Donald Trump, American Secular Nationalism and the Decline of Religious Identity


Donald Trump is making headlines again, and, as usual not for the right reasons. After everything Trump has came out with and his apparent political invincibility despite the distastefulness of his endless remarks, last night’s revelations may prove to be the final nail in his coffin after leaked footage from 2005 shown the Presidential Candidate bragging of his “ability” to seduce and do unspeakable things to any woman he wanted (including married women), made possible through his self-acclaimed wealth and fame. In so many ways, it was typical Trump, the fanatically self-obsessed ego maniac without a shred of shame, modesty, humility or dignity in anything he says or does. Yet the clips were exposed at such a crucial time and were so damaging that it forced an apology out of him, forcing him to concede for the first time (probably in his entire life) that he had made a mistake. The image of this unashamed, lustful and morally repugnant character as the President of the United States, the world’s most powerful and influential figure, leading diplomat and commander in Chief just doesn’t sit well with anyone. But you really don’t need me to point that out do you?

But anyway, what was interesting beyond Trump’s comments was the chorus of leading Republicans whom stood up to condemn their own candidate for the remarks, throwing aside the heated political battlelines of the election to call him Trump and question his moral credentials. This included former candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain, former primary rival Jeb Bush, house speaker Paul Ryan, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and to simplify it, pretty much anyone capable of putting their conscience first. Yet, the scourge of the Republican elite against the New York tycoon is hardly a new thing. Most of the names mentioned have refused to ever endorse him as the candidate or done so very reluctantly for the sake of saving party face. Trump’s rise in the primaries revealed this scathing fracture at the heart of the Grand Old Party between the “establishment” and the “grass roots” or more generically, the established core of the party and the disenfranchised, “left behind” voters he vacuumed up to propel him to where he is now. In no sense at all (again to state the obvious) has Trump been a normal Republican candidate. Rather than professing his devotion to Christianity and the traditional moral debates dominating U.S politics, such as abortion, school prayer, guns, along with a commitment to small-state liberalism, Trump descended into his own tangent of American secular-nationalism and identity politics, focusing  instead on immigration, security, terrorism and economic protectionism.

This dramatic shift in Republican emphasis, along with Trump’s callous and erractic remarks, made him toxic amongst the established party elite whilst making him unbeatable amongst primary voters. Efforts by more moralistic conservative opponents such as Ted Cruz to brand him as “false conservative”, exposing his flip flops, inconsistencies and former liberal stances on the key issues failed dramatically. Although Cruz did remarkably well in areas with stronger religious identities, such as Utah, not receptive to Trump’s identity politics whistle, as a whole his attempt to defeat him on traditional Conservative lines were unsuccessful. All of this and Trump in general, which is the key message today, outlines a fundamental shift in American society and politics. America is becoming more secular. Religious identity in many areas, is declining. As religious identity declines, its worth in politics does too and at the grassroots it has been replaced with a secular, nationalistic identity politics which has emerged in the form of the Donald Trump candidacy. Only enclaves in the American West such as Utah (who are the most Republican state, yet also the most Anti-trump state) have survived this transition. Let’s explore more.

In demonstrating this point, it must be highlighted that on religious grounds the Republican party have been defeated by Liberals on pretty much every religious “moral issue” which underpinned American Conservative identity (except guns). In these so called “culture wars” the Republicans have lost on abortion, school prayer, secularization, LGBT rights, feminism and gay marriage. Most of these issues were resolved by supreme court decisions but also have substantial popular public support and legitimacy. Secular liberalism has without a doubt gained hegemony in American society, controls the terms of the debate and has defeated religious conservatism. It is not just a political battle, America is becoming less religiously devout, more secular and less Christian. The popular stereotypes of the zealous of Southern baptists are becoming increasingly out of touch with everyday opinion and likewise so have Republican politicians who follow these lines. Hence, the party has slowly shifted towards Middle Class, fiscally Conservative voters as their base.

The grassroots voters, especially those who vote for Trump, are not really uncomfortable with these religious shifts, they aren’t really bothered about Gay Marriage or what not. Rather, with the decline of the American economy and average incomes, the polarization of wealth inequality and the centrification of both major parties towards the Middle Class centre, they have become politically disenfranchised. For these voters, the pursuance of long lost battles over religious issues offers them nothing. As Christianity loses its legitimacy, Christian identity politics becomes worthless. The result is, like in society, that as religious identity declines, secular nationalist identity replaces it. This is a process which took place in Europe centuries ago and persists today, as catholic universalism evolved into a system of highly patriotic Nation states and Empires. It is true to say, American religious identity has had a far longer lifespan than that of Europe, hence many Europeans have often mocked America for the role religion plays in public life.

But now, as stated, America is experiencing a shift and amongst blue collar voters, especially those in Eastern States where religion has declined the most dramatically, or in the Deep South where Christianity has been dealt its strongest blow from the “culture wars” and where there is still a bitter fallout from the civil war years. Resultantly, American religious universalism is being replaced with a discrete sense of American patriotism with a new emphasis rooted in a fear of demographic and cultural change posed by immigration. It lingers on a nostalgia of a time where America was more white, more European and more Western with a more “homogeneous” culture. Of course any serious look at history would render these “memories” mythical at best, as America has always been a melting pot. Nonetheless, in the minds of these people a traditional way of life is perceived as threatened and is also combined with anger against politicians who no longer represent them, pondering to the interests of the Middle Classes or pursue religious quests they no longer believe in. These conditions are what have created the soil which has sprouted the Donald Trump candidacy.

Donald Trump’s campaign has thus been so “invincible” because it has represented both this unassailable political anger and the identity of these voters. He has noticed and seemingly exploited this vacuum with shrewdness and his complete monopoly over it has allowed him to get away with everything an established politician would not be able to do. Whilst Trump’s blatant lack of regard for republican tradition gains him criticism amongst more religious elites, his own voters, secularized, just don’t care. Blinded by disillusion and anger, nor do they care about how offensive he may be in any number of vulgar or unsophisticated comments he makes. He is immune to being attacked from a religious or socially conservative perspective, and although not immune but certainly well armoured against Liberal “politically correct” attacks. As he has thrived on this “establishment” driven opposition, he has exposed an enormous disconnect between the party core and the grassroots, one which has been bubbling for years but he managed to be the final tipping point. He vows to restore this American “identity” they perceive, come “tough” on these growing perception of insecurity and also pledges to end an “unjust” economic system which they don’t benefit from. Of course, its all been done in a way what the whole outside world cringes and stares at with total disbelief.

In conclusion, come November, its likely Trump will be defeated following a campaign that has been very much incompetent and disastrous too. It’s not just about identity and soundbites, Trump doesn’t even know what he’s talking about on most of the key issues anyway and most of his controversial comments have been self-defeating. Nonetheless, don’t expect this shift to go away. The Republican Party needs to reinvent itself to bridge the now glaring gap between it and its constituents, resorting to the religious right won’t fix that. It’s facing an identity crisis, a crisis of appeal and a crisis of purpose. Are the Republican Party representative of small state, social, religious Conservatives or is it a secular nationalist, blood and soil engine for the populist voters of the working class? Neither of them appeal to enough people in a changing and polarizing America to take the Presidency and if Hilary is elected, that will be three democrat presidents to one republican since 1993. When we look at it in this perspective, Trump is not just the cause but is an overwhelming symptom and product in highlighting the decline of American Republicanism. Weakening religious identity, increasing economic divides and anger at politicians are all to blame.