After Iowa: Trump, White Evangelicals, and the Long Road Ahead in 2024
Highlights of my conversations with the media this week
Dear #WhiteTooLong readers,
Greetings from a frozen Washington, DC., where schools have been out most of the week in the wake of the first significant snowfall we’ve had in years. Here’s the wintery view from my writing studio this morning. (I know all of you Minnesotans are mocking us for making a big deal out of a foot of snow, but being from Mississippi, this still seems like a lot of snow to me!)
With Trump’s effortless victory at the Iowa Caucuses this week, the GOP primary season is both official open and essentially over. What I initially thought would be a relatively quiet week, given the unlikelihood of a surprise outcome in the Hawkeye State, has turned out to be one of the busiest media engagement weeks I’ve had in recent memory. Because Trump looks almost certain to claim the nomination, reporters are moving on to the big picture and asking questions about how we got here and what this election means for the future of the country.
Today’s newsletter is a highlight reel of the conversations I’ve had with leading reporters and outlets this week. And stay tuned—it looks like I’ll be on PBS Newshour and joining the live NPR coverage of the New Hampshire primary next week.
P.S. If you haven’t gotten your copy of my new book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, you can now get the hardcover for the price of a paperback. It’s still 50% off right now at Amazon at the link above (a portion of your purchase at that link goes to support this newsletter).
White Too Long by Robert P. Jones is a reader-supported publication. To support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
January 16: My conversation with Ron Brownstein at CNN
Here’s the excerpt of my conversation with Ron Brownstein at CNN:
Even in the most optimistic scenario for DeSantis or Haley, Trump’s hold on evangelicals without a college degree looks like a rock in the road for them. There is no way for them to maneuver around it. If either of them is to truly threaten Trump for the nomination, they will need to find some way to at least partially dislodge it.
Robert P. Jones – founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has written several books on conservative Christians – says the education gap in the evangelical community has grown more pronounced because Trump has focused more political debates on the issues revolving around American identity that exacerbate it, such as immigration and race relations.
“Trump has really brought to the fore this overt appeal to an ethno-religious identity as the core of what it means to be an American, and protecting that as the core of what it means to be a Republican, and that I think has made [the evangelical community] break more sharply along education lines,” Jones said.
Results from the PRRI’s latest American Values Survey, an annual examination of US views mostly on cultural issues, underscores that widening gap. Previously unpublished results from the 2023 survey results provided to CNN found that White evangelical Christians with and without a college degree lean toward conservative positions on the Trump-era GOP’s key messages about cultural and demographic change. But on many of those questions, the two-thirds of evangelicals without a degree are much more receptive to those messages than the one-third of them with college credentials.
For instance, while over two-thirds of evangelicals without a degree agreed with the harsh statement that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” less than half of those with advanced education concurred.…Maybe most important, over three-fifths of evangelicals without a degree agreed that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world” while nearly three-fifths of those with degrees rejected that idea….
In a much discussed recent article, The New York Times cited other survey data suggesting that Trump’s strength was greatest among Americans who identify as evangelicals mostly on cultural rather than religious grounds and do not regularly attend church services. But Jones said in the PRRI’s findings, education is a much more important predictor of receptivity to Trump and his core themes among evangelicals than religious practice. Jones said PRRI’s polling has found that the share of White evangelicals who attend church weekly has declined only slightly in the decade between 2013 and 2023. And he said, the 2023 survey did not find major differences in attitude toward Trump (or on most of these broader social questions) among evangelicals who do and do not attend services regularly.
Where Jones and The New York Times analysis agree is that Trump’s strength among evangelicals is rooted less in his commitment to policy orthodoxy on a long list of traditional social issues, much less his embodiment of the personal values cultural conservatives say they revere. Instead, both agree he is benefiting because so many in that community view him as a fighter against an array of interconnected forces – Democrats, the federal government, the media – that they see as steering the nation away from its “traditional values.”
“This lean into authoritarianism is about a ‘desperate times’ political ethic” among conservative evangelical Christians, said Jones. While the personal values of political leaders “was all they could talk about in the early 2000s,” conservative evangelicals have now shifted “in favor of an ends-justifies-the-means ethic,” he added. “If you decide the stakes are high enough the means cease to matter, which is where I believe evangelicals have found themselves – especially if you believe God intended for us to be a Christian nation.”
