Theories of Evangelical Support for Trump: The Lesser of Two Evils

In this short series, we’re examining why white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump. Today’s theory is a simple one: They voted for Trump because, of the two major candidates who, in 2016, were going to win the presidency, they found him less objectionable than the other.

On its surface, this is a compelling argument–after all, even when we are choosing between two wonderful things (brownies or cheesecake for dessert?), we’re choosing on thing over another. Sometimes we are choosing what we don’t want as much as we do. And, certainly, for some white evangelicals, the 2016 election was a “hold your nose and vote” situation. It was likely the same for many voters who pulled the lever* for Clinton. Indeed, “negative voting”–selecting a candidate because you didn’t like their opponent, rather than because you had a positive evaluation of the person you chose–seems to have been especially important in 2016.

However, this begs the question: How come so many white evangelicals had such a negative view of Clinton? The question is complicated by the fact that black evangelicals did not go for Trump–so even if they had a negative view of both candidates, their own “lesser of two evils” was the former Secretary of State.

Of course, there are considered, thoughtful reasons to object to Clinton, as Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly serious challenge in the primary election suggested. Trumpvangelicals and Bernie or Busters likely share some of the same critiques of Clinton (including NAFTA), which is one reason why I think that Sanders would have been a more forceful contender in 2016 and remains the candidate most likely to move voters from R to D in 2020.

On the issues we think of as key to white evangelicals–abortion, LGBT rights, protections for immigrants and refugees, Islamophobia, and warfare–Clinton and Trump presented stark choices. Still, so did Obama and Romney, Obama and McCain, Bush and Kerry, and Bush and Gore. But white evangelicals turned out for Trump at a larger rate than they did for Republicans in any of the previous elections, even though those men were less Christian, by any measure, than is Trump and their opponents were politically no more liberal than Clinton. Obama, remember, was considered the/an anti-Christ by some Republican voters, but they still didn’t show up for McCain or Romney like they did for Trump. Was Clinton actually worse than the anti-Christ?

White evangelicals should perhaps be forgiven for thinking so. Since the early 1990s, they’ve been reminded constantly that Clinton is evil. They hated her for not being feminine enough (not baking cookies, for example). They blamed her for Bill Clinton’s affairs–but also for standing by him during his impeachment. She’s a lesbian. She was a carpetbagger, bringing ideas from her fancy all-women’s college to Arkansas. She’s a mass murderer and a pedophile sex trafficker according to some of the ugliest conspiracy theories. She used her maiden name even after she got married.

Even now, more than a quarter of a century after she came to national attention, Clinton’s face appears regularly on tabloids at the grocery store check out. Like Brad and Jennifer, we can’t seem to get enough gossip about people who are pretty irrelevant to our lives now.

The level of hate against Clinton isn’t rational; it isn’t warranted by her proposed policies, which were not significantly different from more recent Democratic candidates. And on many issues, she performed in ways that should have pleased many conservatives: a hawk on war, pro-Israel, “tough on crime” in ways that harmed black communities terribly.

Trump supporters sometimes charge those who believe Trump is a detriment to the US as having “Trump Derangement Syndrome”–an obsession with Trump’s bad behavior that prevents them from seeing reality. It seems to me, though, that this may be projection. The hostility that so many Trump supporters continue to feel about Clinton is disproportionate to their actual complaints about her. They have to allow the conspiracy theories to churn because the truth–they, the Bible, and most fetuses in the womb would have survived her presidency–can’t justify their hatred and disrespect.

So what can?

Sexism, mostly, I think, including the demand that women can never be smug, entitled, or arrogant. Even if you think that Clinton displayed these qualities in the 2016 campaign, you’d have to think they were more of a problem for a woman to have than for Trump to demonstrate.

Image result for hillary clinton is satan

Above, an ad placed by Russian trolls shows Satan and Jesus in an arm wrestling match for the future of America.

The “lesser of two evils” argument also frames the election as only a contest between Clinton and Trump. It was not. It was initially a contest among Trump, Cruz, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and a number of other Republicans. Why, when given the chance to choose between “the lesser of two evils” much earlier in the process of choosing a president did white evangelicals still go so strongly for Trump?

Finally, it doesn’t explain their continued support for him. It’s possible to choose a lesser of two evil, then work like hell every day to push him to be a better president. Instead, white evangelicals have (mostly) fallen in line. These“court evangelicals,” to use John Fea’s term, continue to cheer him on.

It’s not that I find the “lesser of two evils” argument invalid; I think that, for many of Trump’s voters, the choice in the privacy of the voting booth was about voting against Clinton. But, as a whole, Republicans put themselves into the position of having to choose Trump when they might have had a better option all along.

Rebecca

*If you learned nothing else in 2016, please have learned this: vote with a paper ballot.

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