Pence, Trump and Evangelicals

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale explain the relationship between Trump and evangelical Protestants like Vice-President Pence. [This piece was first published in Turkish in Cumhuriyet ,August 12, 2018.]

For thirty years, the right wing of the Republican Party in the United States was dominated by politically organized evangelical Protestants. Their politics rested on three pillars. First, they were for sexually conservative ‘family values’ and against abortion, lesbians and gays, adultery and sex workers. Second, they were racists, especially towards black people, Muslim and immigrants. Third, they were pro-business and anti-tax.

Evangelical (‘fundamentalist’) white Protestants are only 17% of Americans. By contrast, more moderate white Protestants are 13%, Catholics are 18%, and 24% of Americans now say they have no religious affiliation. So evangelicals could never dominate politics. But they could dominate the right of the Republican party, using racism to appeal to a wider audience.

Then came Trump. He is different. In the last 40 years of neoliberalism, the US has become the most unequal of the rich countries. To understand his appeal, you have to understand the bitterness among ordinary Americans. In real terms the pay rate of the median man now is the same as it was forty years ago, in the time of his grandfather.

Jobs in the middle, skilled manual work and factory jobs, are disappearing. The majority of Americans say in surveys now that they expect the lives of their children and grandchildren to be worse than their own. Ask ‘Is there something badly wrong with this country?’ and most Americans, left and right, will say yes.

The country is polarized in several ways. One is class. The richest third of the population are college graduates. Graduate women have a 75% chance of staying married to their first husband until one of them dies. In the bottom two thirds, women have a 40% chance. Graduate women have their first child on average seven years later than a woman in the bottom two thirds. These are remarkable figures. The demographics point to real changes in class inequality.

The people in the top third believe that they deserve their success because they did better at school and college. They believe that was because they are intelligent, and they believe the two thirds below them are stupid, and deserve their failures.

This contempt for the majority below takes two forms. One is the conservative. For these educated people, the people they despise are poor, and most belong to the urban black working class people. The second form is liberal. For educated liberals, the people they most abhor are the white, working class country music loving ‘rednecks’. But listen carefully in private, and you will hear the disdain educated conservatives have for ‘white trash’, and the way liberals fear working class black men as thugs and criminals.

The key word is ‘stupid’. It hurts. Working class people often do not have a language to talk directly about class. But they know ‘the elites’ hold them in contempt.

Trump offered angry white working-class people a rhetoric of resentment that blames both ‘liberal urban elites’ and immigrants, Muslims and black people. He linked that to pro-business policies, and promised to bring back the jobs lost of globalisation.  Trump became president because about a half of white working class voters, and about of half of educated white voters accepted this package.

Black people and Spanish speaking ‘Hispanics’ together are about a third of the total population. They are mostly working class, and they felt the same resentment. But in 2016, no one in mainstream politics offered them any vehicle for those feelings. About half of working class African-Americans, and more than half of working class Hispanics, did not vote. That’s a big reason why Trump won.

Once Trump took over the Republican party, evangelical politicians like Mike Pence faced a big problem. Pence refuses to be alone with a woman in a room with the door closed in case he is tempted to adultery. Trump’s adultery with sex workers is now public. During the election a video surfaced of Trump saying that because he was rich and famous on TV he could now ‘grab the pussy’ of any woman he wanted, and she could do nothing.

Leading evangelicals in churches and politics have decided to support Trump anyway. They tolerate his gross immorality, his sexual abuse, and the aura of financial corruption and sleaze that surrounds him. They say this is because he is still anti-abortion. Probably more important are his pro-business policies, and especially his racism. If he delivers on racism, guns and persecution of immigrants, it seems they will tolerate almost anything.

But Trump faces serious opposition, with a new wave of feminism at the centre. In the week he took up office in January 2017, between three and five million women, and men, joined women’s marches across the country. In the nineteen months since, about twelve to fifteen million people have joined protests, many more than once. In April, 2018, alone more than three million attended more than 6,000 local protests.

The big issues have been immigrant rights, women’s rights, defending government health insurance, calls for gun control and teachers’ strikes. Most important of all has been #Metoo, the movement against sexual harassment at work, in sports, in the universities and in the churches. The key moment was the exposure of movie executive Harvey Weinstein. He did not just lose his job. His company, a major Hollywood studio, went broke and the investors lost all their money. Now managements in many companies, but not all, fire accused rapists and harassers in a matter of days, and often hours. But those firings do not simply follow individual complaints. They follow organization by groups of women.

In the weeks after Weinstein fell, women encouraged each other to post #Metoo on their social media if they too had been sexually harassed at work. Almost every woman we know has experienced some form of sexist abuse and sometime also rape.

Many employers, particularly universities, have refused to deal with abusers. But the whole atmosphere has changed. A yawning gender gap is opening up among white voters. In a recent survey, 47% of men disapproved of the job Trump had been doing, and 64% of women. 45% of white women with a college education voted for Trump – now they disapprove of him by a two to one margin. But both women and men among white evangelicals continue to support him by a wide margin. What we know now is that racism is more important to them than sexuality morality or god. Yet in this process they are shaming themselves in front of other Americans, and if Trump is removed before the 2020 election – as may well happen, Pence will take office but the success of the movements against Trump will leave him in a very weak position indeed.

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