For a little bit over 20 minutes, he enlightened his followers on how to “Save This God-Given Republic” from enemies both foreign and domestic. After he finished his speech, he turned to the crowd and invited people to get baptized. Many people followed his call. The crowd was exhilarating: “When you come to these places. You feel at home. You really do feel like you’re in and amongst good people and that’s a big difference,” one guest responded.
What sounds like the Sunday morning routine of a Baptist priest, in fact was the latest stunt of former National Security Advisor to Donald Trump and three star general Michael Flynn, speaking at the latest ReAwaken America rally, a monthly MAGA pageant that fills megachurches across the country. In the weeks before the midterm elections, the event served as a startling reminder of just how far detached from reality a small but growing part of American society has become, and how a movement that once was considered fringe is increasingly taking over the Republican party. Bad news for American Democracy.
America’s “real” President, President Donald J. Trump
Organized by Clay Clerk, a business guru, provincial talk-show personality, and “author” from Oklahoma, the self-proclaimed goal of the tour – part political rally, part QAnon meet up – is to “Discover the truth. Reawaken America.” For those readers who have never attended such an event and may have a hard time making sense of a title that vague, a quick glimpse at the program should be enough to understand what to expect. A few of my personal favorites include: a workshop titled “How to Find Jobs That Don’t Require the COVID-19 Shots” and a speech by founder and CEO of My Pillow Inc. Mike Lindell named “Why We Must Expose Election Fraud and Get America Back to God.” Featured on stage, too, was Roger Stone, former advisor to America’s formerPresident Trump, as well as Julie Green, an ally of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who told the audience that day God had spoken to her and had sent a prophecy. Another high profile personality that day was Eric Trump, son of “America’s real President, Donald J. Trump”, who educated the audience on “Why the Trump Family Has Committed Their Time, Treasure and Talents to Save This Great American Republic,” just before handing over to Michael Flynn.
These talking points are, in a sense, nothing new. At the ReAwaken America tour, Flynn and friends borrow the same far-right, conspiracy theory, Christian conservative, xenophobic and anti-elitist language that has grown since the 1960s and gradually infiltrated mainstream media. What’s new, and, perhaps of most concern to American democracy, however, is how that movement has become more and more aligned with one particular party – namely, the G.O.P. – and how its sentiments are widely accepted by a large part of American society, leading to an 2022 midterm election outcome that, at second glance, may not be of too much relief for Democrats… and American democracy.
The Rise of White Christian Nationalism
The storm on the Capitol on January 6th sent shock waves around the world. In the wake of the event – considered a turning point in American political history that laid bare the deep and growing polarization among the media landscape, political elites, and society – scholars started analyzing what could have led a group of people dismissing the legitimacy of an election and going as far as storming the symbol of American democracy.
Those who did not just shrug the events off as an negligible outlier in American political history pointed to deeper, underlying patterns that help explain the events that unfolded on January 6th. Regardless whether analyzing the historical conditions in the making of American identity (McDaniel et al., 2022) or the role religion plays in the perception Americans have of their democracy (Gorski and Perry, 2022), an increasing number of scholars pointed to one underlying pattern: white Christian nationalism and its connection to white racial identity and white supremacy.
Growing numbers of religious and political leaders are embracing the “Christian nationalist” label, a religious and political belief system that claims the U.S. was founded by God to be a Christian nation and to complete God’s vision of the world. 45% of all Americans say the U.S. should be a ‘Christian Nation’, according to a recent Pew Research study. For republicans, that number is even higher. A May 2022 poll from the University of Maryland found that 61% of Republicans favor declaring the United States a Christian nation – despite the fact that 57% of respondents recognized that it would be unconstitutional.
Respondents hold differing opinions about what exactly that phrase means, with two-thirds of U.S. adults adhering to secular ideals, arguing churches should keep out of politics. However, the remaining third goes as far as saying the government should declare the U.S. as a Christian Nation, with more than half of respondents falling in that category saying the Bible should influence U.S. laws and take precedence over the will of the people.
Those are shocking numbers. Yet, given these trends, it should come to no surprise that politicians are picking up and tapping into those sentiments. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, representing Georgia’s 14th district, fully embraced the idea of making the G.O.P. one of Christian Nationalism, calling it an “identity that (Republicans) need to embrace.” Other candidates may have not been as explicit in their expression, yet still embraced tenets of the same white Christian nationalist identity, such as Lauren Boebert, representing Colorado’s 3rd district, who recently dismissed the separation between church and state.
In the 2022 midterm elections, 60% of Americans had an election denier on their ballot, recent data gathered by FiveThirtyEight shows. Out of 552 total Republican nominees running for office, 199 fully denied, and an additional 61 candidates raised questions around the results of the 2020 election.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Nevertheless, the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterms leaves room for hope. Election denialism does not seem to be a winning strategy for newcomers. The majority of elections for offices crucial in overseeing future elections were not won by election deniers (though the underlying motivations for voting against a candidate displaying anti-democratic behavior may still need to be untangled). America did not witness crowds yelling “stop the count” in front of voter booths. The much expected red wave did not happen. And individuals who lost their election overwhelmingly conceded to their opponent.
Yet, it goes without saying that any elected official who denies or questions the outcome of a legitimate election is a threat to American democracy. Any election denier winning election, be it incumbent or newcomer, is more than a symbolic concern. As one author neatly summarized, “an election-denying secretary of state could refuse to certify an election that he or she believes was rigged. An election-denying governor could attempt to submit electoral votes that defy the will of the people. And election-denying senators and representatives could vote to count those electoral votes.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene won her seat, as did the majority of incumbent republicans who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The small Republican majority in the House of Representatives is now made up by a significant number of very conservative, right-wing officials, many of them Freedom Caucus members, who are closely allied with Trump and who have pushed election denialism and conspiracy theories in the past. Since republican leaders now have only a small majority, and with moderate candidates in decline, those fringe factions enjoy a much greater influence. Some of them have made no secret of what they are planning on doing with their newly-won majority, from investigating President Biden’s son Hunter Biden to impeaching certain cabinet leaders or President Biden himself.
Guardrails in decline
At first sight, the outcome of the midterms could be considered a clear rebuke of Republican politics, and perhaps in some ways, it was. Yet, Trumpism is not over, neither is white supremacism. If anything, it is becoming increasingly intertwined with the political right.
Maybe the midterm election, as much as the red wave did not happen, can be considered a subtle reminder of a growing movement that does not necessarily need another Jan 6th to shake up American democracy. All it takes is a former fringe movement that, in the context of a polarized media environment and with the support of high profile figures which help legitimize their fringe views, gradually take over the political debate. With moderate politicians losing their seats, what’s left is a small yet extreme wing of the party enjoying an outsized influence, increasing party polarization and further shifting the debate towards confrontation and election denialism. It remains to be seen whether the trend of hyperpolarization and democratic erosion can be reversed. At this point, short term election gains for either party don’t seem to do the job.
Gorski, P. S., Perry, S. L., & Tisby, J. (2022). The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy. Oxford University Press.
McDaniel, E. L., Nooruddin, I., & Shortle, A. F. (2022). The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics (New). Cambridge University Press.