How do we explain the amazing experiment in American democracy that is the Donald Trump campaign? It’s not just that the candidate has said things that set off alarms about prejudice, it’s that his supporters — both those cheering him in the stands and some of the ones speaking from podiums — seem to be absorbing some very disturbing signals from him about what is and isn’t permissible to say in a civil society. But whether we are forced to label such instances as serious problems or minor kerfuffles, they all reflect two factors that are essential to understanding the Trump movement. They are a reflection of the immense frustration that many Americans feel about the constraints that are imposed on discourse by what we call political correctness and have not unreasonably interpreted as a license to express hateful views or violence. But they are also a function of the cognitive dissonance that is a part of the effort to elect a person that is running as both insider and outsider at the same time.
The latest controversy to land in the lap of the Trump campaign concerns the comments of a surrogate, Pastor Mark Burns, a black clergyman who spoke before Trump appeared on stage at an event in Hickory, North Carolina on Monday. In what appeared to be an unscripted moment in the course of criticizing the Democrats, Burns said that Bernie Sanders needed to convert.
As Politico reported, Burns said the following:
Bernie Sanders who doesn’t believe in God. How in the world are we going to let Bernie? I mean really? Listen, Bernie gotta get saved. He gotta meet Jesus. He gotta have a come to Jesus meeting.
Compared to Trump going to rhetorical war against all Muslims (and not just Islamists or its fellow travelers), Mexican immigrants, and encouraging supporters to beat up demonstrators at his rallies, this is very small beer indeed. But sometimes it’s the little incidents that tell us as much about what’s going on as the big ones.
Lest one had any doubts about what Burns meant, in an appearance on CNN on Monday afternoon, the pastor doubled down and defended them as being integral to his religious worldview.
This is offensive for a number of reasons that hardly even need to be stated. Burns seems to be saying that the problem with Sanders’ candidacy is that he isn’t a Christian and seems to rest on the notion that religious voters shouldn’t support anyone that doesn’t share their beliefs. This is directly contrary to our Constitution, the intentions of the Founders as well as the entire spirit of American democracy. It is also astonishing that of all the justified criticisms that could be made about the positions of an avowed socialist, the pastor thought his ties to Judaism were worth highlighting.
Of course, Burns isn’t the only person in America that thinks his or her religion is the only true one. On some level, that is probably true of many people of faith. But in a pluralistic democracy, most of us also understand that this is a question about which civilized people agree to disagree. It is not unusual for political candidates to be embarrassed by intolerant or foolish statements made by their supporters. But having such a statement slip out during a warm-up for an appearance by a presidential frontrunner is the sort of gaffe that would usually be dealt with by swift disavowals and the offending loose lips being permanently banished from a candidate’s presence. But that is not how the Trump camp operates.
For many of Trump’s supporters, the willingness of the pastor to push the envelope in this fashion may just be an extension of the candidate’s predilection for saying things that offend somebody. Serious observers have long since stopped expecting any comments — whether something major like Trump’s line about Mexican immigrants being drug dealers and rapists or his calls for a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. — to bother the candidate’s supporters. Far from demonstrating his lack of a presidential temperament, Trump reinforces their affection for him because he says what others might like to but can’t.
Trump may not be prejudiced in his private life, but so much of what he does and say is a signal to others that their resentments and anger about whatever its that has caused the country to stop “winning” or stolen its “greatness” can be fully vented. That is why his supporters not only don’t care about statements that might sink any other mortal’s presidential hopes but also explains their utter indifference to the inconsistencies of his policies and the vagueness of most of his pronouncements with the exception of his vows to build a wall and to throw out all illegal immigrants.
The cognitive dissonance here extends to Trump’s biography as well as his policy choices. He dog whistles on the KKK, panders to hate rather than sensible security concerns on Muslims and countenances Pastor Burns while being the loving father of a child who converted to Judaism and a grandfather to his Jewish children and claiming to be pro-Israel (when not saying that he will be neutral between the Jewish state and its Palestinian foes). He inveighs against immigration and even opposes the use of special visas for skilled workers while not only employing illegal immigrants and those who have come here with permission via policies he now calls abuse, but also married a legal immigrant who came to this country via the same H-1B route. He bemoans the export of manufacturing jobs abroad while the clothes manufactured by his brand name are made in China. He claims to be opposed to crony capitalism and political bribery but has been practicing it his entire adult life.
All of this makes Trump a hard man to pin down in the eyes of his followers. While critics see the inconsistencies as clear evidence that he is a con artist, his fans are freed up to believe whatever it is they want about him. That means decent people can think offensive remarks are merely Trump blowing off steam without being prejudiced or that his own bad behavior shows how he can stop it in others. But what it also means is that those inclined to spread intolerance like the pastor or those spewing hate at his rallies or in the fever swamps of the Internet can view him as a sympathetic figure giving legitimacy to their misdeeds.
Compared to other incidents in a campaign full of indefensible remarks, Pastor Burns’ attack on Sanders for his Jewish identity barely rates a footnote in a history of the 2016 election. But it is just one more indicator of the genie that Trump has let out of the bottle and as such is a significant indicator of how the unacceptable becomes commonplace and perhaps even rationalized becomes it reflects a refusal to respect the restrictive norms observed by those who wish to preserve civility. No matter what his apologists say, like the other hateful statements and the encouragement of violence, it won’t be easy to get it back into the bottle even if the candidate should ever want to do so.