When campaigning for president in 2015, Donald Trump cited the Bible as his favorite book. “Nothing beats the Bible,” he said at a rally in Michigan, not even The Art of the Deal, his bestseller from 1987. A couple of weeks later, Mark Halperin challenged Trump to cite his favorite Bible verses. He declined: “I wouldn’t want to get into it, because to me, it’s very personal,” he said.
Trump’s critics savor these sound bites for obvious reasons. Trump can’t tell you his favorite Bible verse. He can’t tell you any Bible verses. He can’t even begin to discuss the Bible with any familiarity, much less conviction. Interviews with Trump on the subject of religion tend to unravel into improvisational comedy. He rattles Old Testament clichés for a minute or so before the interviewer moves on to other subjects. Of course, Trump’s critics seize on these ridiculous sound bites: How, they wonder, do evangelicals embrace a politician who embodies the moral relativism and wealthy hedonism that conservatives have spent decades railing against?
There’s some righteous dissent against Trump in evangelical corners every now and again: In December, Christianity Today called for Trump’s conviction in the Senate during his impeachment proceedings. Pat Robertson repudiated Trump’s strongman theatrics during the earliest days of the protests in response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. The Secret Service teargassed protesters in Lafayette Square in order to clear people from the president’s path to pose for cameras—with a Bible—in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “You just don’t do that, Mr. President,” Robertson said the next day. “It isn’t cool!” But overall, Trump serves even his most confounding constituency surprisingly well. Turns out, Republicans need Trump more than Trump needs Jesus.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden addressed his party with a prime-time speech on the final night of last week’s convention; Trump will address the Republican National Convention every day this week, Monday through Thursday.
Speaking live in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday morning, Trump opened the convention with an hourlong speech about Democrats “using COVID to steal our election.” The earliest prime-time speakers included a few party officials, including Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, an Indian American woman, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, a Black man. Both spoke with some ambivalence about the effects of racism in modern American life. Both embodied a more sensible, agreeable future for conservative politics beyond Trump (his reelection withstanding).
But the convention’s prime-time lineup also prioritizes the culture warriors: There’s Trump’s sons Don Jr. and Eric, who spend most of their days trolling on Twitter and Fox News; Nick Sandmann, the former Covington Catholic High School student who sued several media outlets, including CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for the way they covered his clash with the Native American activist Nathan Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial last year; and Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the couple who waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their home in St. Louis a couple of months ago. The convention also features a few more complex and interesting figures, such as Maximo Alvarez, a first-generation Cuban immigrant, who compared Biden to Fidel Castro in an otherwise poignant speech about his own parents, as well as Alice Marie Johnson, a 65-year-old Black woman whom Trump granted clemency after she’d spent 22 years in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Trump took up Johnson’s cause a couple of years ago after Kim Kardashian West petitioned for her release. He spotlighted Johnson in his campaign commercial during the Super Bowl earlier this year. Among pundits, Johnson once represented Trump’s best hope for a kinder—and broader—Trumpism. But even as Johnson joins a shockingly diverse roster at the Republican National Convention, this optimism seems to have waned; Trump has reverted to form.
The producers of the Republican National Convention might tell you they wrote the prime-time schedule to showcase “real Americans” rather than party elites. But the 2020 RNC lineup seems more so designed to obscure the party’s dysfunctional leadership. The party’s previous presidential nominees, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, won’t address the convention this year. Last week, Cindy McCain participated in a short documentary that aired during the Democratic National Convention about Biden’s relationship with her late husband, John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. The New York Times keeps a running list of the senior Republican officials who won’t support Trump in the general election, such as Bush, Romney, and former secretary of state Colin Powell. Four years ago, Ted Cruz, drowning in boos, refused to endorse Trump in his prime-time floor speech. Clearly, Trump has consolidated his influence within the Republican Party since his election in 2016. It’s tough to discern whether the Republican Party is stronger than the Democrats in its cohesion or weaker for its homogeneity. Trump’s 87 percent approval rating among Republicans suggests some strength, but the fact that only 26 percent of Americans now identify as Republicans suggests some larger weakness.
The 2020 Republican National Convention belongs to the true believers. The Republican Party, per its latest platform, “will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda” and the ongoing convention “will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention.” To think that Paul Ryan, the former Republican speaker of the House, spent the first half of Trump’s presidency pretending he’d never heard of the guy! Trump has outgrown the reservations and restraints that the party once imagined it might impose upon him. “MAGA” is the platform; “MAGA” is the scripture. The convention opened with renewed speculation among pundits that Trump would replace Mike Pence with Haley as his reelection running mate in a desperate attempt to revive his candidacy. It’s a year-old rumor with some obvious political complications: Haley may be the more impressive politician, but Pence bolsters Trump’s evangelical pretense. But who needs the pretense at this point? Who, in Donald Trump’s Republican Party, rolls out of bed on November 3, 2020, to renew their faith in Mike Pence? Just listen to Kimberly Guilfoyle, Don Jr.’s girlfriend, shouting about Trump’s prophecies about “making America great again.” She’s found religion, and it isn’t Christianity.