Religious Rhetoric in US Right-Wing Politics: Donald Trump, Intergroup Threat, and Nationalism
This is an excerpt reprinted with permission from Religious Rhetoric in US Right-Wing Politics: Donald Trump, Intergroup Threat, and Nationalism by Chiara Migliori copyright © 2022 Palgrave Macmillan.
Six years have elapsed since Donald Trump became the President elect of the United States. Since the announcement of his candidacy in the summer of 2015, the campaign and mandates of the 45th President have elicited a considerable amount of research, investigation, and commentaries on his persona, and on how he could become, or did not stand a chance to be, Commander in Chief. As surprising as his victory was for many, this event did not occur in a political vacuum. It was in fact the result of a developing social, economic, and political climate which on the one hand led to the modernization and diversification of the country, and on the other to the growth of resentment and the radicalization of various strata of the population.
This ethnographic and social development and its effects have not come to a halt once Trump left the White House (and was ousted from his preferred social media channel, Twitter). Since January 2020, we have witnessed the intensification of a climate of fear and uncertainty that has been sweeping through many western democracies since well before the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, and which is increasingly exploited by both rising and well-established right-wing actors to obtain electoral gains.
Building upon the analysis of both written and oral material collected during Trump’s presidency, this book casts a light on the imaginary of the former president’s supporters, and attempts to provide explanations of the success not only of his persona and of his political rhetoric, but of many contemporary right-wing figures as well. Although his presentation as a devout, spiritually sound Christian person is clearly false, his political legacy and the devastating effects on the social climate of the country are very much a fact. By studying Trump we can learn how to combat the spread of a reactionary and authoritarian climate on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The myth of Donald Trump is a tale told by many voices. One is that of the religious right movement. Trained for decades by their political and ideological support of prominent Republican Party figures, the religious right sharpened its rhetorical weapons to create a mythological figure, that of Trump the protector of Christian citizens and their values. Their contribution to the propagation of the fable consisted of the tireless efforts of some of the movement’s most prominent players in publicizing the figure of Trump as the savior of Christianity (Jerry Falwell, Jr. was one of Trump’s most ardent supporters). The ideological partnership between Trump and the religious right consecrated the former as a figure capable of representing the interests of Christian citizens and legitimized his position as the candidate of the Republican Party.
But this tale doesn’t stand on public mythmaking alone. After all, Trump garnered an impressive 81% of the votes of white citizens who call themselves Evangelicals. In the end, it was up to them to approve of Trump’s beatification by the conservative religious elite, and they carried the task through with passion and dedication. The voters with whom I came into contact did not seem to have knowledge of, or even interest in the Christian right movement. Yet as they were more than willing to show, many of them believed in the good faith of a Donald Trump eager to protect Christian values and their identity, dramatically debased by years of Democratic presidency.
In their imagination, Trump is portrayed as the leader who would fight the battle that would finally lead them to regain a status and position unjustly taken from them. More importantly, however, he was perceived as one of them. It is the combination of these two images of Trump that provides us with the key to understanding his success. Trump, in fact, didn’t only share their frustration at supposed discursive limitations, damaging economic deals, and detested social changes that disrupted a society once dominated by white Christian men and is now, theoretically, no longer. He picked up on this resentment and bewilderment and made himself its spokesman by publicly displaying and ranting about it. What they saw in him was a means to release their feelings of status loss, displacement, and anger, allowing them to feel like their resentment was finally being heard, without having to undergo the risk of expressing themselves, being labeled as offensive and feeling attacked.
Trump, it will be shown, was himself a megaphone for the resentment of his supporters and, in doing so, acted as a kind of outlet. Every slip in his speech, every questionable rejection of the norms of civil conversation, every crowd-inflaming slogan used in place of a substantive policy agenda was an opportunity for his supporters to take pleasure. His supporters derived satisfaction solely from the public presence of someone who seemed to exist and serve as president solely and exclusively to rebuke the wrongs they allegedly suffered over the past decades.
In November 2020, the fable of Donald Trump reached its official conclusion. He was defeated by the cabal of liberals, feminists, and successors of the “apologist in chief” Barack Obama that he himself had valiantly tried to uproot from the swamp of Washington. Trump fought for weeks, with the inveterate support of his followers, but had to succumb to the overwhelming reality, and even to the shame of having one of his favorite channels of communication taken away. The hero of the tale did not go down without a fight, nor did his supporters, who protested to the point of committing an act of domestic terrorism by storming the Capitol two weeks before the inauguration of the 46th president Joe Biden and the first African American and South Asian woman vice president Kamala Harris.
This book tells the tale of Donald Trump, supposed protector of the values of a threatened identity: white, Christian, and middle-class. It does so through the voices of those who created and lived that tale, the religious right movement and the former president’s ordinary supporters, not excluding the voice of Trump himself.
While it focuses on those portraying themselves as the persecuted majority, the unjustly silenced, the custodians of the only traditional and legitimate American way of life, this book also gives space to the voices of those who, despite belonging to the same demographic sector, proudly declared the opposite political affiliation. This is not intended to counter the studies showing how the American public opinion is much more purple than neatly divided into red and blue encampments and that polarization is a myth, or an element traceable only at the party level (Fiorina 2017, Webster and Abramowitz 2017). The purpose is in fact to highlight the wall of incommunicability that has been erected in the course of the last decades and that Trump has made more impenetrable. While I am aware that the usefulness of the term “culture wars” is often harshly disputed, I insist on the importance of maintaining the lexicon alluded to by this phrase, as it points to the perception of persecution and struggle that characterize the protagonists of this tale.
The structure of the book is modeled after that of a hypothetical tale. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on the supposedly dire predicament in which white conservative Christians find themselves. Through their voices, as well as relevant studies conducted in the field, readers will obtain a thorough knowledge of how this situation came to be. Chapters 5 and 6 present the religious right as supporters of the aforementioned demographic group , and their rhetorical weapon: a narrative based on the need to defend their rights to religious freedom and to free speech. Finally, chapters 7 and 8 center on the figure of Donald Trump, his peculiar ethno-nationalist religious discourse and the improvement he allegedly brought to society and the nation as a whole. The most important reason for Trump’s success will be presented in the final chapter, where the voices of his supporters will help us understand, once and for all, why they saw him as their hero. ♦
Chiara Migliori obtained her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of North American Studies of the Freie Universität in Berlin, where she focused her research on the figure of Donald Trump as perceived by white conservative Christians, ordinary voters, and members of religion-based advocacy and interest groups. From 2017 to 2019, she conducted individual and focus-group interviews with Trump supporters in the United States, and the results of the research were published in the book Religious Rhetoric in Right-Wing Politics: Donald Trump, Intergroup Threat, and Nationalism by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022.
Migliori, Chiara. “Religious Rhetoric in Right-Wing Politics: Donald Trump, Intergroup Threat, and Nationalism.” Canopy Forum, October 11, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/10/11/religious-rhetoric-in-us-right-wing-politics-donald-trump-intergroup-threat-and-nationalism/