How Studying Evangelicalism Prepared Me for Trump’s Alternative Facts

Trump’s first few days in office have been, well, newsworthy. And by that I mean he’s spent much of his time fighting with the news. The morning after his inauguration, he declared war on those who dared claim his crowd was smaller than that of Obama’s. After visual evidence clearly demonstrated the curtailed audience for his speech—a fact that, frankly, should not be surprising given the demographic and political makeup of the DC area—Trump sent his press secretary to scold the media and, while flanked with blown-up images of the crowd, declare that it was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” They then followed that up by insisting that the only reason Hillary Clinton won the general vote was because of wide-spread voting fraud, an accusation based on zero evidence and fraudulent reports. Neither of these claims are within the realm of possibility, but are easily disproved with even superficial research. So why would Trump’s team start their administration with such blatant lies?

I think one answer can be found in a seemingly quixotic place: the rise of evangelical fundamentalism in the twentieth century. Bear with me.

A few years ago Harvard University Press published The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, a fascinating book co-authored by religious historian Randall Stephens and physics scholar Karl Giberson. They argued that over the last hundred years, a particular segment within the Evangelical community, especially those with a fundamentalist bent, worked to establish competing realms of intellectual authority. When faced with new challenges from “secular” truths regarding history, biology, psychology, and other fields, charismatic leaders developed alternate realms that reaffirmed more conservative “truths.” Those who pushed things like evolution could therefore be tactically disarmed because their arguments were based on a different set of values: their ideas were not “anointed” by God, and thus dismissed.

The result of this were the rise of anti-intellectual, populist, and charismatic leaders who, though lacking in credentials and credibility, could draw an immense following. Ken Ham, an Australian young-earth creationist, built a popular creationism museum and, more recently, reconstructed Noah’s ark. David Barton, a self-trained historian who peddles easily debunked ideas about America’s “Christian founding,” became a close advisor to a number of conservative politicians. These and other individuals capitalized on this artificial bubble that shields them from actual research, peer-review, and criticism. They have made a successful career selling “alternative facts.”

So what does this have to do with Trump? I can see at least two points of connection. First, I think these models of delegitimized and delegitimizing discourse laid a foundation for Trump’s support. According to Pew, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, someone who’s noted for not being very, um, religious. They were willing to buy into his narrative of a “rigged” system and “crooked” media because they’ve heard similar things in their religious setting for years. They shared a distrust for the same liberal, educated elites who challenged their intellectual value system. Their hatred for the “mainstream media” is not too distant from their rejection of “secularists.” They were willing to live within a bubble of contained, self-referential rationality.

And second, Evangelical discourse provided a blueprint for Trump’s public persona. Rather than entering into competing ideas within a marketplace of thought, fundamentalists learned to cast a particular meaning to each side of the debate: the “anointed,” chosen by God, on the one hand, and the “depraved,” those who rejected God’s truth, on the other. That makes it so an idea’s veracity or factual vindication are irrelevant. Trump’s administration, from the very beginning, is setting the foundation for the “chosen” to be those willing to accept his bold assertions, and the “corrupt” to be those who challenge him tooth and nail. By making his supporters accept things that are otherwise indefensible, his team is neutering the very possibility of debate.

Progressives are simultaneously flummoxed that Trump’s administration is willing to destroy their credibility by presenting obvious falsehoods while also wondering why many still support him. Why would so many people sign up for “alternative facts”? But historians of American religion should be able to explain the intellectual genealogy for such a dynamic, as well as explain why this politics of knowledge still plays a role today. America has long had alternative ways of knowing, and Trump is merely able to exploit them.

It turns out Trump may be more Evangelical than we thought.

One comment

  1. Kristine · January 25, 2017

    This is part of the story, perhaps. I think one also has to consider the ways the Republican party cynically exploited religion in the creation of the “Religious Right”–Republicans did a lot to empty religion of its doctrinal content and turn it into a socio-political ideology. Evangelicals would never have voted for a Mormon (let alone for Trump), had not a couple of decades of being manipulated by hot-button social issues trained them to identify their religiosity with a party affiliation.

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