An obscure Republican Party candidate for the state legislature of Nevada died last week at the age of 72. The death would not normally have attracted much attention. But given the unusual features of his life, his support from the evangelical wing of a party known for its religiosity and social conservativism provides an illuminating case study into the deep cynicism, hypocrisy and venality of those who make up Trump’s base.
No ordinary politician…
Dennis Hof, who dubbed himself the “Trump from Pahrump” (after the small Nevada town he lived in), was no ordinary politician. Whereas the stereotype of the typical Republican Party candidate is that of a Christian pastor like Mike Huckabee or corporate bigwig like Mitt Romney, Hof made his living as an owner and operator of businesses catering to lust – one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity. And he didn’t go about hiding this fact either. His strip club and five legal brothels featured in US TV documentary series Cathouse.
Hof was nonetheless the favorite to win in his rural district in the Nevada desert. And in spite of his untimely death just weeks before the November midterm elections, his campaign manager predicts that he will still win his seat from beyond the grave. But even more bizarrely still, it wasn’t just the small business, corporate or insurgent pro-Trump ‘nativist‘ wings of the Republican Party that pledged their support to Hof. The socially conservative ‘evangelical’ wing also threw their weight behind his candidacy.
… but far from an anomaly
Make no mistake, though. This is not an isolated case of a rogue eccentric bucking the trend. The story of Dennis Hof actually reveals something deeper at play in the US religious right. After all, it pledged its support to Donald Trump himself, who is hardly the archetype of Christian purity. The twice-divorced property tycoon and reality TV personality is a notorious philanderer who is not only facing multiple credible accusations of infidelity but has also been caught on tape boasting about sexually harassing women. And far from ‘turning the other cheek‘ to his enemies, he openly endorses violence against political opponents and the press.
How is it that a man with a personal life and checkered backstory like that could be embraced by the religious right?
For decades, the cult of celebrity has loomed as a larger-than-life presence in the US psyche. In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, language theorist Neil Postman argued that a society’s primary means of communication has a great impact not just on culture but on human consciousness itself. According to Postman, the rise of TV and radio – and the accompanying decline in reading – coincided with a widespread degradation of culture and dumbing down of public discourse. As George Monbiot has argued, the celebrity culture that emerged from this situation has itself been used to maintain corporate power.
And Trump is the ultimate manifestation of that culture. It’s only natural, therefore, that the religious right would seek to ride the coattails of the political project he built around his celebrity persona.
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The religious right’s deep cynicism and corruption
But there is also something deeper and more troubling still going on beneath the surface. The complicity of the religious right in the rise of Trumpism shows the deep cynicism, hypocrisy and venality of their entire political project. For the religious right, it seems that evangelical Christianity is simply a tool for realizing their true ambition: unbridled political power.
One of Trump’s biggest evangelical backers, Lance Wallnau, spelled out the stealth strategy of using Trump to push his agenda. He stressed:
No one thinks he’s a Christian so nobody suspects him of trying to push religion on people.
Underneath every policy based on ‘godliness’ lies a mechanism that upholds social and cultural power for US elites. The argument for school vouchers, for example, is reportedly to bless children with a childhood rich in religious awareness and spiritual growth. It is, according to them, a mere coincidence that the religious schools they push are in the private sector. The reality is that this is simply an underhanded ploy to give moral credence to a school-voucher system that sucks funds out of the public school system and effectively subsidizes the private education of hyper-wealthy and upper-middle-class children.
This plays out in issue after issue. The so-called ‘pro-life’ movement, for example, claims concern for unborn children; but in reality, it’s about men having control over women’s bodies – as advocated by a patriarchal cultural past. Opposition to LGBT rights, meanwhile, is presented as a defence of ‘traditional marriage’; but it is actually about maintaining heterosexual, and especially male heterosexual, privilege in the economy, the workplace, the tax system, and wider society.
Keeping ’em in their place
In other words, the religious right use religion as a tool to keep women, people of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, atheists, and all others whose political freedom threatens the position of the dominant group, firmly in their place. Only by understanding this reality can we understand why it actually makes perfect sense that the movement would rally behind an ignorant, loudmouthed, vulgar, immoral, and mentally unstable thug. Trump’s life has been Christian in character only in the sense of the brazen hypocrisy of the religion’s most prominent political representatives.
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