…Monday’s results in Iowa will begin to gauge how powerful that connection remains three years after Trump left office in a maelstrom of violence and turmoil.
January 16: My Conversation with Joy Reid at MSNBC
Tuesday night, I joined Joy Reid on MSNBC for a conversation with Jen Setmayer, a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project. Reid noted that Donald Trump spent Tuesday in court following his Iowa caucuses win, after white evangelical voters turned out for the former president helping him beat Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. We covered the Lincoln Project’s hard-hitting parody ad, “God Made a Dictator,” and the white, Christian, evangelical vote and its impact on Trump’s campaign.
If you haven’t seen the ad, it’s worth a watch here:
January 17: My Conversation with Tom Edsall at The New York Times
Here’s the excerpt of my conversation with Tom Edsall at The New York Times:
Robert P. Jones, the founder and chief executive of P.R.R.I. (formerly the Public Religion Research Institute), contends that Trump’s religious claims are an outright fraud:
“Trump has given us adequate evidence that he has little religious sensibility or theological acuity. He has scant knowledge of the Bible, he has said that he has never sought forgiveness for his sins, and he has no substantive connection to a church or denomination. He’s not only one of the least religious but also likely one of the most theologically ignorant presidents the country has ever had.”
Trump, Jones added in an email, “almost certainly lacks the kind of religious sensibility or theological framework necessary to personally grasp what it would even mean to be a Jesus-like, messianic figure.”
Despite that, Jones wrote, “many of his most loyal Christian followers, white evangelical Protestants, have indeed come to see him as a kind of metaphorical savior figure.”
According to Jones, in order to rationalize this quasi-deification of Trump — despite “his crassness and vulgarity, divorces, mocking of disabled people, his overt racism and a determination by a court that he sexually abused advice columnist E. Jean Carroll” — white evangelicals refer not to Jesus but the Persian King Cyrus from the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible.
In that story, Jones recounted in his email,
“Cyrus is the model of an ungodly king who nonetheless frees a group of Jews who are held captive in Babylon. It took white evangelicals themselves a while to settle on an explanation for their support, but this characterization of Trump was solidified in a 2018 film that came out just before the 2018 midterms entitled “The Trump Prophecy,” which portrayed Trump as the only leader who could save America from certain cultural collapse.”
According to Jones, “White evangelicals’ stalwart, enduring support for Trump tells us much more about who they see themselves to be than who they think Trump is. As I argued in my most recent book, ‘The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy,’” Jones continued in his email, “the primary force animating white evangelical Protestant politics — one that has been with us since before the founding of the Republic — is the vision of America as a nation primarily of, by and for white Christians.”
Jones cited a 2023 P.R.R.I. survey that showed “a majority (56 percent) of white evangelical Protestants, compared to only one-third of all Americans, believed that ‘God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.’”
Jones argued that Trump’s declaration on the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021 — “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” — was a direct appeal “to this sense of divine entitlement of those who believed this mythology strongly enough to engage in a violent insurrection.”
January 19: My Conversation with Greg Sargent at The New Republic
Here’s the excerpt from my conversation with Greg Sargent at The New Republic.
Trump is relentlessly conditioning his supporters to expect a second term in which he will bend or break the law to wield the machinery of the state to persecute his opponents, perhaps on a mass scale—as he recently put it, to “root out” the “vermin.” Trump is telling his supporters that he will carry out their retribution, that he will persecute their enemies, that this is their due. What sort of impact might this be having on their expectations?
We don’t have much polling that speaks directly to this point. But the Public Religion Research Institute regularly asks two questions that perhaps shed some light on the potential for severe civic damage here:
As of last summer, surprisingly large percentages of Republicans—and even larger percentages of voters who view Trump favorably—say things have gotten so bad that political violence is justified and that we need a leader to break rules to set things right.
Robert P. Jones, the president of PRRI, said these are reasonable proxies for getting at what Trump voters and Republicans might see as justifiable in terms of presidential lawbreaking and retribution against political foes. These groups say this at significantly higher rates in PRRI polling than Democrats, independents, and overall Americans, Jones noted.
“Following Trump, large percentages of Trump voters and Republicans today now understand their political opponents as enemies of the country,” Jones told me. “Everything is on the table when you’ve conceived of political struggle this way.”