The Trump enigma and the resurgence of fundamentalism

The Trump enigma and the resurgence of fundamentalism

Roberto Di Giovan Paolo
There is an apparent red line that unites manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism on the basis, for instance, of the Orlando attack, and ultranationalist fundamentalism, the presence of which is detected in the south of the United States and which are also found in the words of the Republican candidate for the White House. But which and how many connection points can really unite the two phenomena and how wide is their cultural divide?

Donald Trump’s Republican nomination seems to replay a film that has already been seen in the race for the US presidency. On one side is Hillary Clinton, who represents the more "governmental" Democratic party and must mediate Bernie Sanders’ proposals. On the other side is the champion of the Republicans, who defends the tougher positions of his party which, from an ideological point of view, has its roots in the so-called "Tea Party" and also looks backwards to rural Christian fundamentalism.
Most newspapers in recent months have compared the relationship between Trump and the party leadership to the battle between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 where Goldwater presented a tough vision of US political conservatism. But is this really a valid comparison? Although we are certainly not in the times of Ronald Reagan, with his support from Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, "fundamentalism" still has a significant meaning to the Republican ranks, especially for its new international implications which seem a difficult issue for Trump to handle.

An idea of freedom that embraces integralism

It is, in fact, at the international level that "made in the USA" fundamentalism seems to represent a new "evil empire" reminiscent of Reagan’s critique of the Soviet Union. Trump will have to come to terms with that ironic problem while holding on to the votes of "his" fundamentalists at the same time that fundamentalism is easier for a Democratic and "liberal" candidate to handle, because they don’t rely on fundamentalists for their votes. In fact, the episodes of violence that have occurred in the United States, especially those linked to individuals who burst into schools or other public places and shoot wildly, recall fundamentalism of various origins, thereby contributing to cultural and political confusion. The cultural attitudes of Omar Seddiqqe Mateen, the Islamic fundamentalist who instigated the tragic attacks in Orlando, are comparable to those of ultra-nationalist Christian fundamentalists in the southern United States, rather than something that is foreign to US history and culture. Mateen railed against multiculturalism, LGBT rights, and social policies and civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and American law. The fact that he had sworn allegiance to ISIS adds an element of context but does not change the reality that a different cultural background, with its own roots, has managed to integrate itself perfectly with many values of Christian fundamentalism in the southern United States. The challenge now is to determine whether Republican political battles, rather than the typical American roots often referred to, manage to serve as a breeding ground, perhaps unconsciously or involuntarily, for the spread of anti-state sentiment. The common belief that local land and homes, far from the "sinful" Sodom and Gomorrah called Washington, are more virtuous affects Trump’s "anti-caste" and populist policy.
The relationship with fundamentalism has been present in the Republican party since its origin, but its positions were not so important in the country until the 1930s, during the opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the 1950s and 1960s, the movement provided an organizational structure which exploded with Jerry Fallwell during the Reagan period. It became an essential element for the political construction of Reagan’s "evil empire" theory, which was applied to communism. The cultural contribution of Christian fundamentalism to politics remained high even after the Reagan presidency, despite the advent of the "Tea Party" as an attempt to steer towards a more presentable, mainly economic, liberal conservatism. Karl Rove, a strategist in the election campaign that saw George W. Bush junior become president, resorted to the key idea of "Salvation and Rebirth"; this applied to a politician considered a non-ideologist, a culturally weak man and and one who had a history of problems with many vices such as drugs and alcohol. It was precisely the weakness inherent in the candidate that became the strength of that electoral campaign. Bush’s "Axis of Evil" would also signal a focus on a traditional fundamentalist dichotomy of good/evil.

The relationship between Trump and the party leadership have compared to the battle between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 where Goldwater presented a tough vision of U.S. political conservatism


The crisis of Christian fundamentalism

At present, Christian fundamentalism certainly has a much smaller influence in terms of media presence or self-representation than it did during the Reagan years due to two main factors: the risk of becoming a breeding ground for some sort of "heterodoxy of purpose" and mutual weakening, both in polemics and challenge, with the Tea Party. The result is a Republican candidate who is little inclined to yield to electoral pressure, having been freed by both his distance from values and proclamations and enabled to focus on matters more congenial to him such as major energy choices, or an interest (or lack thereof) jn climate treaties. Donald Trump is a free man, despite the coarseness and vulgarity he exhibits, but he is certainly not a classic Republican leader, dependent on religious fundamentalism and values. This "break" can definitely change the Grand Old Party.