Donald Trump can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of many Evangelical voters. His support among white Evangelicals rose from 81 percent in 2016 to 84 percent in 2020 and remains strong. But, as many commentators have pointed out, both Trump’s personality and policies violate the Christian ethics of hospitality and aiding “the least of these.”
How did white Evangelicals arrive at their views? The question is important because, though declining as a percentage of the overall population, Evangelicals still make up 25 percent of the voting public and can sway domestic and foreign policy. The answer involves not just religious but also political and socio-economic concerns. In fact, Evangelicals reported the economy (62 percent) and national security (58 percent) as among the most influential factors in determining their votes in the 2016 election. Abortion ranked well behind, at 31 percent, and LGBTQ issues were a top priority for just 16 percent. In 2020, the economy was again the highest priority, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evangelical support for right-wing populism cannot, therefore, be understood as a simple transactional gambit where Republicans pass bans on abortion in return for Evangelical support on economic policy. Rather, it must be understood in terms of both the broader right-wing populist movement—which emerges from the experience of duress over economics and rapid way-of-life changes—and in terms of specific concerns within Evangelical communities, especially since the 1960s. We must ask what in Evangelical history, theology, and present circumstances makes Trumpian right-wing populism seem like the ethical stance.
Central to the appeal of right-wing populism overall is a concern that opportunities are disappearing in a rapidly changing economy. Coupled with this economic anxiety is a broader fear of losing one’s place in society, especially for those accustomed to relatively higher social status. Psychologists Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin call it “dominant group victimhood.” Those most attracted to the Republican party between 2010 and 2018 were white, high-school-educated, middle-income earners concerned that a new “knowledge-based” economy threatened their place in the middle class. Other way-of-life anxieties—about changing gender roles, technology, and demographics—also play into a fear of being left behind.
Populism proposes to address these concerns through us-versus-them narratives. Under duress, groups can undergo what might be called an “us-them shift”: the usual focus on one’s own group gives way to a focus on an “other” thought to be the source of the problem. “The more stressful the situation,” psychiatrist Vamik Volkan writes, “the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”