Don't Flirt With Fundamentalists
Donald Trump, Mike Johnson, Hamas, and the good reasons to always fear religious fanatics.
Former president Donald Trump is on an authoritarian tear. Liberals who oppose him, he says — half the country — are “vermin” who need to be “rooted out.” He claims that “the threat from within” is far more “sinister, dangerous, and grave” than any external enemy. This is Nazi speak — it’s the language of every fascist movement. But it’s also fundamentalist speak: Language that appeals to those who see the world as a black-and-white battle of good vs. evil, and who believe societies are not best organized as democratic and pluralistic bodies that fold in. many different kinds of people and beliefs, but as narrow ideological projects designed to funnel the public into a particular ideal. Often, that’s a theocratic project.
Right now, we’re watching the perils of fundamentalism play out across several global stages. Trump has grown angrier and more unhinged, turning his rage from immigrants to American liberals and still enjoying the broad support of white Evangelical voters, who continue to make up the core of the MAGA movement. Trump is out of office, but the Republican leader in Congress is a religious fanatic who has spent much of his career advocating against democratic principles, secularism, and broad human rights norms. In Israel, the far right has long been on the rise, and over the last decade or so nearly snuffed out hope of a meaningful peace process, allowed far-right religious lunatics to steal land with impunity, and launched an attempt at legal “reform” that threatened the remaining strands of Israeli democracy and was met with enormous national protests. In the aftermath of a monstrous terrorist attack, any nation would try to defend its people from further violence, and many would extract some revenge if they could; but it’s chilling to understand that leading the country through the devastating war in Gaza is a coalition of the ultranationalist and the ultra-religious.
At the same time, some progressives in the United States and around the world are giving cover to or even celebrating Hamas, a Muslim fundamentalist group that targets Israeli civilians, intentionally endangers Palestinian civilians, and seeks to impose its own ultranationalist and ultra-religious project on what is now Israel and Palestine. A missive from Osama bin Laden explaining the justification for 9/11 made the rounds on lefty TikTok and Twitter, and was among the Guardian’s most-read articles last week (tl;dr from bin Laden: America has done terrible things to Muslims and innumerable others around the world, also its culture of sexual freedom and gay rights is evil and should be replaced by a global Islamic regime). While Trumpists and the Republican Party undermine American democratic institutions and democracy itself, a number of leftists are also flirting with illiberalism, suggesting ideas like free speech and democracy are simply tools to for the powerful to maintain their privilege.
A plea to my fellow progressives: Never throw your hat in with the fundamentalists. Often, the enemy of your enemy is really not your friend.
Politics-watchers often talk about Trump as the candidate of the white working class, and of a growing educational divide in politics. And that’s true: Trump enjoys huge support from white working class voters (men especially), and a college degree does correlate with voters being more Democratic. This is especially true of white voters, who remain by far the largest racial demographic in the US: College-educated white women lean left; college-educated white men are pretty divided; non-college white women are solid Republican voters; and non-college white men are even more solid Republican voters. But the religious right — which, as an organized force, is a white religious right — remains an animating factor in conservative politics, a point well made by Mike Podhorzer on Ezra Klein’s podcast last week. Despite Trump being about as un-Christian as a person can get — a liar, a cheat, a philanderer — he won more than three-quarters of white Evangelical voters in 2020, and closer to 80% in 2016. This has sometimes been treated by the press as some sort of mystery, but it’s really not: With fundamentalist religious beliefs also comes a skepticism of democracy and democratic norms. Trump may not seem like the most Christian messenger. But a man who turns the other cheek and loves his neighbor isn’t going to create the conditions for fundamentalist Christian rule in America.
All over the world, rising anti-democrats have been fueled by religious conservatives. This is the case in Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the US; it has been true for the rise of most (although certainly not all) of the fascist and hyper-authoritarian regimes of the last century. And it’s easy enough to understand why religiosity and authoritarianism go hand in hand: Conservative religiosity demands the same sublimation to authority as authoritarianism, while also emphasizing the same sense of superiority and righteousness that justifies minority and authoritarian rule.