Believe me, no one wants to write about the Trump campaign (yet again) less than I do. However, events last week might have long-term consequences for the position of Mormonism in American society, and I thought it was worth a little bit of a look.
The story starts with a major shake-up in the Trump campaign. As the NYT reported last week: Paul Manafort is out; Stephen K. Bannon is in. So, who are these two folks, and what do they have to do with Mormons?
Paul Manafort is famous for, among other things, working to rehabilitate the image and career of Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is the authoritarian, pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was ousted in that country’s Orange Revolution. Manafort is the guy who was hired to get Yanukovych back in power. He overhauled Yanukovych’s image from clothes and haircut to people-skills, as this Slate article details. Surely, the idea went, if Manafort could sell Yanukovych, he could also sell Trump. Well, apparently not.
As for Stephen K. Bannon, he’s the guy who took over Breitbart after Andrew Breitbart died in 2012. Breitbart is a right-leaning Internet news/opinion site that—under Bannon’s leadership—has been heavily invested in Trump since the early days of his campaign. The most notorious example came from March, when a Breitbart reporter (Michelle Fields) claimed she’d been pushed and shoved by Trump’s then campaign manager. Bannon sided with the Trump campaign against his own reporter. As a result, Fields, her editor, and at least two more Breitbart employees quit in protest.
An illuminating article by Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight details just how closely the fates of Bannon and Trump have been linked, crediting Bannon’s decision to turn Breitbart into essentially the PR arm of the Trump campaign with a marked increase in the site’s Internet traffic:
It’s unclear—to say the least—if Bannon’s leadership in the campaign will actually help Trump in the general election at all. In fact, the decision to retrench instead of reach out seems so counterproductive that many are speculating that Trump’s not even trying to win. Instead, he and Bannon are more interested in creating a news media empire to take on Fox News from the right. (This angle has been covered by CNN, the LA Times, Quartz, and others.)
So what does this have to do with American Mormons?
Although it’s highly unlikely that Utah, of all places, will end up being one of the deciding votes in this election, the fact that such a reliably Republican state has proven to be so reluctant to get behind Trump is making big news and embarrassing the Trump campaign. The mere fact that Trump’s victory in Utah is in question—a state where Bill Clinton finished third in 1992—is a thorn in the side of Trump supporters everywhere. When you add in the fact that the #NeverTrump candidate, Evan McMullin, is Mormon from Utah you can see why the Bannon/Trump axis would consider Mormons as traitors to the cause.
And so we get articles like this one from Breitbart’s Joel B. Pollak: Blue State Blues: Trump’s ‘Mormon Problem’ is Mitt Romney’s Fault or this one from anti-immigration hawk Tom Tancredo (writing for Breitbart): Will the Mormon Church’s Support for Muslim Immigration Block Trump’s Victory? The articles are not really coherent. Pollak blames Trump’s “Mormon Problem” on the fact that “Romney’s sway with fellow Mormons cannot be underestimated.” Romney attacked Trump and—like lemmings—we all fell in behind him. (Pollak condescendingly explains that this happens because “Every minority group has such icons, and rarely questions them.” So, at least we’re not dumber than other minority groups out there, for whatever that’s worth.)
On the other hand, Tancredo’s piece hinges on the idea that Mormons won’t just follow their leaders. As he puts it: “Probably 99% of Mormon citizens and voters can make that logical connection [see that “radical Islam is the number one enemy of religious liberty in the world today”] — even while their church leadership suffers an episode of moral incoherence.” So there’s no common theme about why or even whether Mormons will reject Trump in Utah. There is, however, some pretty clear groundwork being laid about where to place the blame if (as seems quite likely) Trump is defeated in November. (It won’t matter any more then than it does now that the actual impact of the Mormon vote on the general election is likely to be small.)
A lot about Trump’s presidential run has been unprecedented. Frankly, it ordinarily wouldn’t really matter at all if his followers adopted a particularly dim view of Mormons. That’s not going to be a new experience of us. But—stepping back and looking at the larger picture of American politics—the ascendance of the Trump/Breitbart machine seems entirely emblematic of the increasing polarization (and deteriorating seriousness and reasonability) of public discourse in American society. If any of the speculation about Trump’s long-run interests in competing with Fox turn out to be true, then—even if he loses the election—it could very well mean that we’ll see a rising media conglomerate drawing a bulls-eye on Mormonism from the right of the American political spectrum.
And that’s what I find most interesting. For decades—much longer than I’ve been alive—American Mormons have maintained ostensible political neutrality while overwhelmingly finding allies on the right rather than on the left. Of course there have always been Mormons in American who found their faith led them in the opposite direction, but by and large the connection between Mormons and the conservative wing of the Republican Party has been a given. It’s too early to call that state of affairs dead and buried, but the arrangement had already come under stress before the rise of Trump as General Authorities increasingly diverged from the right wing on the issue of immigration. Even if Breitbart/Trump don’t amount to much in the coming months and years, it may very well be that the underlying frictions between Mormons and the GOP continue to grow.
One way to look at this is pessimistic. Mormons are already, because of their staunch social conservatism favorite targets on the left. It fits with our never-distant fears of persecution to foretell an imminent future when we take just as much fire from the right.
But there’s also an optimistic way to look at it. It’s entirely possible that the alliance between American Mormons and the Republican Party has fostered a sense of complacency over issues where Mormons should not be complacent. There are areas where our theology and Republican policies seem to naturally fit (for example: emphasis on individual liberty and responsibility along with general social conservatism), but there are also areas where there is no such harmony. Two examples that come immediately to my mind are the environment (where Mormon doctrine emphasizes stewardship as opposed to notions of dominance or exploitation) and mass incarceration. We live in a country that locks up an astounding proportion of our citizens and does so as a result of a War on Drugs that is racist and exploitative. I think Jesus had some pretty strong things to say about prisoners and “grinding the faces of the poor,” but the seemingly comfortable fit between Mormons and the GOP has (perhaps) prevented us from looking beneath law-and-order rhetoric to see what has really been going on.
I do not foresee a shift in alignment. American Mormons are not going to be driven en masse by Trump from the GOP into the Democratic Party. The differences are too stark for us to find a home there. But we might start to question whether we ever should have taken it for granted that we had a home with the GOP, either. And—if the result is a greater awakening among Mormons to divine injunctions to fight injustice and build a society with more protection for the poor and vulnerable—then that won’t be a bad development at all.