People Who are Afraid Often Need a Strongman to Protect Them

Believe Me 3dIn Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpI argue that in supporting Donald Trump in 2016 white evangelicals privileged a politics of fear over a politics of hope.  People who are afraid turn to political strongmen for protection.

Over at The Atlantic, Ron Brownstein notes that “I’ll protect you” will be Trump’s 2020 reelection message.  Here is a taste:

In his marathon speech to a gathering of conservative activists last weekend, Donald Trump unloaded more than 16,000 words, according to the official White House transcript.

But amid all the meandering and asides, the belittling taunts (“Little Shifty Schiff” for Democratic Representative Adam Schiff) and geysers of grievance, Trump may have synthesized the essence of his reelection strategy in just three words toward the back end of his two-hour harangue: “I’ll protect you.”

With that concise phrase, Trump revealed volumes about his view of the electorate and the coalition that he hopes will carry him to a second term. The comment underscored his determination to convince his followers of a two-stage proposition: First, that they are “under siege,” as he put it, by an array of forces that he presented as either hostile to their interests or contemptuous of their values, and second, that only he can shield them from those threats.

That dark and martial message shows that Trump continues to prioritize energizing his core supporters—blue-collar, older, and nonurban whites uneasy about demographic, cultural, and economic change—even at the price of further alienating voters dismayed or disgusted by his behavior as president. It also shows that, even as an incumbent, Trump is drawn far more toward running on fear than on hope. 

Sounds familiar.

Read the entire piece here.

20 thoughts on “People Who are Afraid Often Need a Strongman to Protect Them

  1. Brownstein is a fair-minded reporter who has been around a long time. I respect his coverage of elections a great deal. He DOES know the Trump base very well. That is his job. He does this for a living, James. Full-time. By the way, I have published in The Atlantic. I grew up in northern New Jersey, but most folks wouldn’t call me a Manhattan elite. Not your finest hour, James.


  2. Bill Clinton once said “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.”

    I have often thought that that is why the Right loves Trump.  He is strong, – a bully, yes, – but he stands up against their archenemy – the liberals – and he stands up for them – his conservative supporters.  That is the main reason why his conservative base will never abandon him.

    It is a Faustian bargain, of course, but the people on the Right really don’t care. This is their last-ditch attempt to save their straight, white male supremacy culture from the “other.” However, it may already be too late for them. In Chicago one of the candidates in the run-off election for mayor next month is a woman, she is black and she is also a lesbian. I see this as a triple whammy to everything the Right is so desperate to preserve.


    • Sheridan,
      Well, you are aware that conservatives have largely abandoned the big cities. The fact that Chicago has an inordinately high murder rate, a looming budgetary morass, crumbling schools, etc. is not going to have to be something which conservatives have to fix. Maybe the left in Chicago will soon be calling for a strongman.


      • Well, both candidates in the run-off for mayor are women. And, both of them are Black women. The Times They Are A-Changin, James. Not only in Chicago, but in the entire nation. A record number of women were elected to Congress in 2018. And as more women achieve positions of power, young girls and young women will see them as role models to emulate.

        Change is slow, but it is happening and there is no going back. The nostalgia voters who yearn for the past will eventually fade away and a new, more open minded generation will take their place.


      • Why do some white people always imagine cities with larger black populations as violent? Chicago actually isn’t that violent compared to other big cities in the US. And rural areas are more violent per capita than urban areas.

        Conservatives haven’t abandoned the cities. The majority of conservatives live in cities. It’s true that rural areas, small towns, and suburbia are disproportionately conservative. But those places combined represent such a small percentage of the total population.

        By the way, minorities including blacks are on average more conservative, especially than whites. That is particularly true in terms of social conservatism and religiosity.


      • Also, the rural and small town South has high rates of blacks compared to the rest of the country. American blacks didn’t become majority urban until the 1960s or 1970s. Then with the dying of the industrial inner cities, blacks became trapped by redlining and other racist practices.


