I reached out to Du Mez to chat about Walker, Trump and the broader Republican Party. Our conversation — conducted via email and lightly edited for flow — is below.
Cillizza: Herschel Walker was cheered by a social conservative crowd over the weekend, just days after he acknowledged he has four kids, not the one most people thought he had. What gives?
Du Mez: We really shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore. Every time we see “family values conservatives” rally around a candidate who makes a mockery of family values it can feel jarring, but of course, this is nothing new.
There are a lot of things going on in this particular case. Obviously, there are political reasons for conservatives to stand by their man. It’s not easy to find an African American Republican with Walker’s name recognition to go up against Sen. Raphael Warnock, and this is a key race in the upcoming midterm elections.
But there’s more to this picture.
Republicans have long equated a rugged masculine strength with successful political leadership. This ideal of conservative masculinity, or at least its current manifestation, can be traced back to the 1960s when conservatives accused feminists and antiwar of redefining traditional manhood in a way that left families and the nation at risk. This masculine ideal was both personal and political. Men needed to be good fathers and strong fighters, and in this way, “traditional” masculinity ensured both order and security.
Within the African American community, an emphasis on fatherhood transcends party lines, but among social conservatives, this rhetoric can also be used for partisan political ends. Rather than looking to systemic racism and structural inequalities, social problems can be blamed on the individual failures of Black men.
In Walker’s case, his vocal condemnation of absentee fathers now strikes a hypocritical tone.
Fortunately for him, social conservatives have proven quite ready to forgive and forget when politically convenient to do so. We’ve seen family values conservatives embrace the likes of Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump in recent years, despite allegations of abuse and moral failures.
Cillizza: In your book, you write that the rise of Donald Trump fits into a long pattern within the evangelical community. Explain.
For decades, conservative White evangelicals have championed a rugged, even ruthless “warrior” masculinity. Believing that “gender difference” was the foundation of a God-given social order, evangelicals taught that women and men were opposites. God filled men with testosterone so that they could fulfill their God-ordained role as leaders, as protectors and providers. Testosterone made them aggressive, and it gave them a God-given sex drive. Men needed to channel their aggression, and their sex drives, in ways that strengthened both family and nation.
Generations of evangelicals consumed millions of books and listened to countless sermons expounding these “truths.” Within this framework, there was ready forgiveness for male sexual misconduct. It was up to women to avoid tempting men who were not their husbands and meet the sexual needs of men who were. When men went astray, there was always a woman to blame. For men, misdeeds could be written off as too much of a good thing or perhaps a necessary evil, as evidence of red-blooded masculinity that needed only to be channeled in redemptive directions.
Within evangelical communities, we see these values expressed in the way organizations too often turn a blind eye to abuse, blame victims, and defend abusers in the interest of propping up a larger cause — a man’s ministry, an institution’s mission, or the broader “witness of the church.”
In 2016, we heard exactly this rhetoric in defense of Donald Trump. Trump was a man’s man. He would not be cowed by political correctness, but would do what needed to be done. He represented “a John Wayne America,” an America where heroic men were not afraid to resort to violence when necessary in pursuit of a greater good. Evangelicals did not embrace Trump in spite of his rough edges, but because of them.
At a time when many evangelicals perceived their values to be under fire, they looked at Trump as their “ultimate fighting champion,” a man who would not be afraid to throw his weight around to protect “Christian America” against threats both foreign and domestic .
Trump was not a betrayal of evangelical values, but rather their fulfillment.
Cillizza: Are there dissenting voices within the evangelical community? What is their message? And how is it resonating if at all?
Du Mez: Not at all. In this country, guns have long been a symbol of rugged individualism, cowboy justice and masculine power. The myth of the “good guy with a gun” runs deep in American popular culture. In the midst of widening political polarization, growing social distrust, and escalation of perceived threats, violent manufacturers see ideal market conditions.
This rhetoric of perceived danger and necessary militancy unites secular and religious conservatives. In “Jesus and John Wayne,” I point out how John Wayne was not an evangelical, but by the 1970s, he had become an icon of conservative American manhood. Over time, as a heroic (White) man who brought order through violence, he also came to represent an idealized vision of “Christian manhood.”
As ideals of Christian masculinity shifted, so, too, did the faith itself. Even though the Christian scriptures are filled with teachings about turning the other cheek, loving one’s neighbors and one’s enemies, and although the Bible instructs Christians to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, many conservative Christians have instead embraced an “us vs. them” mentality that requires a warrior masculinity. Good guys with guns need to protect their families, their faith, and their nation — by which they mean those deserving of protection, “real Americans,” Christian America.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If Donald Trump runs again in 2024, evangelicals will __________.” Now, explain.
Du Mez: “do exactly what they have been doing.”
We have seen evangelicals remain remarkably consistent in their support for Trump and for a radicalized form of Republican politics. Stories of dissenters tend to draw popular attention, but that should not distract us from the fact that most dissenters end up marginalized or pushed out of their communities altogether.
We should expect Trump to continue to drum up a sense of impending threat — that Democrats want to steal the election, that “real Americans” are under siege, that children will be corrupted, and that religious freedoms are endangered. But this time around, fewer evangelicals will feel the need to justify their support for Trump. He delivered on Supreme Court appointments and brought about the likely repeal of Roe v. Wade, so in their minds, the ends have justified the means.