How to Get Through to Republican Officials and Trump Supporters

Catherine M Wallace

Opposition to Mr. Trump risks fragmentation because there's simply too much to oppose, all of it happening all at once. Groups like Indivisible urge us to call our Congressional representatives, but we can't get through. Even if we could get through, there's simply too much to say—and too little hope that enough Republicans will listen. As a result, current levels of popular outrage may fizzle out in frustration and emotional exhaustion. We need a strategy for our messaging, a strategy that will achieve two crucial ends.

            First, we must formulate our values in ways that have some potential for influencing both Republican officials and Trump supporters who are deaf to the usual "liberal" talking points. Second, we must articulate what we stand for—not simply what we oppose—in ways that will communicate across class boundaries. And we must do so, furthermore, with sufficient wit that our imagery (visual or verbal) has a fighting change to go viral among those who stand with us. Challenges this complex demand moral imagination, a cognitive skill that seems to be in short supply on the technocratic Left.

            I'm a cultural historian. I have spent the last fifteen years unearthing the cultural and theological origins of the Religious Right and the strategies they have used in their rise to political prominence. Their success laid the essential foundation for Mr. Trump's overwhelming support among white rural evangelicals and disaffected white voters without college educations. On the basis of my research, I have a suggestion to make. We need to reclaim two extraordinarily powerful domains of cultural symbolism: patriotism and Christianity.

            Over the last eighty years, the Religious Right has hijacked and then weaponized both domains of symbolism. They have betrayed both what America stands for and what Jesus taught. Their culture-wars alliance has draped an illusion of religious legitimacy across an imperial neo-con militarism and a libertarian economics that has driven income disparity and economic exploitation to unsustainable levels. In theological terms, that's heresy. In political terms, it's extraordinarily dangerous propaganda.

            Successful opposition to Mr. Trump must root itself in reclaiming what has been misappropriated. Christians must base opposition to Trumpery in what Christianity actually stands for. We must do so in a public, shared conceptual language that addresses the nation at large, not simply people in our own pews. Secularists and non-Christians must base their opposition just as deeply in America's foundational documents, beliefs, traditions, heroic figures, and cultural symbolism.  As "Hamilton" demonstrates, there's amazing material there waiting to be rediscovered and remixed for our own times.

            Furthermore, there's a hunger out here for all of it. As cultural observers have been pointing out for decades now, political progressives and Democratic Party regulars have been inexplicably squeamish about invoking the potent cultural symbolism of moral obligation and authentic patriotism. They have ceded the cultural high ground of the bold American vision and the ancient demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

            We must reclaim that high ground. We must crowd-source a new consensus that is unabashed about invoking the symbolic language of moral obligation and true-hearted patriotism. The energy of protests against Donald Trump, plus a new generation skilled in new-media messaging, create an extraordinary opportunity to formulate an authentic national language for what actually does make America great. As this consensus finds its voice, its memes, and its music, elected officials on both sides of the aisle will face an increasingly focused pressure that it may be politically impossible to defy.

            Resistance to Mr. Trump will not fizzle out in frustration and exhaustion and a "new normal" of alt-facts if we remember that culture—and thus politics—is the domain of visual image, symbolism, and archetypal storytelling. Moral imagination is more important to political success than polling organizations and focus groups. Organizing our principled opposition to Trumpery around the symbolic cultural capital of patriotism and Christianity can help millions of frustrated, angry Americans to generate a sustainable, self-replicating political pressure and engagement. We will have a potent cultural language for what we are fighting for, not simply what we oppose.

            Each generation is called, each in its own way, to protect the fragile American experiment in democracy and human rights.  We must devote ourselves anew to an extraordinary vision that must not vanish from the face of the earth: it is possible to have government of the people, by the people, and for the people.