  3. To be blunt, the GOP “base” is everything they accuse the Democrats of being. They have a tremendous victim mentality, overblown by years of panic-inducing fear tactics in both conservative media and conservative churches. Despite having considerable political and economic and judicial power and constantly wielding it to advantage themselves, they still believe themselves to be the downtrodden of the earth, crushed by their liberal oppressors. They are every bit as quick to police themselves for their own brand of political correctness, and not a word is to be uttered against any of their own tribe. They decry what Democrats do as identity politics while maintaining their own rigid set of identity politics where “the other” (be it racial, national, religious, sexual, etc.) is demonized and portrayed as an existential threat to “us.”

    Focusing this picture onto the most steadfastly reliable part of that base, I am sickened by the fact that so many of my fellow evangelicals have bought completely into this world view and system, elevating (I should say, rather, outright glorifying) partisan politics to a position above that of the gospel of Christ. They have redefined salvation as overcoming and destroying their perceived enemies in this world, and have placed their faith and hope in human strongmen who promise to bully and eradicate those enemies. I want to cry out, how can the church be salt and light to a world when it hates so much of that world and seeks its destruction? It can no longer be. We are told when the salt loses is saltiness it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. I fear that will be the price of so much of the church’s having sold out to the Caesars of the world for the thirty pieces of silver of “strongman protection.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave: what “panic-inducing fear tactics” have you observed in conservative churches you have attended? I ask out of genuine interest. I have not experienced this — not to say it doesn’t go on — and would like to know what you have observed.

      In what concrete ways do you believe that the GOP base and conservative Evangelicals have wielded political and judicial power “to advantage themselves”? To what specific policies are you referring?


      • Very fair questions.

        One the first question, it is of course easy to reference any number of fear-inducing statements made by high-profile evangelical leaders who hold great sway in the evangelical ranks, but I will instead respond directly to your question about what I have personally experienced in conservative churches I have attended. Here are some observations from my experience in the EFCA church I attended for 27 years, which I left several years ago (I currently attend a non-denominational evangelical church). I apologize for the length of the reply.

        –Unsurprisingly, my church was always conservative politically. While the pastor didn’t endorse candidates by name from the pulpit (per tax-exempt organization guidelines), he would preach almost exclusively on political issues around election times and would make it very clear who people were supposed to vote for by identifying the issues he said were important, and then distributing “Christian voting guides” which were designed to show that all the GOP candidates had the “correct Christian position” on every single issue. (To me, some of these issues had little or nothing to do with the Christian faith itself, and seemed like issues on which people of faith could have perfectly legitimate differences; on some other issues I thought a good Biblical argument could be made that the “correct Christian position” being portrayed was in fact the not a particularly Christian position.) But this dynamic escalated greatly with the election of Obama, which threw many in congregation into a tizzy. Obama was portrayed as the leader of an existential threat to Christianity and the church and the nation, and when it came time for the 2012 election the pastor said that the threat was so great that he didn’t care what the tax laws were, he was very explicitly telling us that it was imperative as Christians to vote for Romney. I can only imagine what the ramp-up to the 2016 election looked like as I had left several years before. (Well, I don’t really have to just imagine, because I know what national media voices and what evangelical leaders people were actively following and parroting, and so I just have to look to them to know what was being said.)
        –During these years Sunday school classes became almost useless for serious Bible or topical discussions because people would hijack almost any topic and turn it towards how the Bible passage being discussed had direct application to Obama, who was representative of all of the bad things mentioned in that passage. We’d be discussing, say, David’s sin with Bathsheba, and next thing you know it was “that is just like Obama’s messing everything up for the country.” I’d always be like, huh?? Everything we were studying ended up being seen through the prism of the threat posed to us and the nation by these godless sinful reprobate liberals.
        –There was an increased interest in classes in end-times events and apocalyptic sections of the Bible (most obviously Revelation). Unsurprisingly, it was always the domestic liberals along with the forces of globalization around the world who were seen as ushering in the tribulation and the antiChrist and the mark of the beast and bringing God’s judgment down on the world. People were bringing in and sharing YouTube videos they had seen on various ultra-conservative media outlets. This tied right in with the mindset of those raised on the “Left Behind”-type movies, where the tribulation was right around the corner and believers were going to experience great persecution and incarceration and torture from those non-believing liberals and globalists who were going to establish their satanic new world order (unless, of course, we got raptured out first).
        –We were repeatedly reminded of the things that were occurring in America that were inevitably going to bring about God’s harsh judgment. Abortion, of course. Same-sex marriage. Because of the interpretation of the end-times events, anything other than carte-blanche unconditional support for everything Israel did (not just support for the nation, but complete approval of each and every individual political action of its leadership). People from other religions being in our country and (gasp) being allowed to freely live their religious beliefs (like we wanted to be able to live ours, of course, but that was a right only we possessed since, after all, America was divinely established as a Christian nation). If we didn’t actively work to elect and keep the GOP in power, God’s judgment was going to be unleashed.
        –I was connected through social media to a lot of my fellow attenders, and over the last number of years I have unfollowed quite a few who regularly repost and share intentionally provocative (and either untrue or greatly oversimplified) political memes and posts, as well right-wing conspiracy articles/videos/posts.

