Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor of Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South.” His next book, “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland,” will be released by Other Press this year. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
They don’t want Donald Trump to change. They like him just as he is.
There is no other credible explanation for the majority of white evangelical Christians’ apparently undying support for a president who has repeatedly shown them precisely who he is and has long been, with his indecency, bigotry, crudeness, serial untruthfulness and immorality. And yet, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, a majority of white evangelical Christians believe that President Donald Trump has helped their interests. He fares even better on the issue of whether he fights for what they “believe in” – 53% answered “very well”; 28% “fairly well.”
Consider, against this, that the President has tweeted six times this month about a decades-old conspiracy theory targeting MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. Trump has shown himself to be a man who would disrespect the memory of dead woman just to get back at a political opponent. That woman, Lori Klausutis, died while working as an intern in Scarborough’s Florida office when he was a congressman. Trump has disgustingly suggested Scarborough – who is a Trump critic – had something to do with her death, a widely debunked theory. Klausutis’ death, according to the medical examiner, was the “result of an acute subdural hematoma which occurred as a result of a closed head trauma sustained in a simple fall.” The autopsy report concluded that the fall happened because Klausutis had “a sudden cardiac arrhythmia from her undiagnosed floppy mitral valve disease.”
Some have laid the blame for allowing this beyond-the-pale behavior on Twitter and Jack Dorsey, its CEO and founder, but this is misguided. It makes little sense to believe that Dorsey or other heads of social media platforms can do anything significant to modify Trump’s behavior – or even that they should. Sen. Kamala Harris, for one, suggested a Twitter ban for Trump months ago. That suggestion has simmered since then and received more attention after Trump’s recent tweets about Scarborough and Klausutis.
Still, on Tuesday, Twitter began a kind of fact-check on a Trump tweet, for the first time, about a different issue – voting – adding a hyperlinked line at the bottom of two of the President’s tweets that allows Twitter users to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.”
I get why Twitter felt compelled to do this, but it won’t fix the problem. Trump will continue being indecent because his base wants him to be. Fact-checks in other media haven’t stopped him; neither will this one. Trump can’t be forced by fact-check to become a decent human being. Facts he doesn’t like enrage him. And he either ignores fact-checks or uses them to claim that they target conservatives, as he did quickly Tuesday after Twitter gently weighed in on his false voting claims.
Indeed, the moment Trump became president – in large part because a high percentage of white Evangelical Christian voters chose him – was the moment it became the duty of the American public to help shape his behavior while in office. And the only real slice of the public that might effectively do this – that has any real influence over Trump – is white evangelical Christians.
Kicking Trump off Twitter would not work, even if Dorsey took that route; it would open a political Pandora’s box. While Trump is the most indecent political leader of the modern era – by a mile – other politicians have used social media platforms to traffic in ugly speech as well, including anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories and falsehoods about their opponents. Booting Trump would make it an imperative to do the same with other politicians who cross the line. Do we really want Twitter, in a hyperpartisan era such as this deciding which politician had crossed the decency or truthfulness line? I don’t. I don’t trust Trump, but neither do I trust a corporation’s judgment to get it right and not succumb to political pressure.
Let’s recall, in any case, that Trump is president of the United States of America. Most of what he says and does in public is potentially newsworthy, for good and for ill. That’s why deleting his indecent tweets is also a bad option. Social media platforms are essentially stuck with Trump in the way newspapers, news websites and network and cable news shows aren’t. Those other media can decline to show him live – or have the pause before printing – that makes it possible to fact-check his every utterance and put them into context before broadcasting or publishing them.
What’s more, banning Trump could put less powerful Twitter users at potential risk. Part of Twitter’s allure is that it has empowered the previously voiceless like never before, allowing them to start revolutions at a moment’s notice. It’s a sure bet that if a man as powerful as Trump can be banned, the most vulnerable among us will eventually pay a larger price in the months and years to come, as the powerful weaponize Twitter bans against them.
Dorsey can’t solve this problem, no matter how many times people demand he must.
White evangelical Christians can. They are one of the primary reasons Trump was elected and now has the right to rule like a toddler.
Evangelical voters hold in their hands any real chance he has of being reelected. If most white evangelical Christians wanted Trump to grow up, he’d have to – or be forced to relinquish power.
Which returns us to a sticky problem: Many of them appear to not mind what Trump does. What he says doesn’t appear to be a deal breaker for many of them. They call his offensive statements, cheap shots and low blows “counterpunching” and don’t seem to mind it. It gives many evangelicals who support Trump goosebumps to see a Republican president “fight” the liberal media and “evil” Democrats the way Trump has.
While the rest of us see indecency, this hefty slice of evangelicals see manliness and a leader ordained by the Almighty. According to the Pew survey, 69% of white evangelicals think that “honest” describes Trump very or fairly well, and 61% believe that “morally upstanding” describes the President very or fairly well.
This, despite evidence that proves the opposite.
That’s why the heartbreaking letter Klausutis’ widower sent Twitter to urge the social media giant to delete Trump’s tweets about his late wife will not likely move these evangelical supporters. They back Trump no matter what. Indeed, it seems obvious that Trump is more important to them than their claims of wanting to be Christ-like and believing in decency and the sanctity of life.
At this point, it’s silly to pretend otherwise – to buy into the lie that they support him because he is pro-life, given that his administration has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t believe all life is equal – or out of economic angst, given the Depression-like unemployment rate. If it were just about abortion, they could relax: He has already all but ensured that the Supreme Court will be conservative-leaning for another generation.
Besides that, if he had been removed from office, a white evangelical Christian and fierce abortion opponent, Vice President Mike Pence, would have become president (based on the line of succession). Not even that convinced them to leave Trump.
I know it’s hard for many fair-minded people to accept this truth, because it sounds so dark. I know because I’ve long tried to explain it away as well. I spent nearly two decades as a parishioner in a mostly white, Southern evangelical church. I didn’t want to believe this about the people I’ve broken bread with – in their homes and in my own. We have cared for each other’s children. I didn’t want to believe this about so many of the people I’ve prayed and cried with. But it’s true.
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Every single time Trump has done or said something untoward and forced them to choose him or their principles, they’ve chosen him. Because of that, we are stuck with Trump’s indecency as long as he’s president. Jack Dorsey can’t do anything about that.
No, Trump won’t change. That’s why every registered voter needs to understand that if he wins in November, Trump will feel even more emboldened in his behavior.