Election 2020

Trump’s Language of Hate Has Deep Roots in American Religious Bigotry

Catholics were the first scapegoats of the new republic, but others followed.

U.S. President Donald Trump stands on stage with Vice President Mike Pence
U.S. President Donald Trump stands on stage with Vice President Mike Pence at the conclusion of his final rally of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s influence on U.S. politics and society will last far longer than his tenure as president. Trumpism is not a coherent doctrine; there’s no grand strategy holding it together. Instead it is a combination of ideologies: judicial appointments to renew the culture wars and preserve Trump’s power; deep-seated corruption to benefit the Trump family and their allies monetarily; standard Republican ideas about taxes; and, most crucially, systems of violence, ideological and physical, against groups the administration defines as the Other. That’s an idea that goes back a long way in the United States, and which hasn’t entirely escaped its religious roots.

Trump has repeatedly leaned on fear of and opposition to imaginary enemies to avoid responsibility for his own failures and to suggest who belongs and who doesn’t in U.S. society. The most recent example is his executive order establishing the 1776 Commission. Pitched as an counterpunch to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examines the consequences of slavery in the United States, it was in fact a declaration that the Other does not and has never existed in U.S. society, and that anyone who suggests otherwise has a nonfactual, un-American agenda.

This is absurd. U.S. politics has a long history of weaponizing the fear and hate of the Other, one of the earliest of which was anti-Catholicism and the genre of symbolic language associated with it, “anti-popery.” Sectarian fights between dissenting religious groups and the state establishment of Massachusetts frequently devolved into mutual accusations of “popery,” which was a designation of immediate dread and scorn among the Protestant Christian exile society that dominated colonial politics. When the ruling conservative Quakers in colonial Pennsylvania tried to block the political ascendancy of other groups and maintain their rule in the face of an accelerating minority status, those being disenfranchised labeled their enemies “papists.”

For their part, Quakers accused the newly mobilized voters of having rigged the election and pretending toward greater freedom while secretly intending a radical agenda of egalitarianism and wealth redistribution. Sound familiar? Any abusive or corrupt actions by the state or its governing elite could be readily denigrated as “popish.” Yet, so, too, could elements of society seen as subversive, dissatisfied, or antagonistic to the godly society of the empowered. The beauty of this symbolism to those who relied upon it was that it could increasingly be detached from a specific meaning or grievance without losing any of its potency to mobilize the fearful and resentful within society. Think “socialist” among the right wing today.

The politics of the colonial era shifted, but the most successful dog whistle of the period remained. In the early republican and antebellum period, the language of anti-Catholicism morphed once more to target new immigrants to the country. As waves of European migration set in, nativists within U.S. society used anti-Catholic tropes to bemoan the jobs taken, the voting influence wielded, and the rights demanded by newly arrived Americans. These signals also increasingly overlapped with 19th-century race theory, which added an entirely new level of “othering” amid a rapidly diversifying society. Jews were targeted as inferior and nefarious. Mormons, at the time a disliked demographic, were threatened with a U.S. governor’s extermination order.

Anyone seen as a threat to a progressively more mythologized image of a lost Anglo-Saxon, Protestant orthodoxy was smeared with the language of anti-popery and threatened with violence. Nativists, evangelicals, and some economic elites demanded restrictions on immigration. They demanded the franchise be denied to Americans born on foreign soil. An alliance of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fundamentalists carried this mantle well into the 20th century and, seemingly, into the 21st. Time and again a class of political leaders answered them in kind, motivating their voters and would-be supporters with calls, subtle and unsubtle, to exclude and suspect the unwanted Other amongst them.

Trump’s reliance on this same kind of religious symbolism have not been subtle. Trump overtly claims that Christians are under attack in the United States and that he is fighting back against their supposed oppression. Plenty has been written on the multiple branches of Christianity that support him in this endeavor—Christian dominionists, Christian Zionists, neocharismatic Pentecostals, and evangelicals in general. His travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries, his violent rhetoric about Muslims in this country and abroad, and the several performative laws banning “sharia law” by GOP state legislatures across the nation have been very clear. Trump’s embrace of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories such as QAnon, of explicitly white-nationalist groups, and repeated promotion of anti-Semitic propaganda about “cosmopolitan elites,” “globalists,” and protests “paid for by [George] Soros,” helped lead to the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and other incidents of anti-Semitic violence.

While these are the most explicit examples of Trump’s emphasis on violence toward any religious group other than white Protestants who support Trump and his policies, there are numerous other examples. Hate crimes against Sikhs, for example, have surged during the Trump administration. A number of Trump’s executive orders and statements, and those of his supporters, have been full-throated apologias for colonialism and have led  to real violence against Native Americans and even religious sites on the southern border. And Trump’s historic and ongoing hatred of Latino immigrants, channeled into his rhetoric (leading to the El Paso shooting), border policies, wall, and detention camps, merges into traditional Nativist rhetoric, which is inherently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant.

To be sure, Trump did not invent this political language. It is exceedingly unlikely he is aware of its long presence in U.S. history and the language that informs it. But he stands in a long tradition of conservative political leaders that have embraced the conspiratorial style within U.S. society, a calculated language that strikes a careful balance between unspoken or understated inference and a current of anger and resentment toward anyone who might be to blame for the misfortune of the so-called silent majority. For Trump and his followers, however, subtext is often straightforward text. Even 19th-century nativist supporters didn’t resort to grave desecration.

Trump’s presidency will end, and there will be a rush to pretend we are back to normal. The horrifying truth, however, is that religious violence is historically the United States’ normal. And when he goes, it won’t disappear with him.

J. L. Tomlin is a Lecturer of History at the University of North Texas and studies fear and religion in early America.

Thomas Lecaque is an assistant professor of medieval history.

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