My Take: Trump a litmus test for GOP
April 25th, 2011
09:10 AM ET

My Take: Trump a litmus test for GOP

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I don’t really care whether Donald Trump is running for president. But I am dying to see how Republicans respond to him.

Today’s Republican Party draws on a wide variety of strands, and those strands pull it in different directions. The party’s libertarian roots are visible in Paul Ryan and Rand Paul and other Ayn Rand aficionados who have classically favored maximizing individual freedom by cutting taxes and minimizing government.

Its roots in social conservatism and the Religious Right are visible in Sarah Palin and George W. Bush and their opposition to abortion rights.

These two strands conflict, of course, on questions of gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization - whenever the individual liberty so prized by libertarians bumps up against the efforts favored by social conservatives to Christianize the nation.

Although libertarians seem to be resurgent inside the party (though perhaps only on economic questions), social conservatives have been ascendant for the last generation. Do Republicans want government to stay out of wallets? Yes. Do they want government to stay out of our bedrooms? Not so much.

Another Republican strand, of course, is populism. As its name implies, this "-ism" always involves an appeal to the innate wisdom of the “people” over the book learning of “elites.” But it has often carried class antagonisms as well, championing the interests of working-class Americans over those of the “well bred, well fed, well read and well wed.”

The notion that “The Donald” can appeal to Joe Sixpack seems absurd on its face. But then again so does the notion that Republicans can appeal to ordinary Americans by drawing a line in the sand against allowing today’s marginal tax rate for couples earning over $250,000 a year to return to 36% (from the current 33%).

But Trump's current appeal - a recent CNN poll showed him tied with Mike Huckabee at the top of the GOP heap - does seem rooted more in populism than in social conservatism or libertarianism. Why else would he keep returning to the "birther" question, and to quick-and-easy solutions to our economic problems, such as slapping a 25% tariff on Chinese goods or seizing Iraqi oil?

One of the great ironies of contemporary American politics is that Republicans are now the populist party. Not since the 1930s and Herbert Hoover has any major party been so committed to confusing the business of America with the business of business, but that party (the GOP) is successfully tagging President Obama and the Democrats with engaging in "class warfare." We seem to have forgotten that the class rage underlying populism is supposed to be of the poor against the rich.

A Trump run to the top of the GOP ticket would underscore this irony. It would be the icing on the cake, the fois gras on the steak, the penthouse in Trump Tower. By any metaphor, however, this is a defining moment for the GOP.

The party line on the Tea Party (and not just in Republican circles) has until recently been that its complaints are economic, not social. But these Tea Party partisans look a lot like like the old Religious Right.

Will they be able to embrace a man who has only recently found the true religion they favor?  Will they be able to overlook his prior support for abortion rights and civil unions for gay couples?

In a recent interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump said, “I believe in God. I am Christian. I think the Bible is certainly, it is THE book. It is the thing." In response to suspicions that he is an Easter and Christmas Christian at best, he also called himself a "Sunday church person."

Will that be convincing to social conservatives and Tea Party activists?  Or will it fall as flat as John Kerry's descriptions of his acolyte service as a teenager?

There are a heavenly host of questions about Donald Trump that we will get to ask and answer if he decides to run for president. But these are the questions his current flirtation raises for me: Is today's Republican Party about jobs or bedroom issues? Is it focused like a laser beam on reducing taxing and spending? Or is it preoccupied with reducing abortions and same-sex marriages?

Thanks to Donald Trump, it looks like we are going to find out.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Abortion • Christianity • Opinion • Politics • Tea Party • United States

soundoff (362 Responses)
  1. zipper

    Trump is the best the Republicans can come up with? He's not runnings for nothing he wants all that money the Tea Party wants the Gov not to have. What a joke, a man who hates women that are not models or knock outs. Look what he said about any woman like Rosie who disagreed with him. He would never survive the fine tooth comb that would come. What a joke and he's the one pulling it.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  2. Dale

    Glad to see CNN not disappoint with YET ANOTHER SMEAR ARTICLE OF TRUMP. Especially by an ignorant eletist New Englander.

    Zero journalistic integrity to question Obama's corruption with Fannie & Freddie, non-voting in Senate, has never run a business or held a real job, hypocrite in attacking Libya Obama, etc etc; but more than willing to run a propaganda campaign against anyone running against him.

