Trump’s Tribalism and the Durability of His Support Among Nostalgia Voters

A lot of people are questioning why, amidst the Stormy Daniels scandal, Trump’s approval numbers seem to have actually inched up. This information might narrow the question a bit:

White evangelicals have held steadfast in their support for President Trump, recent Pew Research Center data showed, despite allegations that the president once engaged in an extramarital affair with an adult film star. Not only that, but their approval of his performance has only increased in recent months, Pew found.

Survey data from March found that just 39 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s performance overall, but 78 percent of white evangelicals gave their support. That number is even higher than in January, when 72 percent of white evangelicals approved of Trump.

For a lot of us, that makes this all the more confusing. How is it that the so-called “values voters” of the right increase their support for this president while he is accused of having an affair with an adult film star? During yesterday’s press conference, here’s what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said:

That explanation is an echo of what Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas said.

“Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him,” Jeffress added, pointing out that evangelicals already knew the president is no “altar boy.”

“We supported him because of his policies and his strong leadership,” he said.

When Jeffress refers to Trump’s policies that white evangelicals support, of course he is referring to things like Supreme Court justices who are clearly anti-abortion and his promise to get rid of the so-called Johnson amendment. But as the Washington Post demonstrates with data from the Baylor Religion Survey, the overarching contributor is Christian nationalism. They found that, “the more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.” And no, the vehicle that supports that view doesn’t matter.

Hence, many white Christians believe Trump may be an effective instrument in God’s plan for America, even if he is not particularly religious himself.

This is precisely why Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, coined the term “nostalgia voters.”

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.

Since human beings are rarely as intellectually driven by specific issues as many would have us believe, the idea of a “mythical past golden age” sweeps up feelings about the changes that frighten white nostalgia voters, including religion, race and gender—as well as economics.

Religious leaders like Jeffress play on those fears and tell nostalgia voters that they are under attack. Lance Mannion described how that works.

…here’s their secret.

They like feeling persecuted. They need to feel persecuted. It’s how they know they’re good Christians…it feeds their self-pity and sense of entitlement, and it gives them their excuse.

It’s how they turn offense into defense, how repression and oppression become liberty.

If they are under attack, then they’re free to fight back.

The more effective they perceive the attack to be, the more they fight back. Because white evangelicals have long thought of themselves as the arbiters of sexual morality, Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels causes them more cognitive dissonance than his shady business dealings. In order to fend this one off, they simply grow more strident in their support. That is how tribalism works.

Remember when Trump said that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on 5th Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t abandon him? That is not only one of the few times he told the truth. With that statement Trump demonstrated that he knew more about the kind of tribalism he was tapping into than an awful lot of pundits who were shocked at the statement, or his stable approval ratings.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.