Many observers of the 2016 campaign have been surprised by Donald Trump’s popularity with Christian voters.
But they shouldn’t be.
Trump’s bromance with evangelicals looks unexpected only because we’re approaching it backward. It’s not so much that Trump has somehow hoodwinked or bullied the true-believing American right into an awkward set of ill-fitting cultural and political postures. It’s that a large part of the Protestant world has for decades now been embracing the brash capitalist gospel of Trumpism.
The key bulwark of faith-based Trumpism is the prosperity gospel — a movement rooted in Pentecostal preaching that holds that God directly dispenses divine favor in the capitalist marketplace to his steadfast believers.
As I explained back in May 2015,
Capitalism is not a natural phenomenon; it required a great deal of work, historically, to bring it into being, and it requires a lot of ongoing work, socially, to reproduce it over time. And part of that work, historically and socially, has involved the production of a whole set of identities and meanings that celebrates the winners and blames the losers, all the while creating the hope that everyone is a potential winner.
And that’s exactly the what the Prosperity Gospel does. Like much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it’s all about celebrating the winners and blaming the losers.
In my piece, “American Hustle,” which was published in the Journal of Cultural Economy, I tried to explain how that hustle works. Here are a few extracts:
the Prosperity Gospel movement has, against all odds, grown and expanded—from the wrong-side-of-town tent revivals and prayer meetings to mainstream religious, media, and even political status, at least within that vast landscape of nondenominational Protestantism. And it’s all because of an enormously successful hustle.
The movement is propelled by preachers who manage to convince people that, if they believe they control their own destiny, as long as their hearts and faith are in the right place and they fork over a large share of their income to demonstrate their commitment, they can overcome psychological and physical obstacles and achieve financial success. It’s a strategy that, of course, serves to line the burgeoning pockets of the Prosperity Gospel evangelists themselves. . .
And it’s as American as apple pie (or, if you prefer, extreme diets and beauty makeovers). What we have here is hustle that dates back at least to “40 acres and a mule” and continues through railroad speculation (which, when it went bust, brought on the First Great Depression, later renamed the Panic, of 1873), real-estate bubbles (remember the Marx Brothers’ movie The Cocoanuts) and “painting the tape” stock-market boom (which collapsed on Black Thursday in October 1929, ushering in what we now refer to as the First Great Depression), and, closer to our own time, the dot-com bubble (which had its origins in Clinton’s economic program, but which was subsequently blamed on Bush), the solution to which created the conditions for the next and most recent financial hustle: subprime mortgages and the derivatives that, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, represented the beginning of the Second Great Depression.
As we know, every hustle (like any game of Three-card Monte) requires three characters: a dealer (who places three cards face down on a table, often on a cardboard box, which provides the ability to set up and disappear quickly), a victim or “mark” (who is tricked into betting a sum of money, on the assumption that they can find the money card among three constantly moving, face-down playing cards), and a shill (who pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the dealer, while in fact conspiring with the dealer to take advantage of the mark). . .
The basic structure of the hustle is also a reminder that it needs a third party, a supplement. It’s not enough that there are hustling dealers and ready-to-be-hustled marks, who are willing to face one another over the cardboard box. The hustle doesn’t work unless there’s a shill, which gives the hustle its allure and legitimacy.
And that’s what the Prosperity Gospel movement accomplishes for the economic system as a whole. It both signifies there’s a hustle taking place (otherwise why would anyone need a special relationship with Jesus to succeed?) and provides cover for the hustle (since it’s made out to be the only game in town, all we can do is make the appropriate spiritual and financial investment and hope to receive our just reward).
Which is exactly how American capitalism works. There’s a basic economic structure—of a majority of workers who are dependent on a small minority of capitalists for their livelihoods. And that’s important, since the workers’ pay is enough to allow them to consume the commodities they need in order to go back to work the next day but not so much that they don’t have to go back to work the next day. Thus, most people continue to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to their corporate employers on an ongoing basis.
Trump’s genius is, at one and the same time, to highlight the existence of an unfair hustle and to put himself forward as the leader who can help everyone—both those who have lost and those who are already winners—become winners within the hustle.
Just like him. And that, too, is as American as extreme diets and beauty makeovers.