Trump Exploited the Authoritarianism of White Evangelicals

One of the most challenging things I faced as I began to question the fundamentalist Christian worldview in which I had been raised was to learn to think for myself. That is because it was an authoritarian system based on fear. John Fea documented the history of the connection between evangelicalism and fear in this country and Sara Robinson wrote about how fear triggers authoritarianism.

Fear creates physiological changes that impair the brain’s ability to reason, and drives people to fall in behind whatever leader presents himself without asking too many questions. Like all herd animals, we are biologically driven to close ranks tightly behind the alpha in times of trouble. Resisting that impulse sometimes means fighting our own evolutionary imperatives. And, as we are now too well aware, unscrupulous leaders will not hesitate to create, manipulate, and perpetuate fear in order to activate that instinct and keep their followers at heel.

Thinking for yourself means allowing questions to surface about what those leaders tell you and overcoming the fear of the consequences you have been taught will follow. That is why Robinson describes the process of leaving authoritarianism as so difficult.

These people know that the tiny flicker of enlightenment kindling in their minds is about to set their entire lives ablaze…

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them…Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.

As we all know, Donald Trump’s base of support is made up largely of white evangelicals and an awful lot of ink has been spilled trying to understand who they are and why nothing he does seems to dampen their support. If you don’t understand what I’ve just written about the connection between white evangelical Christianity, authoritarianism and fear, then you’ll never understand the politics of Trumpism.

Earlier this week I wrote about Andrew Levinson’s article on winning back white working class voters. He did a wonderful job of describing the information bubble that traps many of them. The most important thing he added to the conversation is the fact that it is personal relationships that validate and confirm the messages put out by right-wing media. I noted that, if everyone in your church buys into those messages, you will too because “to step out of that bubble on your own means becoming an outcast.” Beyond the internal process Robinson described, that is the secondary power of fear that stops people from thinking for themselves.

I was reminded of all of that when I heard Steve Schmidt, former McCain campaign manager, say this:

So, if you go back to inauguration day, Trump has less support today than he did then. His base is smaller; the Republican party is smaller. But it is more faithful and more intense in its loyalty to Trump. And forty-percent of the country has surrendered their intellectual sovereignty to Donald Trump.

There is for them no such thing as objective truth anymore. What is true is what the leader says is true, what the leader believes is true. And Trump has exercised that power and forty-percent of the country has submitted themselves to it.

One of the reasons that statement caught my eye was his use of the word “sovereignty,” which has a very long history in this country among white supremacists. In a way, Schmidt is using their own words to create a little cognitive dissonance, which is a great strategy because it prompts thinking.

However, Schmidt leaves the impression that most of the people in that 40 percent just surrendered their intellectual sovereignty recently to Donald Trump. That would be inaccurate. They gave it up a while ago to a long line of charlatans, the most recent of which John Fea calls “court evangelicals.”

As long as white evangelicals surrender their intellectual sovereignty to authoritarianism and fear, they will not only continue to support Donald Trump, they’ll fall prey to the next unscrupulous leader that figures out how to exploit them.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.