Trump and the Fundamentalists

After you finish a book as meaty, as full of detail and attribution, as Shadow Network by Anne Nelson, it requires more than one take on the author’s revelations to do justice to the contents. I have not talked about the juiciest bits of this book, (which makes them sound like they are gossip, but they are real). These are the places in the book where the author talks about the fundamentalists and the moment when Donald Trump entered the campaign, and furthermore, the bits where the fundamentalists see that he will most likely win the nomination.

The Council for National Policy had its roots back in the 70’s. It began as a small group of religious leaders and pastors who were worried that the decision to end school prayer (1962) was responsible for a moral nosedive in America. This Council grew in influence and many Republicans and religious leaders have been members and past presidents, although they are not all household names. The CNP inspired many similar organizations of conservative fundamentalists and these groups began to formulate a “wish list” of laws to pass and laws to overturn and courts to stuff. They added a Leadership training program that was very effective and a long list of related groups. Once they knew what they wanted, they decided to analyze fundamentalist voters. They began to devise ways to reach out to fundamentalists and other Christians who would become “Values voters,” to make sure they registered to vote and went to the polls and voted for the candidates the fundamentalists backed.

In the 2016 elections evangelicals (fundamentalists) backed candidates like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. They certainly did not favor Donald Trump. Anne Nelson tells us that “a group of female conservatives…had sent an ‘anyone but Trump’ letter to Iowa voters, stating, “as women, we are disgusted by Mr. Trump’s treatment of individuals, women in particular.” (pg.191)

She goes on to say, “as far as the movement’s key issues were concerned, Trump’s loose-cannon rhetoric had been all over the place; he was on record saying he didn’t care to challenge same-sex marriage, and he was wobbly on abortion. His religious credentials were spotty, to put it mildly.” For a coalition that depended on getting out the fundamentalist vote, these were poor optics indeed, says Nelson.

But George Barna, who had done the get-out-the-vote groundwork, an enormous investment of time and organizational strategy, technique and networking, Nelson says, could sense the “taste of victory was turning to ashes. Barna claimed his efforts were more successful for taking place, quite unintentionally, off the national radar.”

“If fundamentalists/Republicans won the presidency and kept the Senate in 2016, they would hold the power to reshape the American judiciary and real change would unfold. They could roll back abortion rights, gay marriage and gun laws, revoke environmental regulations, abolish entire federal agencies, assail the IRS restrictions on the tax free status of churches, make decisions on gerrymandering, and redistricting to set the scale for many elections to come.”

She goes on to say, “[b]ut Trump broke through, riding on his uncanny charisma, the caché of celebrity, and a powerful backlash against political business as usual…but with the disadvantages of a seat-of-the-pants organization, lack of donors and infrastructure, or any ground game.” (pg.192)

Nelson tells us that, “[i]n May, soon after Ted Cruz acknowledged defeat, Time magazine’s Elizabeth Dias reported that Tony Perkins (CNP), Ben Carson, and Bill Dallas had begun organizing a closed-door meeting for Trump and fundamentalist leaders.” (pg. 193)

She describes Trump’s speech in January, 2016 at Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell) sprinkled with the words ‘hell’ and ‘damn’, so “shocking to young fundamentalist ears”. This was the Two Corinthians moment, she reminds us. Nelson sums it up, “Fundamentalists measured a man’s worth by his church attendance, marital fidelity, and knowledge of the Bible, Trump came up short on every count.”

Nelson tells us that conservatives and fundamentalists did not trust Trump’s business sense either and that Charles Koch even considered voting for Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Barna, the fundamentalist vote-technician, refused to see all his hard work go to waste. He called in a fundamentalist named Ralph Reed, who had been cultivating Trump for years as revealed by Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine. Reed scheduled a dress rehearsal for Trump at a June, 2016 Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C. at which “Trump praised the right people and listed the correct goals.” (pg. 195)

Then they hosted the big event on June 21, 2016, “A Conversation About America’s Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson” at which over 1,000 fundamentalist leaders came from all over the country to the ballroom of the NY Marriott Marquis. Ben Carson said, “this is like a chess match and God is the great grand master, sometimes he uses a pawn.” Nelson also recounts ‘Franklin Graham’s back-handed support – Was Trump a sinner? Well, Graham reminded his audience, the God of the Old Testament worked through lots of sinners, Abraham lied, Moses disobeyed God. David committed adultery and had a man killed.”