    CNN = all mindless Obama drones

    April 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Bill

      Faux News = all mindless GOP drones

      April 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Dale

      No Bill. Independant. Just sickened by such biased unprofessionalism. Nobody at CNN asks tough questions of Obama. No one!

      April 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm |

    Money Can't Buy You Class.....Money Can't Buy You Class....Elegance is learned my friend...elegance is learned my friend.

    Trump 2012 Campaign Song

    April 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  4. chatmandu002

    Anybody is better than Obumer.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Bill


      Sarah Palin better than Obama? Michele Bachmann netter than Obama? Haley Barbour better than Obama?

      You're delusional. Go back to Faux News.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  5. Not All Docs Play Golf

    Regarding recent questions about Trump's real worth:

    Financial Worth (Zillions) x Human Worth (Zero) = Total Worth (Zero).

    April 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • BG

      @ Not All Docs Play Golf

      Did you get a certificate when you finished the "How to Assess Human Worth" seminar? What was it, about 6 CEU's?

      April 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  6. rick b

    If Trump wins the GOP nomination. Dems be afraid be very afraid. I believe he will attack Obama harder then any candidate ever attacked anyone. He is tough and has made the most of the American dream. The man thinks big and works hard at winning. One last thing if Obama doesn't produce his birth certificate to Trump during an election. Trump will figure out how to win on that technicality. You don't become a billionaire by being nice to people!!

    April 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      rick....explain to us how you and your family would thrive in a world where Donald Trump was President.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I think if Trump pushes the birther issue he will never get the nomination, if he has not lost it already because of this. I think, and hopefully am right, that there are very few people who actual think Obama is not a native-born citizen.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • BG

      @ Nominus

      Trump's polling is where it is -because- he's pushing Obama's birth.

      "I think, and hopefully am right, that there are very few people who actual think Obama is not..."

      Trump's poll numbers would belie your thinking. If he stretches his lead and isn't named the GOP nomination, the Republicans will fail. If he does get the nomination, who are the Republican objectors going to vote for? The answer would be for Trump to run as an Independent, splitting the right and gaining disgruntled blue dogs.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bill

      Hi Rick,

      You don't seem to be aware that high-res photos of the President's Certification of Live Birth - complete with signature stamp and raised seal - have been available on the Net since August 2008. I can't list the URL here since CNN will reject my post but go to fa c t ch e c k dor o r g to view the photos. Obama HAS provided his legal Certification of Live Birth for the past 31 months. His actual birth certificate, which probably does not include a raised seal (mine doesn't, and I'm the same age as Obama) isn't worth much. I had to get a Certificate of Live Birth from Pennsylvania in order to get a US Passport in 1996.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bill

      Let's try to direct URL


      April 25, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • BG

      @ Bill

      " His actual birth certificate... isn't worth much."

      You said a mouthful!


      April 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Trump's polling is where it is -because- he's pushing Obama's birth."
      I thought it was mostly name recognition.

      "Trump's poll numbers would belie your thinking."
      Again, I think you may be misinterpreting the poll numbers. But perphaps I am. Are people answering "Trump" because they agree with his birther position, or for some other reason?

      "The answer would be for Trump to run as an Independent, splitting the right and gaining disgruntled blue dogs."
      This would not surprise me at all. The republican party seems very fractured right now. Easily split, I'd guess.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I just noticed your link. I always find it amusing when hard right proponents reference Atlas Shrugged, as http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/ does. While I can see the allure of the libertarian nature of Ayn Rand's book, her philosophy, Rational Objectivism, wouldn't really look kindly on the populist PR campaigning that seems to be occurring in the Tea Party and hard right groups, at least I wouldn't think pandering to 'moochers and looters' would be high on her list. In addition, I doubt a Rational Objectivist would spend a lot of time supporting Christianity over Islam since both her and her philosophy atheistic to the point of ignoring it outright. Unlike the web site you referenced which frequently attacks Islam and even, "wish[es] all my Atlas readers celebrating Easter a wonderful holiday."

      April 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Magic

      "I think if Trump pushes the birther issue he will never get the nomination, if he has not lost it already because of this. I think, and hopefully am right, that there are very few people who actual think Obama is not a native-born citizen."

