GOP lawmakers continue to stand by Donald Trump as he refuses to accept the outcome of the 2020 election. Every day that passes by without a formal concession from the current president, the vacuum for dangerous conspiracy theories continues to grow. While journalists and political pundits frequently analyze Trump’s belligerence in political terms, understanding Trumpism through the lens of religious studies can offer another compelling explanation.
By Monday, November 9th, the results of the 2020 Election were clear: Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the presidential race, taking the electoral points needed to claim victory. Yet, even as Biden’s margin of victory in the popular vote grows as numbers still trickle in, prominent GOP lawmakers are lining up behind Donald Trump in claiming – without any evidence – widespread voter fraud. They continue to do this even as they accept the results of the down-ballot election races, which saw much GOP success on both the state and federal level.
For many, denying the election was expected from Trump and his closest associates – they hinted at it for weeks leading up to Election Day. What was not expected was the broad support from Republican senators, congresspeople, and federal appointees. To date, only four Republican senators have acknowledged Biden’s win. The rest either remain silent or join in questioning the integrity of the most fundamental feature of American democracy, one they claim to value and defend. While not as reckless as the president’s refusal, they make his same argument under the thin guise of level-headed diplomacy.
It might seem counterintuitive to lend support to a lame-duck president who has now twice lost the popular vote. One political commentator openly mused that Republican leaders are standing by Trump out of fear of incriminating information becoming public under a Biden presidency. Others suggested it is just an extension of generalized corruption and dereliction of duty in the GOP that has catalyzed over the last four years – irrespective of the destabilization and damage it yields.
But there is another way to view Trump’s election denial and the GOP’s hostility: It is an attempt to secure the political future of Trumpism, and perhaps more importantly, its religious fervor.
Trumpism, as it has come to be known, is a political ethos animating Trump’s base and his public surrogates. I view it as a nationalistic mythology underscored by racism, white supremacy, a rejection of facts, and the glorification/use of violence and force in the name of “law and order.” Through the lens of Trumpism, Donald Trump is not as an elected official, but a canonized figure who sanctifies all actions reflecting Trumpist values and agendas. These actions range from science denial to condoning militant acts from radical factions of the right – such as ambushing the Biden-Harris bus in Texas.
Many print and broadcast media analysts have noted that the GOP has become “the party of Trump” over the last four years. This is evidenced most strongly by the RNC platform that eschewed virtually any policy statements, and that focused almost entirely on Trump himself as the party’s most important figure – the raison d’être. In the view of researchers who study religion and politics, it is one of many symptoms of a slide toward fascism that has characterized the Trump years. It is a shift that almost always involves co-opting religious language, rituals, and power structures to rebuild national identity under authoritarian rule.
Scholars of modern history point to this phenomenon occurring under Nazi Germany. In Europe, many Christian leaders lent their official support to the Nazi program, intertwining deep-seated religious identity with the fascist platform. At the time, it was not uncommon for Sunday church services to include a small shrine to Hitler right next to the holy altar of communion or the cross at the front of the sanctuary. German relics of the decade that saw Hitler in power regularly pair Nazi imagery with divine authority appeals.
The parallels to Trumpism are striking. The rise of “Patriot Churches” is one example. Other examples include the interjection of Christian theological priorities into foreign policy decisions, the use of scripture to justify human rights violations, and the widespread adoption of Trump himself as a messiah-figure in various fundamentalist religious communities. The QAnon movement is a prominent example, but Trumpist ideas are not limited to it.
The now-infamous photo-op of Trump holding up a Bible – after ordering police to tear-gas peaceful protestors – is perhaps the single most significant symbol of Trumpism cannibalizing extant religious texts, icons, and power structures for his benefit. The phenomenon of appropriating older ideas and practices is a common way that religions establish authority among communities already committed to an established set of beliefs (the celebration of Christmas provides several examples). But when applied to a political agenda, especially in a country ostensibly founded on a division between church and state, this categorizes some political worldviews as “holy” and others as demonic. From this angle of vision, a non-religious man like Donald Trump can be viewed as god-like. Conversely, it casts Joe Biden, a devoted Catholic, as an enemy of God and an enemy of the state.
Over the last four years, GOP lawmakers who have invested their own political identities into Trump have also staked their political futures into Trumpism. They continue to support Trump even in the face of an apparent defeat in the election. For many Republican political candidates, openly “standing by” Trump has become a ritualistic obligation that publicly signals their fitness for office.
Anthropologists of religion observe the very same behavior in other religious societies. Priest-saint groups in North Africa who invest in a ruler come to see themselves as trustees of the sacred and brokers of divine favor alongside the ruler’s power. If that power is compromised, these acolytes must make some ritual gestures of an abiding belief in the theology of their ruler. If they don’t, they stand to lose their ongoing authority as brokers of divine grace. Evidence for this sociological phenomenon can even be found in the Bible: priests remained loyal to King David during his exile from Jerusalem even in the face of a regime shift.
The behavior of GOP lawmakers who continue to support Trump and his questioning of the election can be better understood when viewed through this religious lens. Even as Trump himself has already begun to lose power on the international stage, he is still a ‘king-maker’ domestically. Republican politicians’ ongoing investment in Trumpism as a religious system is a bid to retain their authority as trustees and brokers of what constitutes as “sacred” to many in this country. Their support for Trump at the moment may indeed be informed by personal benefit. But in the long-term, GOP politicians will market themselves as ardent defenders of Trumpist values, even in an era when Trump himself is no longer part of the political landscape.