And then Trump said: “this election is about the Supreme Court. The next president will appoint 2, 3, 4, or possibly 5 life-term Justices…He said all his judges would be vetted by the Federalist Society.”

In the end, Nelson tells us about a man, James Robison in these words, “The movement had come full circle. Robison had brought Reagan to Dallas, and now he delivered the fundamentalist war council to Trump. This was a man who made history yet few Americans outside fundamentalist circles had ever heard of him. (pg. 227)

She finishes this tale about the ultimate acts of rationalization on the part of the fundamentalists and how they came to support this particular American president that, it could be argued, they bequeathed us, by saying,

“As of 2017, Republicans held all the cards, they controlled the White House, both houses of Congress, and thirty-three state legislatures. Furthermore their ranks were filled with fresh blood; the average age of the Democratic House leadership was seventy-two and the Republican was 48.”

“Now with the Republican Senate behind him and the Federalist Society nominations in hand, Trump prepared to fill the vacancies in the courts in record time.”

The Koch brothers wrote a paper called, “Advancing Principled Public Policy” which is essentially a victory lap, “the new administration had overturned the Bureau of Land Management’s Stream Protection Rule, rescinded the fracking ban on federal and Indian lands, and initiated the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate agreement. Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

From the Koch point of view “it was ultimately about money, in the form of the Republican tax bill.” (pg. 228) The “victories” Republicans won as a result of agreeing to back Trump have been worth all their compromises in their eyes, but Nelson’s book tells us of the less transparent role fundamentalists played in Trump’s election, and while he may be an affliction to some us, he has not been perceived that way in religious circles to our everlasting astonishment. It’s lucky for these folks, I guess, that now the world is operating under New Testament rules.

See, I told you the story has a lot of juicy bits. All these righteous men being yanked around by want and greed. I did not want you to think that Anne Nelson neglected to write about Trump or neglected to expose hypocrisy in her book, Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right Wing.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – The New Republic

Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right Wing by Anne Nelson – Book

I was attracted to the book Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right by Anne Nelson because I already knew that Evangelicals (white evangelicals in particular) shared Republican ideology, and liked this ideology better as it got more extreme. What I did not know is that Evangelicals, also called Fundamentalists, were prime movers in turning Republican politics into a well-oiled voter turnout machine.

Anne Nelson is on the faculty at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. She acknowledges the help of colleagues and students in the end notes. Although I have written on these subjects many times Anne Nelson had access to resources I did not. Her work is important to me because it offers proof that my “cheap seats” interpretations of recent events in our government have merit. It would be more satisfying if the truths did not back up the facts that the church has been meddling in our federal government and that they grew from scratch into a very effective organization, using tools both legal and possibly illegal to get Republicans elected.

Southern Baptists were not leaving the church the way other Americans were. The advent of church-on-TV had given birth to the megachurch phenomenon. Pastors with large numbers of followers became almost religious rock stars. For decades there had been a strong church presence on the radio, especially across the South and Midwest. Stardom can go to your head, at least that seems to be what happened. At first churches met, “convocated,” held conventions, and church leaders talked about the moral decline which they linked to the decline in religious observance in many parts of America. They felt that religion would cure our moral “slippage.” They were angered that it was no longer legal to pray in school. They began to understand that their numbers and their media network gave them power to change the things they did not like about America. Their natural allies were the Republican Party, even more so with the advent of the Tea Party.

Evangelicals began to found a series of social organizations which were ostensibly formed to deal with aspects of America’s slippage, things like the disintegration of the nuclear family, abortion, contraception, the exclusion of religious teachings from school, the increasing concentration of power at the federal level when it could benefit the church’s ability to thrive if power was concentrated instead at the state level (small government).

Evangelicals came to see that if they could get Republican voters to the polls they could get everything they wanted because the Republican agenda matched the Evangelical wish list. They eventually went digital and collected data on a house-by-house basis in places that leaned right.

One problem with this (among many) is that these groups are classified as 501 c3 (nonprofits for religious reasons) and 501 c4 (nonprofits for social welfare reasons). These groups, in order to keep their tax exempt status, are not supposed to be partisan or participate in getting members of any particular party elected. These groups, in an incestuous relationship with the Republican Party and rich Republican donors like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, were violating their tax exempt status, not to mention colluding to have an outsized effect on our national, state, and local politics. This story is essentially a political thriller, except its real.

Anne Nelson’s very interesting book may not be to everyone’s taste but should be read by anyone who believes that we should participate in our democracy/republic.

NB: This is even more relevant given that an article in Christianity Today backed removing Trump from office.

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html