/evangelical Christians,” and that have for the last three elections constituted 26% of the American electorate, voted overwhelmingly for Trump. He received 81% of their vote, 3% more even than Romney did in 2012.
Why did this particular block of white voters choose Trump over Clinton?
Race – Although many assume that this group votes only by racial preference, and certainly people of color that I have spoken to hold to this view, in 2008 24%, and in 2012 21% of these white, born-again/evangelical Christians voted for Obama, a black man. In 2016 Hillary Clinton got even less of their vote, 16%.
Some remorseful Democrats say this group voted for Trump because Clinton didn’t bother to go after their vote the way Obama had. Others argue that Trump won over the clergy because he promised he would revoke the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other non-profits with the 501c3 designation from endorsing or opposing political candidates. And then of course there was his pick for running-mate, Governor Mike Pence.
Trump told them whatever they wanted to hear, and they believed him. Leeden states: “The crowd wants him, not necessarily his platform.” So, those for whom jobs and economic opportunity are most important voted for him because he said that he was for the little guy, and the little guy would rather identify himself with a winner. And what symbolizes success in America? A successful, rich, blond, white man, with a trophy wife on his arm.
Behind the other door: Belief.
Nonetheless, for the group that brought Trump to power, the over-arching issue is not faith but belief—a very different issue. There was another interesting statistic from the Pew report that applied to all voters: the more often people attended worship services (of whatever faith, and with disparately prioritized values), the more likely they were to vote for Trump.
Beliefs, by definition, do not require facts, and often are triggered by certain signs, symbols and messages. Signs and symbols come from, reach and activate the psyche, and if they correspond to a need in the core of the person, there is an automatic response. When these messages are delivered with repeated falsehoods, the recipient, having already suspended disbelief willingly or automatically, is easy to manipulate. This is not about belief in God, but belief in general, which can be put at the service of an ideology, or a strong leader. This is the cult of personality.
It may also be that belief, as opposed to faith, literally comes from an older, autonomous, fight-or-flight part of our makeup, which is felt in the gut. Faith can be a more intellectual experience – still experiential, but tied to mental activity. Faith also may involve intuition – which may be felt in the heart rather than the gut. The ancients believed the mind was in the heart.
Trump, “religious leader”
As I pondered why this group is an easy mark for a Trump, the question remained – why were born-again Christians so willing to suspend disbelief and be Trump supporters, despite the fact that he has shown himself to be the most patently false pretender to Christian values in the most outlandish ways possible?
After Trump won the Republican primary, a variety of commentators wrote that the Republicans had brought Trump on themselves. Some contended it was by waging a corporate-financed campaign against bleeding-heart liberals, going back practically since the New Deal. Certainly, said more, it was through the agency of Rush Limbaugh, who has been hammering an ever-growing swath of listeners since the early 1980s with paranoid ideas, and who has softened and cultivated a fertile ground for just such a leader.
But how exactly does it happen, what is the mechanism, the active ingredient?
I found answers in two opposing corners for an as yet unarticulated intuition that was forming. First, I talked with a clinical psychologist who teaches in psychiatry departments in the US and Europe, and who has lectured on anxiety disorders. He cited a cognitive-behavioral theory that when emotions are inappropriate, that when danger is misperceived or exaggerated, the problem lies in “cognitive schemata where reality is continually interpreted as dangerous.” (Anxiety and Its Disorders, David H. Barlow, p. 53)
This build-up of anxiety and unease, that Limbaugh and others have stoked in his followers for so long, reflexively found in Trump a vessel to pour their emotional angst in to, in an almost uncontrollable spasm, an actual instinctual fear-based survival mechanism. This insight is an important touchstone.
Another answer came unexpectedly out of right-field, from Michael Leeden at the powerful conservative think-tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, founded after 9/11. Leeden just co-authored a book, released this summer, “The Field of Fight: How to Win the War against Radical Islam and its Allies,” with Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s pick to be his national security advisor at the White House, a position that does not require congressional approval. General Flynn’s principal message is that we must fear, and fight, radical Islam, everywhere, and that it’s a cancer inside Muslims.
On Dec. 19th the New York Times reported that the head of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, founded in the 1950’s by former Nazis, visited Flynn a few weeks earlier at Trump Tower.
Leeden wrote a blog for the foundation back on May 10, 2016, entitled “Trump’s Secret? Religion,” about Trump’s charisma. He explained that Trump’s followers are entranced by him. Leeden openly describes this process, which is an astonishingly bald hypocrisy for one in Trump’s inner circle.
Leeden writes, “I used to lecture about political crowds, from the fascists to contemporary Western leaders,” and he described the many different temperaments of crowds, for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and then on to Roosevelt, FDR and the Kennedys. He’d also intently studied the leadership of an Italian war-hero of WWI, Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom Leeden considers the first true Italian fascist.
Leeden has dismissively rejected the idea that Trump is a fascist, but his objections to the descriptor seem largely a matter of historical asymmetries, not what new forms fascism might take under the forthcoming Trump presidency.
In his blog on May 10th, Leeden wrote, “D’Annunzio’s exchanges with the crowd were clearly based on Catholic rituals, reminding us that political ritual owes a lot to religion. That remains true today. I think Rush (Limbaugh) is right when he tells his listeners that Trump’s popularity has little to do with political issues. Yes, immigration is an important theme, but the main thing about Trump is himself. He excites a lot of people, there’s a sort of magic at work at his rallies, and his followers are wild about him. He’s the only candidate who is really charismatic […]
“Trump’s incoherence on issue after issue matters less than it would for the others His crowd wants him, not necessarily his platform. They want the anti-pol [ . . . ] Although I’m talking about an intensely emotional and in many ways irrational phenomenon, it is driven by real and very rational contempt for the current ruling class.
“Yes it’s funny that a man who doesn’t much care about religion is in large part a religious leader, but it’s quite a common historical phenomenon. And sometimes such leaders are triumphant.”
A few weeks ago, I received a newsletter from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Inside was a quote from the late Congressman Tom Lantos. He said: “We must remember that the veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians and we can never rest.” His legacy is now ours.