Donald Trump’s November 16 rally in Knoxville began with a conversion story. The opening speaker was Beada Corum, a 92-year-old local woman who had never registered to vote before hearing Trump speak on television earlier this year. She told the crowd: “I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, this man makes a lot of sense to me!’”
The rally was held in a large ballroom at the Knoxville Convention Center, adjacent to the city’s downtown core and the University of Tennessee. Most of the audience stood clustered around the small stage, and latecomers continued to stream in throughout the event, though the hall never filled. The next day, Trump’s people would criticize local media for estimating the size of the audience at 5,000—campaign organizers insisted that it was double that number.
Some of those in attendance—like those outfitted in campaign garb from Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul—seemed to be there purely for the spectacle of the thing. But many attended in full support of Trump, holding professional signs declaring “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump” and “Make America Great Again.” The latter slogan was also emblazoned on red trucker caps and buttons for sale from vendors outside of the convention center, many of which made their way inside on the heads and lapels of Trump’s supporters.
Trump’s candidacy, once thought to be a long shot, now shows no signs of diminishing, even as GOP party leaders condemn him. His most inflammatory rhetoric includes anti-immigrant and anti-Muslims statements, but he continues to surge as he taps into the fears of disgruntled and disaffected voters. Yesterday, Trump made arguably his most controversial move so far, when he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Only time will tell if Trump’s campaign suffers because of it; up until now, his poll numbers seem to only increase the more provocative his rhetoric becomes.
In Knoxville, at the convention center, the majority of the audience sang along with the national anthem, pledged allegiance to the flag, booed at the mention of Democratic candidates, and cheered Trump with shouts of support and “Amen!”
The loudest chorus of “Amens” erupted for Beada Corum. Her story of conversion from political disinterest to passionate involvement mirrors similar stories told by conservative activists over the past few decades, and in particular by luminaries of the modern Christian Right. In the early 1980s, Beverly LaHaye—founder of the conservative lobbying organization Concerned Women for America and wife of the bestselling evangelical author Tim LaHaye—described her political awakening as a result of hearing feminist leader Betty Friedan speak on television. “Something in me was stirred to action as I realized Betty Friedan thought she was speaking for the women of America. I found myself saying verbally to Tim, “They don’t speak for me!! And I don’t think they speak for the vast majority of women in America.”
LaHaye’s political awakening came out of a negative response to Friedan, while Corum’s message was one of support for Trump, but their stories bear important similarities. Both reflect a longstanding tendency among conservative Christians to distance themselves from the political realm by expressing their political interests as something new, or something not really political at all. When Pentecostal pastor John Gimenez organized the Washington for Jesus March in 1980—an event that featured speakers like future Presidential candidate Pat Robertson and focused on topics including abortion, homosexuality, and communism—Gimenez insisted that the event was fundamentally “spiritual, not political.”
On the face of it, Trump does not have the religious credentials to win over these evangelical voters—many of whom come to their political commitments by way of their religious beliefs. Trump is not an evangelical Christian. He was raised in a mainline Presbyterian church and has been hesitant to discuss his faith publicly. His most extensive public comments about his religious faith come from an interview that he gave to the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2011, when he was considering a presidential run in the last election cycle. During this interview, he struggled to articulate a religious identity that would appeal to the network’s evangelical audience. “I believe in God. I am a Christian,” he said then. “I think the Bible is certainly, it is the book, it is the thing.” At the same time, he made it clear that church attendance is not a top priority in his life: “I go as much as I can. Always on Christmas. Always on Easter.”
More recently, he has faced criticism for his comments at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, earlier this year. Asked if he has ever appealed to God for forgiveness for his sins, Trump responded: “I’m not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there.” He continued, “I don’t bring God in to that picture. I don’t.” Even his description of communion as a kind of supplication raised eyebrows for its apparent irreverence: “When I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and I have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.”
Yet none of this impiety has seemed to hurt Trump so far. Until recently he led white evangelical voters in the polls, and he still claims a respectable 24 percent share of the demographic, tying Ted Cruz and edging out Ben Carson. Since the presidential race began, he continues to top polls both nationally and in early primary states, where the GOP’s white evangelical base plays a key role.
Trump’s appeal to evangelical voters may come in part from his willingness to take on certain social issues near and dear to this group. He has spoken of his personal opposition to same-sex marriage, and though he was once vocally in favor of abortion rights, he has been equally vocal about his newfound anti-abortion perspective.
Trump’s comments about minority groups, and particularly his anti-Muslim stance, also aligns him with many evangelical voters. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found no other religious group had a less favorable view of Muslims than did white evangelicals. While prominent evangelical leaders—like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore—have rightly criticized Trump and his incendiary comments, still others like Franklin Graham and Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. have also made troubling anti-Muslim statements.
But Trump’s appeal to “values voters” isn’t only about his mostly newfound alignment with them on these issues. It’s also about his ability to tap into the overriding sensibilities of conservative evangelical rhetoric—to express distaste for the political realm even as he delves deeply into it. Trump frames his political motivations in a story about national decline and the promise of restored American supremacy. Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” may not have any explicitly religious overtones, but it resonates with the stories that evangelical voters have been telling about the nation for decades: that it was once a great nation with a special relationship to God, that it has lost its way, and that it can be great again.
In this way, Trump’s campaign is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s brilliant appeal in the late 1960s to a “silent majority” of voters fed up with antiwar protesters, countercultural hedonism, and the demands of proliferating civil rights movements. Nixon appealed to disgruntled white conservatives—including a burgeoning movement of conservative evangelicals—by capturing the notion that their concerns weren’t properly political, that they were really only seeking to restore order to an American gone wrong. Like Nixon, Trump uses vague references to moral decline and American patriotism to cast a wide net, to appeal to a broad swath of conservatives who feel alienated from the machinations of Washington bureaucrats, but who can hear their grievances reflected in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering.
“We don’t win any more,” he lamented at the Knoxville event, promising that under a Trump presidency: “We’re going to win on trade! We’re going to win on health! We’re going to win on education!”
Throughout the rally, Trump presented himself as the ultimate anti-politician politician: “I can’t stand politicians! I’m a politician now. Can you believe it? I can’t stand it! All my life I’ve dealt with politicians – they’re so easy [to deal with],” he exclaimed, joking with the audience: “Can I still say I’m in the real estate business or something? You don’t mind, do you?”
And herein lies the political genius of Trump. Without tying himself to any particular group, Trump has captured the populist rhetoric of the most conservative elements of the GOP base. He spoke for more than 45 minutes in Knoxville and hardly referred to religion at all, focusing instead on issues related to immigration, defense, and trade. But religion was not absent from the event. It began with a prayer, given by a local law enforcement officer, beseeching God to bless America with a “guiding hand of direction” and a “guarding hedge of protection.” Corum, the 92-year-old first-time voter who warmed up Trump’s audience, also had a great deal to say about good, evil, and God. The United States, she said, “ought to be like it should have been in the beginning” when God bestowed a special blessing on the nation.
But direct appeals to religious rhetoric are less important to Trump’s campaign than is his appeal to far-right voters as a brutally honest man who is only a reluctant convert to the world of politics. For these voters, Trump is like them: a passionate American who was compelled to become involved in the political realm because of his commitment to return the nation to the way it ought to be.
Emily Johnson is a scholar of American religious history, and a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. She is currently completing her first book, which examines women’s national leadership in the evangelical right since the early 1970s.