        On your second question, I’ll be more brief, and just list a few examples of what I mean by leveraging things to advantage themselves:
        –Pushes for religious freedom protections, but specifically tailored for Christians (and there, even more specifically for conservative Christians), not so much for anybody else
        –Tax policies that hugely favor the wealthiest, increasing the already-large gap between the wealthiest and everybody else, which has also contributed to accelerating the growth of the debt burden the young and future generations are going to be stuck with
        –Increased incidences of specifying voting requirements, including placement of polling sites and equipment, that are specifically aimed at creating obstacles most difficult for the poor and minority voters to overcome, essentially representing voter suppression of those more likely to vote Democrat
        –Deregulation that goes far beyond removing non-productively burdensome regulations and proceeds to also strip down basic protections for consumers and basic health protections
        –Harsher sentences (and harsher law enforcement treatment in general) for crimes more likely to be committed by the poorest, and more lenient sentences for crimes of a more white collar nature
        –Campaign finance and election policies that heavily favor the incumbents, and gerrymandering of districts that allows the party in the minority in some areas to still have a sizeable majority in representation
        –Leveraging the various government branches to provide the political coverage/protection that allows politicians from the president on down to tremendously personally profit from their positions (long gone are the days when Jimmy Carter had to put his peanut farm in a blind trust before he took office)

        I’m sure you’ll find many points of disagreement with what I have included in my response here, but hopefully it gives some specifics on what I was thinking of, and answers the questions you posed.


    • Dave,

      Very well said. It really does seem like they have become the things they say they fear and detest–intolerant of difference, having an angry, victimized mentality, treasuring a persecution complex, fearfully policing their own side. (For example, I recently I saw someone sneering a fellow Trump voter because he wouldn’t parrot mindless affirmations of every Trump decision after the election). It seems like they are so far down the rabbit hole of their own paranoia and team psychology that they cannot recognize the enemy in the mirror.

      When Trump was ascending to the Republican nomination, I came to think of him like irradiated tracers in cancer treatment–he would highlight the worst of America by making the deplorable parts of the nation more visible to everyone, so the problem areas would be clearer. I was dismayed, however, to discover how deeply the cancer of hate and fear and willful ignorance runs through our body politic, how deeply it has nested in communities of religious faith. But cancer doesn’t know it’s cancer; being indifferent to the consequences, it spreads itself as if it were a valid function of a healthy body.


      • Justin,
        As you say in your final paragraph, Trump did highlight some serious and unattractive problems while he was running for president. He also spoke of positive things such as restoring the industrial base, preserving jobs, appointing strict-constructionists to the bench, etc.

