Donald Trump and the 'nostalgia voters'

Last week, on Interfaith Voices, I interviewed Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. He's a pollster with a strong read on the religious pulse of the American electorate.

During the interview, I had an "ah-hah!" moment when I asked him why so many evangelicals were supporting Donald Trump, especially since Ted Cruz is also in the running and is "one of their own," i.e. is also evangelical. For the record, Donald Trump is a Presbyterian … nominally.

Jones said that the old term, "values voters," does not fit Trump's supporters. Rather, he called them "nostalgia voters" -- voters yearning for a past they once knew but is now clearly gone.

Jones contends that when Trump says that he will "make American great again" the most important word is "again." He is harkening back to an age when the culture of the United States was more homogeneous, with white Christians firmly in control. That past, he noted, was the late 1940s, the 1950s and perhaps the early 1960s, before the civil rights era, and before large waves of diverse immigrants from all over the world came here.

They came because of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 under the Johnson administration, which ended the "national origins formula" favoring northern and western European immigrants. It was a time before large waves of Latin American immigrants arrived from the South or Muslims arrived in notable numbers from Asia or the Middle East.

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The first two decades after World War II were, in short, a time when white Christians dominated, and ruled, the United States. That has certainly changed.

White Christians are no longer a majority of Americans, and that makes some people exceedingly nervous and fearful -- and nostalgic. Thus, when they hear a candidate like Trump say he'll build a wall on our southern border to keep Hispanic immigrants out, or ban Muslims from entering the United States, the message resonates with "nostalgia voters," who cheer him on because many of them would like to return to that age when white Christians were clearly in control.

Jones is spot-on in this reasoning. Many people yearn for a simpler time. But there is more.

What Jones did not have time to discuss about that same period is this: Unions were strong in that age and wages were higher. Even people who could not get a college education (like my father) nonetheless could get good, secure, well-paying jobs.  Families that never had college graduates were boasting about a son or daughter getting a higher education.  Success, in other words, looked possible because many boats were rising … if you were white.

Today, it may be that many Trump supporters yearn for that early time … not just for better economic opportunities (as the media often note) but for a time when white Christian hegemony was not challenged. For many of them, it was a "package deal," and they want it back. That’s “nostalgia" -- a dangerous "nostalgia."

Editor's note: Readers curious about the 2016 presidential candidates' respective faiths should check out Religion News Service's series "Five Faith Facts about the 2016 Presidential Candidates."

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