Why are Catholics voting for Trump?

The fact that angry Americans are telling "The Establishment" to shove off must be taken seriously, even if it’s hard at times to get past the hyperbole and raw emotion flying about like shrapnel.

That’s the question many are asking, although some are posing it in more colorful terms.

For example, Korey Maas at The Federalist asks: “Why Do Catholics Support An Unrepentant Strip Club Owner For President?” Maas—who points out that he is “neither an evangelical nor a Catholic” but is a confessional Lutheran—writes:

I, too, find myself anxiously asking the above questions; but also asking them about America’s Catholics. Why are they supporting the unrepentant Donald Trump? Have they ever supported an unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner before? And why are so few in either the old or new media asking these questions?

One probable answer to that last question is simply that many remain unaware of Trump’s astonishing support among Catholics, not least on account of the unhelpfully blinkered nature of much exit polling. As Brian Kaylor points out, in the last presidential election Catholics constituted more than a quarter of Iowa’s voters, turned out in greater numbers than evangelicals did in Nevada, and did so by more three-to-one in New Hampshire. Yet when addressing religion this year, Republican exit polls in all three states “only included a question about evangelicals.” “How did Catholics vote?” Kaylor asks. “We do not know.”

Curious, that, considering that Catholics make up some 22% of the population. This is 2016, right? Maas adds:

But there’s more. Trump isn’t simply dominating among Republican Catholics; he’s also drawing Catholic support from Democrats. According to Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, 37 percent of American Catholics are (or lean) Republican, while 44 percent are (or lean) Democrat. Yet pollster John Zogby noted earlier this year that, in Trump versus Clinton polling, “Trump is ahead among Catholics—a group that Democrats have won every election since 1992.” (Let’s not dwell on this “prime paradox,” that for more than three decades the Catholic vote has been in the pocket of the party that’s explicitly supported Roe v. Wade in every platform since that decision.)

It would seem that part (but only part) of the answer is suggested in that last sentence: the Catholic vote in Presidential elections tends to follow, quite closely, the overall percentages of the country at large. In 2012, Catholics voted 50% for Obama and 48% for Romney; the country as a whole voted exactly the same: 50% to 48%. However, if there is one certainty about the current races for both parties is that matters aren’t quite as certain as they might first appear. The Democratic Party faces the possibility its front runner might be get thrown into deep, hot legal waters before the summertime, which would create some panic, to put it mildly. Meanwhile, the GOP race has been strange from the start, as the conventional wisdom has been that Trump’s early surge would quickly sputter once he said and did things the average voter wouldn’t tolerate or be comfortable with. That theory, of course, has been in the morgue for weeks now.

Which means, some say, that voters might be left with two “unelectable” candidates. Cue Noah Rothman’s recent post for Commentary:

But Hillary Clinton is “unelectable.” According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey, a majority of the country has an unfavorable opinion of the former first lady. Only 37 percent of respondents believe Clinton is honest and trustworthy. … Worse, Hillary Clinton is a terrible model for the nation. She is obsessively conspiratorial and is prone to ascribing to Republicans powers of omnipotence rivaled only by their equally terrible malevolence. She fancies herself above the law, and she would not be bound by quaint notions of fealty to the Founders’ ideals or constitutionalism. …

But Donald Trump is also “unelectable.” That same Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Clinton is vastly preferable to Trump. Fewer than 30 percent of voters said they thought the real estate heir is trustworthy, understands their problems, or has the experience or temperament to serve as president. That poll found Trump losing to Clinton in a head-to-head matchup by 9 points, with the former first lady winning an outright majority of the vote. That trend away from Trump and toward Clinton has been accelerating, as it appears increasingly likely that the former reality television star will emerge the Republican Party’s nominee.

“Worse”, argues Rothman, “as president, Donald Trump would weaken the very foundations of the country.” That is also the basic point of the recent and much discussed “Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics” headed by George Weigel, Robert George, and several other Catholic leaders and intellectuals—several of whom, I should note, are contributors to Catholic World Report. That appeal flatly states: “Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States. His campaign has already driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity. His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility.” And so on. It then acknowledges some of the reasons Catholics have turned to Trump:

We understand that many good people, including Catholics, have been attracted to the Trump campaign because the candidate speaks to issues of legitimate and genuine concern: wage stagnation, grossly incompetent governance, profligate governmental spending, the breakdown of immigration law, inept foreign policy, stifling “political correctness” — for starters. There are indeed many reasons to be concerned about the future of our country, and to be angry at political leaders and other elites.

