Despite warnings about Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency by prominent religious leaders like the actual Pope as well as Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, conservative white Christians rallied around the Republican candidate at a stunning rate. His win among white evangelicals was 8 points greater than Romney’s was over Obama, who, they were told in their media, was possibly a secret Muslim or maybe even the Anti-Christ. Sixty percent of white Catholic voters chose him over Clinton, even as 67% percent of Hispanic Catholics chose Clinton. His win among Mormons—who are not disaggregated by race in Pew Research’s data but who are 85% white—was slightly smaller, perhaps to a strong showing in Utah for independent candidate Evan McMullin, but he still won 61% of their votes. Though defenders of the white evangelical faith have been quick to point out that it was the least devout evangelicals—the ones who attended church less often—who offered the most support for the candidate, the fact is, Trump won even the devout white evangelicals. He was, from start to finish, the candidate of choice for conservative white Christians.
Above, Jesus carries luggage on a dirt road. The text reads “On my way back to the White House.” The meme appeared on Humor from a Pentecostal Pew.
Defensive white Christians lament that Trump was the lesser of two evil choices and that responsible voting meant not voting their conscience—which might have led them to the anti-abortion rights McMullin—but voting for the pro-life candidate most likely to win. Given that black and Hispanic Christians so heartily disagreed with white believers about who was the best candidate, this logic would lead us to think that abortion is not a concern for black and Hispanic believers, which isn’t exactly the case: Hispanic Catholics have higher rates of opposition to legalized abortion than white Catholics, while Black Protestants (a label that captures both conservative and progressive strains of the faith) oppose abortion at about the same rate as white Catholics (who, for the most part, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases—which means that white Catholics voted Trump at a higher rate than opposition to abortion can explain). In claiming that they voted on abortion, conservative white Christians are actually saying that they think that opposing abortion rights is more important to them than are the concerns of their fellow believers of color. Perhaps most disconcerting, though, is that they actually didn’t say this. In a LifeWay poll, just 4% of white evangelicals and 10% of their pastors said abortion was the most important issue. In short, they voted against black and brown believers for some reason other than abortion
The contemporary Religious Right—which includes conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and even a handful of Jews—has generally only really cared about (though “cared about” is probably too strong of a phrase) people of color for very short amounts of time, usually shortly before an election, when black and Hispanic churches may get a visit from a candidate. Trump’s appeal to more devout white evangelicals, who also tend to be wealthier and better educated than their less-devout peers, was largely linked to what they perceived as his support for a Religious Right policy agenda (though his commitments to anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion policies are not really philosophical so much as exploitative) while his less-devout white evangelical supporters cited his views on immigration and the economy as more salient.
More tellingly, less devout white evangelicals who voted for Trump were drawn to his anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-Hispanic rhetoric and policy proposals, just as, overall, Trump supporters expressed much higher levels of disdain for black people than did those who voted for another candidate. They didn’t vote for him in spite of his appeal to racism but because of it. Efforts to explain white support for Trump by focusing on his far-fetched promise to bring back good jobs for blue collar workers ignore the fact that his talk about “good jobs” is rooted in white fear that people of color will have the lives to which whites feel they alone are entitled.
American capitalism has always exploited black labor and whites’ fears of black advancement. White resentment of black advancement—which is just another way of being afraid that, without a racial “inferior,” white identity loses value—has also been a source for tremendous and nonsensical hostility and violence—from the Civil War to the Tulsa race riot of 1921. It’s not surprising that the white evangelicals who voted for Trump because of his economic plan are also the ones with higher rates of ill-feelings toward racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. Racism and economic populism don’t have to go hand-in-hand, but, in this case, they do.
Above, the “bloody lane” of Antietam, where 10,320 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in an effort to insure that wealthier white people could steal the labor of people of African descent. Wait! What?!?! That makes NO SENSE, unless you think maintaining a system white superiority is worth going to war for.
