Perhaps the most enduring puzzlement about Donald Trump the president and candidate is his ability, if that’s what it is, to attract a faithful political base founded on fervent evangelical Christians, despite his frequently reinforced reputation for less than righteous acts and statements.
During the 2015-16 campaign, each emerging example of Trump misbehavior, from off-color references to women and allegations of affairs, convinced Eastern elites and media to believe the billionaire’s upstart political rebellion was doomed any day. Inexplicably to them, it was not. He defeated 16 other Republicans, then in November 2016 executed the most shocking upset of modern times.
The disbelief was so severe that Hillary Clinton could not compose herself for the traditional election-night concession speech. The wider disbelief morphed into anger and wild theories to explain or create the illegitimacy of the 45th president. As a nation, we’re still enduring that psychological pain and resistance to reality despite the number of counties Trump won (2,626 to 487), states captured (30 to 20) and Electoral College votes (304 to 227).
Americans are regularly barraged still by new or revived allegations of Trump misbehavior of the sort that has forced the public resignations of dozens of men in other lines of work. Trump’s job approval is historically low for a new president. It’s hovered in the mid- to upper-30 percent range until last month when it moved well into the 40’s.
Still nothing to text home about. But that support has remained rock-solid. And, in fact, among allegedly conservative Republicans, Trump approval has climbed into the mid-80 percent range. All this despite continued stormy allegations by a model and adult actress, who claimed she had consensual albeit unenthusiastic sex with Trump, who tried to pay her.
How can all this be?
Well, here’s a variety of interesting reasons that reveal a changing American becoming more open, less judgmental, and the enduring historical political identification of religious Americans with the Republican Party.
In 1964, the GOP denied even its nomination in part to a man who’d been (whisper) divorced. It took 43 presidential elections for the U.S. to elect someone not a Quaker or some brand or offshoot of Protestant. And it took 48 such national decisions to pick someone who had been divorced, one of those actors, no less.
Then in 2016, we elected a man with no political experience, a reality TV host who is twice-divorced, so far.
It was likely less calculation and more intuition that a wealthy New Yorker could assemble just the right number of votes in just the right places voicing the seething frustrations, anger and resentments of ignored, under-employed Americans in flyover country. They had naively financed and sent to Washington a generation of politicians of both parties promising change and, whether due to inertia, gridlock or deceit, delivering nothing of the sort, just status quo.
Along came Trump promising to drain the D.C. swamp up against a woman who’d been a swamp creature with her misbehaving husband for a quarter-century. Unlike her skilled politician husband, Clinton also happened to be colossally inept with no over-riding message beyond ‘I’m not my deplorable opponent.’
Then, there’s religion. A massive yearlong Gallup survey of some 131,000 adults found the two most religious regions in the country are the Southeast, where Trump won every state, and the Southwest, where he captured all but two. Except for Illinois and Minnesota, Trump also won the entire Midwest, which had above-average religious ID, and the entire Rocky Mountain tier.
Though an infrequent churchgoer himself, Trump devotes assiduous attention to the political interests of religious adherents. Think moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem next month, a promise unfulfilled by several presidents. Trump did it.
But wait, you say. Trump lost New England, once home to Puritans, but now – wait for it – scoring the lowest religious identification of any U.S. region.
In a recent analysis, Gallup’s top editor, Frank Newport, noted a common misconception, especially among media, that American voters such as religious evangelicals begin their voting decisions with a blank slate. “American evangelicals' starting point in evaluating Trump is their highly preconditioned and reflexive tendency to support Republican politicians,” he wrote.
Same is true, in effect, for the other side. Never-Trumpers cannot honestly address the 2016 results without admitting their own major mistakes, starting with Clinton’s nomination. Hence, there must be another reason, say, Russian meddling.
You might think someone with Trump’s personality and history would be anathema to the strict codes of professed belief and moral behavior of groups such as evangelicals and Orthodox Jews. First, no religious, ethnic or racial segment is monolithic.
And evangelicals’ predilection for Republicans raises the bar quite high for abandoning that instinctive choice, especially if it’s under constant attack from untrusted media. Newport adds, “It would take a lot to change that predisposition.” And so far, that hasn’t happened.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.