Donald Trump’s clean sweep of southeastern states has taken many pundits by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. Trump’s performance in the south among evangelical voters is actually quite in keeping with the strain of evangelical conservatism prevalent in the bible belt.
Many moons ago in a prior blogging life I wrote a multi-part series detailing the different strands of American conservatism, and reading it now I may have forecasted the rise of Trump. First, I noted a type of conservatism (cranky conservatism) that seems to typify the Trump voter.
On the other end of the spectrum, the paleo-conservatives and crankycons seem to hate everything. And yet they are most comfortable with populist schemes that betray the Framers’ original plans. Their anti-elitism runs so deep that they would bequeath to the masses enormous power. Their enemies are the ghouls in the academies with their fancy ideas. But while they would have you believe that they are the true inheritors of the conservative mantle, their philosophy is a deep betrayal of the republican tradition. Their ultimate designs are no less radical than the hated neocons they so regularly disparage.
Sounds like a typical Trump supporter to me.
As related to religion and conservatism, this is what I wrote back in 2005 (please ignore the horrible misspelling of hear as “here”):
Traditional conservatism is generally less concerned about the temporal world. This strain of conservatism dates to Augustine, who saw utopian schemes for the foolishness that they were. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the intellectual impetus behind this brand usually comes from the Roman Catholic Church, or its near neighbors in the Episcopalian version. Buckley, Kirk, Ponnuru, Reagan: all thinkers who are Catholic or whose religion was close to that of Roman Catholicism. This is no mere coincidence.
We here a lot about religion and the conservative movement, and indeed religion has played a crucial role in all conservative parties throughout the world. But what many fail to understand, principally because they fail to understand Christianity is that there are crucial differences in the religious outlook of Evangelicals and Catholics, and these differences play out in the political world. The steadfast pessimism of the Catholic faith is mirrored in the political outlook of most conservative Catholics. They see this as a fallen world. And while we should strive to make this world as good as we can, our expectations for the temporal world should not be so high. Consequently, we should not put much stock in government and its ability to change the world.
I am not as well-versed in Evangelical religion to speak authoritatively, but it seems to me that the Evangelicals are much more optimistic about reshaping this earthly realm. Their fervor for conversion seeps into their political consciousness, thus they have grander visions for reform than does the Catholic conservative.
It would be easy to simply paint as the essential demarcation in conservative thought as the interplay between Catholic and Evangelical theology. It would be easy because it is essentially correct. We share many of the same values, but at some point there is a rift in our fundamental vision of the government because there is a fundamental rift in our theological outlook. That is not to say that all Catholics are all of a particular political stripe, and all Evangelicals of another. But if one wants to understand the divergence in American conservative thought, there would be worse starting points than this examination of the difference between Catholicism and Evangelical religion.
None of the developments of the previous decade has changed my thinking on these matters. To be sure, not all Evangelicals are utopian, nor are all Catholic conservatives necessarily fierce opponents of “big government.” Indeed the lone remaining standard bearer of traditional conservatism is Ted Cruz, a fervent Evangelical himself. Yet the populist appeal of Trump in the south indicates there is something to this distinction. Meanwhile Cruz has done better in the southwest and midwest, areas of the country that have a more libertarian hue and better represent the traditional strain of conservatism.
Contrary to the narrative, this primary is far from over. Trump is likely to be the nominee, but Cruz still has a fighting chance. This is the ultimate showdown of the two types of conservatism I detailed many years ago. Regardless of who wins, I believe we’re just seeing the beginnings of a much fiercer war for the heart of conservatism.