When white evangelicals picked Trump, they chose to align themselves not just with the overt white supremacists who have celebrated his rise to power. They also aligned themselves with the far more plentiful and dangerous whites who long for an “again”—a mythical past when their superiority could be enforced with structural racism and enough lynching to make black Americans sleep with one eye open.
White evangelicals may not recognize it, and they certainly don’t talk about their vote that way. They talk about the dangers of single motherhood, of an unsupportable welfare state that encourages laziness (a trait white Republicans often assign to African Americans) and absentee fathers, of black criminality as a destroyer of families, of failing (black) inner cities, of the undeserving poor. Trump’s inaugural address, written was at least in part by Steve Bannon, who has well-established ties to both white supremacy and economic nationalism, described a white evangelical nightmare—one that only voting for Trump could end.
A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain.–Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, 1847.
When a black person owns that palace, white people get even angrier.
The irony, of course, is that Trump isn’t an economic populist OR an economic nationalist. He’s an economic narcissist. His Social Darwinist attitudes about money are very similar to conservative voters’ Social Darwinist attitudes about race and poverty. They may actually be worse, because Trump is transparent in his thinking that success is genetic–which is kind of true in his case (though not as he meant it), as there’s no way he’d be where he is in life unless he’d been born to wealthy parents–though he’s still a loser compared to heiress and reality star Paris Hilton.
None of this is to say that good jobs–that is, safe jobs that pay a dignified wage and allow people to strengthen their skills and talents in ways that are meaningful to them, for every person who wants one, across racial lines–don’t matter. Under President Obama, economic growth has primarily benefited the already-wealthy, and his economic policies have failed to provide the kind of financial security that the middle class expects or any kind of uplift for the poor. Unlike Trump, he didn’t find a “bad guy” to blame for Main Street’s financial problems, though there were certainly lots of them.
This matters tremendously, even as it turns out that Trump supporters tend to be better educated and wealthier, on average (and, of course, whiter) than their neighbors, because both whites’ perception of their economic suffering and the reality of their suffering (which is far smaller than the economic struggle that people of color face) shape their story, and it’s stories not facts, that shape voting choices. Genuinely good jobs are better than the bad jobs–the part time, seasonal, low-wage jobs that have comprised much of the Low Wage Recovery--that are insuring that today’s kids won’t be as financially successful as their parents. #ThanksObama. That part of whites’ dissatisfaction with the current economy is resentment of black success doesn’t change the fact that some white people are also hungry.
But to vote for their interests over the interests of black and brown people–who are hungrier, and now also increasingly targeted for hate crimes–shows that it’s racial affiliation, not a concern for lifting people out of poverty, that mattered to conservative white Christians. That Donald Trump’s tax plan–which was one of the few policies that were clear before he was voted in–benefits the ultrawealthy and business at the detriment of the poor and middle class is more evidence that conservative white Christians weren’t voting on economic policy but on a feeling of resentment. And this is a promise Trump has kept, immediately canceling a tax cut for those trying to enter the housing market. Conservative white Christians voted in a way that hurts themselves, but not as much as it hurts their their neighbors of color. They have done so before, when they closed public schools, libraries, parks, pools, and golf courses rather than integrate.
Above, a white woman holds a small American flag and a sign that says “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump.” Unspoken prayer: also for making her white.
America’s white “temporarily embarrassed capitalists” (to quote Steinbeck, who had a lot of romantic ideas of his own about poor whites) may never learn that Trump’s views are against their own larger economic interests, but as long as they can cash in on their whiteness—at least enough to justify their feelings of white supremacy—that may not matter much.
*********************************************************************If If you didn’t learn the racist history of capitalism in 11th grade US history, check out River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. You can get a preview of the work in this 3 minute video. Or check out Nan Woodruff’s American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, which details how white planters used both economic and physical violence to insure African American participation in sharecropping.
Thanks to my friends C. and C. for their help in tracking down information about white resistance to black economic success in Arkansas. I’m fortunate to have friends who are not only smart but also generous.