        Regarding the grim problems which Trump showcased in 2016, some might see it as a necessary corrective to the previous eight years. We were treated to the rosy platitudes of “hope and change” yet the results of that rhetoric was cynicism and despair at a broken system.


    • Dave,
      “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” I Tim. 2:1,2
      There is nothing wrong with wanting the heavy hand of a secular government off our backs.



    • If it makes you feel better, there have always been a large percentage of evangelicals that identify with progressivism and the political left. And that percentage keeps growing. The majority of young evangelicals no longer identify with the politicized right-wing.

      So, if the evangelicals are how we define morality, the moral majority is now clearly turning to the left. That is combined with most Americans in general having made a sharp turn left in recent decades, and that is seen across large swaths of public opinion.


  4. Wow!
    Maybe Mr. Brownstein should sign on as a Trump campaign domestic policy advisor/speech writer since he understands the base and The Donald so well? They might have a productive symbiotic relationship. Mr. Brownstein’s big problem would be his disfavor among the Manhattan elites at THE ATLANTIC if he attempted to return after the election. He would be persona non grata in NYC. He would have to settle for a job as editor of a small town paper in rural Iowa.


    • I know a bunch of fervent Trump supporters. They simultaneously speak patriotically about our having the best form of government and how they can’t stand a lot about the government. They speak animatedly about immigrants, especially expressing irritation their not adopting “our” culture.
      They have swallowed whole the idea that the institutions that actually protect them, such as the FBI, are a danger to them. So, yeah, they think they need protection and they won’t have it without the person of D Trump.


      • Jeff,

        “They simultaneously speak patriotically about our having the best form of government and how they can’t stand a lot about the government. They speak animatedly about immigrants, especially expressing irritation their not adopting “our” culture. They have swallowed whole the idea that the institutions that actually protect them, such as the FBI, are a danger to them”

        When someone is being deceived in a public forum, they will adopt all kinds of postures and beliefs in the moment to protect themselves from embarrassment and shame and ridicule. Manipulators who understand the functions of the ego can take the psyche hostage in the present by forcing it to protect the illusions of the past, despite emerging evidence to the contrary. Donald Trump has had a lifetime of taking advantage of people who are already disadvantaged. As the man said on stage before he was elected, “I love the undereducated.” I absolutely believe that was true.


        Liked by 1 person

      • So, yeah, they think they need protection and they won’t have it without the person of D Trump.

        This does not sound out of place for a tribe (if not nation) whose culture has been running on “All Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory, All The Time.” Because a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory is not only impossible to dislodge, it grows and grows until it consumes all reality.

        The “I’ll protect you” line — like the prayer in Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” — has a large unspoken component:
        “I’ll protect you [from the Vast Conspiracy that is EVERYWHERE].”

        I keep remembering a line from the “Christians and Conspiracy Theories” web page:
        “The two most bloody-handed regimes of the 20th Century — the Nazis and the Communists — were based on Conspiracy Theories.”


    • Brownstein is a fair-minded reporter who has been around a long time. I respect his coverage of elections a great deal. He DOES know the Trump base very well. That is his job. He does this for a living, James. Full-time. By the way, I have published in The Atlantic. I grew up in northern New Jersey, but most folks wouldn’t call me a Manhattan elite. Not your finest hour, James.


      • I don’t know Brownstein. But I did notice some interesting details about Trump’s base. Those who supported him during his campaign and election weren’t primarily poor whites. Rather, they were mostly the lower middle class. That probably explains their turning to Trump, as the lower middle class is in a precarious position.

        Unlike the working poor, they have more to lose if they fall out of the middle class. There is a class consciousness to this fear as it wouldn’t only mean loss of economic status but also social position. Being middle class, even lower middle class, has a certain amount of respectability in our society. The shrinking of the middle class has been a major source of anxiety.


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