Ever since the election was over last November, one of the things I keep thinking about is how sure I was that the America that elected Barack Obama would never elect Donald Trump. I am prepared to admit that I was terribly wrong and significantly underestimated what I had written about back in 2014: Understanding the Threat of a Confederate Insurgency. In that article I quoted Doug Muder, who compared the Tea Party (now Trump’s base) to the Confederate world view.
The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…
The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.
It is worth thinking about what the “divinely ordained way things are supposed to be” looks like to confederate insurgents. Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, gives us a clue in an excerpt from his book, “The End of White Christian America” by quoting something Donald Trump said during the campaign.
In an interview on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in early September, Trump put the choice starkly for the channel’s conservative Christian viewers: “If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure.” Asked to elaborate, Trump continued, “I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in and they’re going to be legalized and they’re going to be able to vote, and once that all happens you can forget it.”
When it comes to white Christian America, Jones describes how it was that a man, whose life represents everything that goes against what they believe in, won them over.
Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.
This is why those who argue over whether Trump supporters were motivated by racism or economic anxiety continue to miss the point. The issue at play was more broad than either of those assumptions capture. It was about nostalgia for the mythical golden age of the past that, fueled by anger, became a defense of “the divinely ordained way things are supposed to be.” Included in that stew are the intertwining fears about changing demographics, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ, globalization, the impact of the Great Recession, the decline in religious affiliation and racism. In other words, nostalgia voters (i.e., confederate insurgents) were reacting to the perceived changes in their established social order.
Prior to the election, Rebecca Traister wrote this:
The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…
Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead…
This is our country in an excruciating period of change. This is the story of the slow expansion of possibility for figures who have long existed on the margins, and it is also the story of the dangerous rage those figures provoke.
That is very similar to what Jones has written post-election.
The election, more than in any in recent memory, came down to two vividly contrasting views of America. Donald Trump’s campaign painted a bleak portrait of America’s present, set against a bright, if monochromatic, vision of 1950s America restored. Hillary Clinton’ campaign, by contrast, sought to replace the first African American president with the first female president and embraced the multicultural future of 2050, the year the Census Bureau originally projected the United States would become a majority nonwhite nation. “Make American Great Again” and “Stronger Together,” the two campaigns’ competing slogans, became proxies for an epic battle over the changing face of America.
Ever since it became clear to me that what we are dealing with is a confederate insurgency, I’ve wondered how all this will end. Obviously I’m terrible at predictions, so it’s not worth it to try. All I know is that the last two times this country faced a challenge like this (the Civil War and the civil rights movement), too much blood was spilled. Jones notes that, “At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change.” In other words, no matter how hard they try, the 1950’s aren’t coming back, and many of us don’t want them to. We either face the future together, or eventually, all hell breaks loose.