Many of the dozens of comments left at CWR in response to the news of the “Appeal” could be summed up, I think, in this way (and in my words): “We’re done! We’ve had enough. We’re sick of both parties and of the various groups and institutions that are associated with them.” It highlights the rather startling fact that while Trump has been and continues to be the GOP front runner, he is widely seen as being or symbolizing (or both) The End of the GOP-as-we’ve-known-it-for-a-long-time. Rod Dreher, in pondering the question “A Catholic Neocon Collapse?”, writes:

This is an astonishing political and cultural moment on the Right. When grassroots orthodox Catholics no longer believe that their leaders, both ecclesial and lay, speak and lead in their interests, the world as we conservatives have known it for at least the last 30 years begins to fall apart. Personally, I don’t fault these Catholic leaders (some of whom are friends of mine) for taking a stand on an issue that they feel strongly about, especially one as critically important as the American presidency. But I also understand why these conservative Catholic readers interpret the statement as an attempt to shore up a party establishment that has failed, even on Catholic terms.

Personally, I think the term “neocon” is quite worthless—perhaps because I’ve been called one despite being more of a ByzantineAugustinianPaleoKirkianConservative (yes, I just made that up; but it’s true). Regardless, the various stories and anecdotes and examples of angry Americans telling “The Establishment” to shove off must be taken seriously, even if it’s hard at times to get past the hyperbole and raw emotion flying about like shrapnel. One of the best pieces of calm analysis I’ve read about Trump’s popularity in general (not specific to Catholics) was written earlier this week by George Friedman. His argument is based in economics, but with a keen eye toward culture, which I think is essential in grasping what is going on. Friedman writes:

His supporters tend to be less educated, less well-off, and white. This has become a central, disaffected class in the United States, and while focus has been on other groups, Trump has spoken to this one. He has addressed their economic and cultural interests, and no candidate has done that in a long time.

Friedman does state this condescendingly, but as a point of fact. He analyzes some of the numbers in order to make this point:

 American political culture has rarely been triggered by inequality, but by the inability to acquire the basics of American life. The problem with the Republicans is that they have not noticed that the defining issue of this generation is the collapse in the standard of living of the middle and lower-middle classes. This is part of what brought Trump to where he is today, but only part.

The deeper problem was the perception of the white segment of the lower-middle class that their problems were invisible. They heard talk about African-Americans or Hispanics and the need to integrate them into society. However, from the white lower-middle class perspective, there appeared to be little interest in the challenges facing their demographic. Indeed, there was a perception that the upper strata and the media not only didn’t care about them, but had contempt for their beliefs.

The white lower-middle class is divided into two parts. One part has already been shattered by economic pressures, family fragmentation, drugs, and other forces. Another part is under equal economic pressure but has not yet fragmented. It retains values such as religiosity, traditional sexual mores, intense work ethic, and so on.

This is the class that has been deemed pathological by the media and the upper classes. Its opposition to homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, promiscuity, and the rest (which was the social norm a generation ago) is now treated as a problem that needs to be overcome, rather than the core of a decent society. The speed of the shift in the values of dominant classes has left this class in a position where those values taught at home and at church are now regarded by the broader society as despicable. Repercussions are bound to happen.

Yes, they were. As Friedman rightly points out, these folks are “intensely cynical” about the political system; they are frustrated by what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be corruption and incompetence; they “view this elite as claiming rights they haven’t earned. The lower-middle class can tolerate earned wealth, and even respect it, but cannot accept what they see as manipulated wealth and power.” And they “also see politicians as being dishonest in other ways: saying whatever they need to say in order to be elected.” Far worse, many politicians do not address the issues that matter; the politicians “are implicitly and explicitly rejecting lower-middle class values.” He then offers a compelling case for why Trump, who is wealthy and elite, has captured the imagination and support of these angry voters. Friedman then concludes:

The culture wars have been won in the Democratic Party, so there are few voters to win over on that basis. Any Democratic candidate will counter Trump on the economic issue. And those in the Republican upper-middle class are no friends of the Republican lower-middle class. It is not clear how he bridges the gap.

I don’t think Trump can win the presidency. But he has revealed a serious structural weakness in the American polity. As Americans who earn below the median income are increasingly unable to live the life they could have expected a generation ago, they will join in with resentment against the upper classes. That resentment will be built around cultural issues, as well as economic ones.

That is an important insight: this situation is about a combination of economic issues, political frustrations, and cultural clashes. Trump has managed to draw on all three. I have to think this resonates with those Catholics who support him. So, will it be enough? More importantly, is Trump really the answer to the current crisis, which I think it is, at risk of tossing in my own hyperbolic shrapnel? Is he fit to be President? If he is elected, is it a nail in the coffin of the Republican Party? And what does all of this mean for serious, practicing Catholics in the U.S.? These are fascinating questions and we’ll be revisiting them often in the weeks and months to come. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.