President Donald Trump yesterday managed the dubious achievement of becoming the only U.S. president to be impeached twice.
While polls show a majority of Americans favor impeachment, Trump’s most dogged supporters are furious. Who are these people? In the wake of last week’s insurrection, reporters have been analyzing the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. They’re finding a strange mishmash of conspiracy theorists, racists, xenophobes, militia cranks and right-wing populists.
But there’s another element of Trump’s diehard coalition that we shouldn’t overlook: white evangelical Christians. We know they were there on Jan. 6; photos show them hoisting signs bearing crosses and references to Jesus.
This isn’t surprising. White evangelicals have been among Trump’s strongest supporters. About 80% of them voted for Trump in 2016, a figure that more or less held steady in 2020.
Scholar Ryan P. Burge at Eastern Illinois University analyzed data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which surveyed 18,000 Americans in November of 2019. As Burge put it, “They asked a number of questions that can help us start to generate a picture of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters and may help us understand what factors led to the violent and despicable acts that were perpetrated on the American public [Jan. 6.]”
When Burge examined the people who consider themselves “very conservative” and who said they “strongly approved” of Trump, he found something interesting about their religious beliefs: They don’t align with the rest of America. Nearly half of these people identified as evangelicals, while in the general population, that figure is much lower at about 22%.
Burge also found that Trump’s most ardent supporters are more likely to attend religious services than the rest of the population. He observed, “Clearly, Trump’s support is deeply intertwined with religious concerns and devotion to religion and to the 45th president are correlated.”
I’ve observed this phenomenon firsthand. During the 2016 campaign and after Trump’s election, I sat in on meetings of Christian nationalist groups and observed members swoon as Trump spewed invective and bile. Over the past four years, I’ve read their websites and publications as they time and again found excuses for his crass behavior. Most recently I watched, disgusted, as they attempted to absolve him for inciting a violent attack on the very symbol of American democracy.
What can possibly explain this behavior? In his conclusion, Burge gets right to the heart of it, pointing out that right-wing evangelicals saw their support of Trump as a quid pro quo arrangement.
“Donald Trump, first and foremost, is a showman who loves to reward his supporters who have shown unshakable devotion to him over the last four years,” wrote Burge. “His gift to these people is that he gave them what they wanted – a policy agenda that continued to shift to the right as each year passed of his administration. And in return, the most loyal portion of Trump’s constituency returned the favor by doing exactly what he asked them to do: storm the United States Capitol building to delay the counting of the electoral college votes. …”
But at what cost? In just six days, Trump will no longer be president. It will take a long time to remove the stain of his rule from our national psyche. As for the right-wing evangelicals who enabled him, they’ll carry the shame forever.
Photo: Trump supporters at the Christian nationalists’ Values Voter Summit meeting