Members of the clergy and vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in September 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The Public Religion Research Institute recently conducted a massive poll of more than 100,000 Americans. Its results go a long way toward explaining the transformation of the GOP from a conservative party into one fueled and animated by white grievance. In broad terms:
White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations. …
Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.
That demographic and social upheaval has had a huge impact on our politics. For one thing, the GOP has become the party for the dwindling white Protestant population. ("Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. … Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group.") White evangelicals are overwhelmingly situated in the South, where states have become less religiously diverse. "Collectively, white evangelical Protestants are twice as large in the South (22%) and Midwest (20%) as they are in the Northeast (8%)," PRRI finds. "At least one-third of the residents in the following states are white evangelical Protestant: Arkansas (37%), West Virginia (36%), Tennessee (36%), Alabama (35%), and Kentucky (33%). Additionally, Mormons (51%) are the largest religious group in Utah, one of the most religiously homogeneous states in the country."
This is also an aging population. ("White Christians are not only declining, they are aging. Only slightly more than one in ten white evangelical Protestants (11%), white Catholics (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under the age of 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.") It’s a population that is far less educated than other groups. ("Close to half (48%) of white evangelical Protestants have a high school education or less, compared to fewer than four in ten white mainline Protestants (38%), white Catholics (37%), and Mormons (34%).")
This group of Americans — a shrinking white Christian population of older, Southern, more rural and less educated Americans — might be culturally aggrieved, but they are not economically distressed. "Fewer than one-third of white evangelical Protestants (28%), Mormons (26%), white mainline Protestants (22%), and white Catholics (19%) have household incomes of less than $30,000 per year." And it is this group that forms the base of the GOP:
No religious group is more closely tied to the Republican Party than white evangelical Protestants. Nearly half (49%) of white evangelical Protestants identify as Republican, about one-third (31%) are independent, and just 14% are Democratic. Mormons also lean heavily Republican, with more than four in ten (44%) identifying with the GOP, compared to 12% who are Democrats. White mainline Protestants (34% Republican, 26% Democrat) and white Catholics (34% Republican, 26% Democrat) also lean more toward the Republican Party. …
White evangelical Protestants and Mormons are the most conservative religious groups in the country. More than six in ten (62%) white evangelical Protestants and a majority (57%) of Mormons identify as politically conservative.
In sum, if you want to know why white grievance (a burning anger about the loss of status and influence of "people like them") and know-nothingism play such an enormous part in today’s Republican Party, look for the answer in these numbers. The views of the shrinking white evangelical population now dominate the GOP. Other polling shows that the group dismisses the extent of racism directed at minorities, immigrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, while exaggerating the extent of discrimination against whites. It’s this group that was motivated in the 2016 election not by economics but by cultural and racial grievance, which now is at the heart of President Trump’s message:
White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns.
White working-class voters who favored deporting immigrants living in the country illegally were 3.3 times more likely to express a preference for Trump than those who did not.
White working-class voters who said that college education is a gamble were almost twice as likely to express a preference for Trump as those who said it was an important investment in the future.
Once again, these are not economically disadvantaged voters. ("Those who reported being in fair or poor financial shape were 1.7 times more likely to support Clinton, compared to those who were in better financial shape.")
Trying to explore the economic dislocation associated with globalism is a worthy policy exercise. It is not, however, going to explain Trumpism, which has little to do with economics and everything to do with race.
One can understand why logic and facts are no match for irrational resentment. Trump captured, stirred and magnified the animosity these voters feel about their laundry list of villains (immigrants, elites, urbanites, the media or any other sources of information that undercut their irrational views, etc.) As a political matter, it is hard to figure out how to wean people from the grip of an irrational sense of persecution and racial resentment. They are unmoved by data showing that immigrants are not harming them. They refuse to acknowledge that by every measurement, whites are not disadvantaged in our society.
So what do opponents of Trumpism do? In a democracy, numbers ultimately matter, so for those who view Trumpism with fear and disgust, the solution is simple: Outvote Trump’s base. That means overcoming smaller policy differences for the sake of reestablishing support for democratic norms, an inclusive country and a society respectful of objective data.