White Christian nationalism and the next wave of political violence
There was a brief period when Republicans appeared to reject Trumpism. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) condemned the insurrectionists as “terrorists, not patriots,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the seditionists were “fed lies” by President Trump. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — one of only 10 Republican congresspeople to vote for impeachment — said Trump fomented the attack.
This short period of condemnation is now very clearly over. A recent poll found that two-thirds of Republicans do not think Joe Biden was legitimately elected president and nearly 40 percent believe that political violence is acceptable. And with all but six GOP senators saying that a non-sitting president cannot be impeached, the GOP is telling America — and the world — that violent Trumpism is who they are.
To understand how this happened we must look back to how it all began, namely as a long-term Republican strategy to harness the most violent expressions of Christian nationalism for the sake of political gain.
Images such as a flag that said “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president” seem new, but this mix of white, right-wing identity politics and nationalist Christianity has been stirring for many years. It’s hard to say exactly when this version of white supremacist Christianity — embedded within and supported by the Republican Party — began, but one important turning point was President Nixon’s commitment to the GOP’s Southern strategy to attract Dixiecrats disaffected by the Democratic Party’s commitment to the civil rights movement.
The marriage of GOP conservatism and fundamentalist Christianity did not begin with mutual opposition to abortion. Rather, the relationship began decades earlier as a way to encourage resentment of African American political gains that was festering within racist factions of white American evangelicalism. This merging of racial and religious interests created political alliances that were more than just a marriage of convenience: white entitlement and grievance, packaged with a moral veneer of racialized religious belief, used the language of spiritual warfare to justify the pursuit of political power by any means.
A core element of this strategy was to construct a hermetically sealed media universe that reinforced the messages of white Christian moral outrage. Trump elevated the status of these and the newcomer TV station One American News (OAN) Network to a level of prestige and truth-making in service of his counter narrative.
Trump succeeded not in building a wall on the Mexican border but in tearing down the wall between the politics of white resentment in the Republican Party and the armed violence of militia groups. The linking of white Christian values with radical violent efforts is not a new one, “Anti-government conspiracy theories and apocalyptic ‘end times’ Biblical prophecies are known to motivate militia members and groups to stockpile food, ammunition and weapons.” However, under Trump the armed radical fringe of white Christianity enjoyed a much cozier relationship with the federal government, their former enemy, after the standard-bearer of the Republican Party fully embraced their cause.
What unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was the movement’s attempt to maintain control of the White House by attacking their perceived enemies in Congress. However, because it is now clear to white nationalist militants that their hold on the White House is subject to the consent of the electorate, the movement is reverting to its default position: violent insurrection against political institutions and those whom they see as illegitimate leaders.
There are two options now: The Republican Party can build a new wall — higher and thicker — between the GOP leadership and armed radical insurrectionist groups; or the insurrectionist groups will overrun the Republican Party in an attempt to make another play for power. Either scenario is depressing. Like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which recently issued a domestic terrorism alert, we foresee more political violence in our future.
In the first scenario, these movements will resume targeting the federal government as a hostile entity, leading to violence like the Oklahoma City bombing. In the second scenario, white Christian nationalists, emboldened by the embrace of the Republican establishment, will increasingly target Democrats, like the attempted kidnapping of Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The day before the assault on the Capitol, we saw another instance of white nationalist violence in Shasta County, Calif. Unmasked protestors at a county supervisors meeting screamed for the death of any supervisor who didn’t support them.
Most congressional Republicans do not seem interested in changing their position on the acceptability of political violence. Even after their workplace was stormed in an attempted coup, over half of the GOP delegation to Congress voted against certifying the election results.
Many people, including numerous high-level Democrats, want to believe these outbursts of insurrectionist fervor will stop if Trump’s sphere of influence shrinks. This optimism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of an underlying problem of which Trump is only a symptom. With 78 percent of Republican voters believing that Trump really won the election, why would the Republican Party want to alter course?
Trump has simply exposed a tendency toward racially tinged authoritarian nationalism that was already present in American society and, in particular, in the Republican Party. Arthur Miller’s words in “The Crucible” tell a timeless truth, “We are only what we always were, but naked now.”
Rebecca Sager is an associate professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University. Brie Loskota is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.