It’s easy to get inured to polling results that demonstrate that a significant part of the American population barely has enough brain capacity to operate their lungs. It’s hard to imagine how a brain that can simultaneously hold that the president is a Muslim and that he is at fault for being a member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s congregation can figure out how to simultaneously pump the heart and regulate body temperature.
And, therefore, it’s sobering to realize that a plurality of Republican poll responders think the president was born outside of the United States (44%-29%) and a big majority believe that he is a Muslim (54%) rather than a Christian (14%).
Consider the latter proposition. Republican poll responders are almost four times more likely to be wrong about the president’s religion than they are to be correct about it, and a third of them are too stupid to be sure one way or the other.
Okay, so there are a lot of dumb people in the world. This is not a newsflash to anyone.
But they’ve sorted themselves into this conservative movement in a rather striking fashion. Among just Jeb Bush supporters, the people actually get this question more right than wrong (29% say Obama is a Christian, 22% say he is a Muslim, and 50% are not sure). Thus, even among the most “rational” subset of Republicans, nearly three in four are fucking clueless about one of the most basic biographical facts about the president.
This didn’t just happen. Millions of people didn’t wake up one day and tell themselves, “Hey, I think Chris Christie is a Christian Scientist but maybe he’s not, I don’t really know.” If you ask Republicans if Bobby Jindal is Hindu, Muslim or Christian (all real possibilities given his ethnicity), they’re going to do much better at identifying him as a Christian. What happened is that people were deliberately misinformed about the president’s religion through chain emails and social media and hate radio programs and conspiracy websites and by, yes, Republican politicians and spokespeople who expressed their own doubts in public. No one did this with more prominence that Donald Trump, and we can see the results. Sixty-one percent of his supporters think the president was born in Kenya and 66% of them believe that he’s a Muslim.
If Democrats and Democratic operatives tried to convince the public that Rick Santorum is a Zen Buddhist or Bobby Jindal is a Muslim, I cannot imagine they could ever produce numbers with anything approaching the kind of success that Republicans and Republican operatives have had in casting doubt about the president’s beliefs and background.
So part of this is about differential gullibility in the bases of the two main political parties.
But part of it is also about motivation. You have to ask why so much time and effort was put forth to misinform people about President Obama.
And it can’t be as simple as seeking a political advantage, because Democrats could have launched a subterranean war on Mormonism in 2012 in an effort to sow distrust among more conventional Christians, particularly evangelicals who compete with Mormons for converts. This was not done, and would have been done if some restraining factor didn’t prevent it.
In essence, the Democrats left a potent avenue of attack on the table because it would have violated their principle of religious toleration to wage a war on Mormonism. Of course, the corollary here isn’t that we might have raised Mormonism as an issue and raised suspicions about it. The corollary is that we would have deliberately lied about Mormonism to make it sound many times more suspicious and threatening than the truth could ever warrant. We didn’t do that, either, despite it being plainly in our electoral interests to do so.
What the Republicans did was create an electorate that didn’t previously exist. Sure, the gullible people were there already, but they weren’t misinformed and they weren’t sorted politically.
The reason this was done by Republicans, I believe, is because the conservative movement has determined that they can hold onto power a little longer despite demographic changes and the browning of America if they can sharply increase their share of the white vote. And the way to do that is not to figure out what these people need and offer ways to give it to them, but to get them to think more in terms of their whiteness. Whites go over here in the right column and everyone else goes over there in the left column.
This is the rationale. It has the potential to work, and it’s already working on the state and congressional district level, helping Republicans control legislatures throughout the country and in Washington DC.
It’s a transparent effort to ramp up racial animosity as a way, probably the only way, to avoid softening their positions on their conservative ideology. If they don’t do this, then they’ll have to recraft their appeal, which means that conservatives will lose control of the Republican Party– one of only two viable parties in the country.
Once you understand what has happened in this way, everything else begins to make more sense. And you can see why the RNC’s advice to pass comprehensive immigration reform was rejected by the Republican-led House of Representatives because they’re the ones benefiting from the racial polarization of the country and higher levels of tribal thinking among whites. Senators, by and large, do not benefit from this since they have to run statewide.
Now, this leads to an interesting place, because, looked at this way, Donald Trump is almost a savior for conservatism despite being a heretic on several items on the traditional conservative movement’s agenda. He’s a savior because he’s completely internalized the strategy that will allow them to continue on without moderating to appeal to a changing electorate: make whites think more about their whiteness.
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, who is much more conventionally Republican than Donald Trump, is pursuing the exact wrong strategy which is to moderate conservatism and get away from bashing minorities.
So, Trump helped create and sort this ridiculously misinformed Republican electorate and now he is the clear beneficiary. But he was by no means alone. It was, essentially, a group project that the Republican Establishment signed off on when they thought it could benefit them in beating Obama.
The blowback is unreal.