      I wholeheartedly agree.

      If he doesn't distance himself from these foaming-at-the-mouth "birthers", he is sunk. The Birth Certificate technicality nonsense means nothing to me. Mr. Obama was born of a U.S. citizen mother and (although not necessary) her lineage of U.S. citizens goes back a couple of hundred years.

      I am not a Democrat, but I think that this technicality is ridiculous.

      Trump's only recommendation is his economic expertise - and even that is dicey, given his failures; but perhaps he has gained valuable experience from them.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  7. David

    Married three times, declared bankruptcy threes, and publicly admits he cheats people. He would make a good GOP president.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  8. ColinO

    I almost wish The Trump would run and win. He would absolutely destroy the Republican party, and likely part of the likely, on his way to being impeached. It would force the Right to reform from the ground up and possibly get back to their original principles; and do away with all the evangelical BS they're infected with.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • ColinO

      *part of the nation

      April 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  9. TP

    Boy we must be on the bottom of the barrel to even consider Trump....Hey Don....you got enough publicity.....Move on and lets get serious.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  10. DAT67

    The Republicans don't stand a ghost of a chance in 2012 unless they can convince the millions of independent voters that the GOP is NOT dominated by a bunch of loonies. And, so far, they haven't even made a start on that task.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  11. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    A litmus test measures for acidity. Donald Trump is certainly acidic.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Musomesa

      Maybe. I think he might be caustic so we should test him!

      April 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  12. JohnRJ08

    We're misreading these polls which rank Trump as highly as they do. Trump isn't going to run. He'll never agree to make his tax returns available for public scrutiny, nor will he ever divest himself of all his business interests and entertainment aspirations in order to run. Trump is simply wallowing in the glow of media attention. On top of everything else, Trump knows better than anyone that he is an unashamed autocrat. He doesn't work WITH anybody, nor does he play by anybody else's rules. His standard business tactic is to acquire a company, then, before paying for it, have it declare bankruptcy. Then, he negotiates a sweet settlement with creditors and re-acquires the company at a greatly reduced price. Not illegal, but not exactly kosher, either. Trump is a fraud. No more real than Sarah Palin.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Frank

      I don't disagree with a word you've said. I just don't see how any of it disqualifies him from the nomination of the party that gave us Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.

      April 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  13. Frank

    The source of Prothero's confusion about the new Republican populism and its anti-working class character is understood once you look at the entire Republican package. The only way to explain working class support for Republicans, who are all about serving the interests of the wealthy, is that a significant minority of the working class has been taken in by the propaganda about the possibility of their one day joining the ranks of the wealthy. The truth, of course, is that economic mobility in the U.S. is significantly lower than it is in other developed democracies. But that kind of truth doesn't show up on Faux Nexs.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Brett

      I don't see this as a working class issue. I think it is a rural vs urban issue. The Democrats focus their efforts in urban and suburban areas and the Republican tend to court the rural and suburban vote. Just so happens that the rural voter is predominantly working class.

      The attraction of Trump is that he is very unlike your typical politician. And that seems to be enough reason for a fair number of people to select him in the polls. These folks don't really care about reality. They simply want someone different than everybody else. Who better to represent these people than the star of a "reality" show?

      April 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Mark

      It seems to me that a middle-class American voting for a Republican is a whole lot like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  14. kylefromohio

    @GB ; If you went Bankrupty and the Banks reloaned you more money you or I would be considered smart as well.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Musomesa

      - or at least cunning!

      April 25, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  15. emmy skadittle

    The republicans are showing a bunch of crazies, I bet its because they don't want their real candidate to look so bad in comparison

    April 25, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Frank

      Just out of curiosity, which of their candidates are you referring to as "real?" They all strike me as about as real as plaster lawn gnomes.

      April 25, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  16. Nonimus

    I like some of the comparisons drawn about the inherent conflicts within the Republican party. I've always wondered how people reconcile the desire to "maximize individual freedom" and at the same time 'conserve the social standards'. Although, to be fair, I have also wondered how Democrats reconcile the freedom and civil rights positions of classic liberalism with legislatively enforced social justice aspects of the modern version.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • jp

      "Although, to be fair, I have also wondered how Democrats reconcile the freedom and civil rights positions of classic liberalism with legislatively enforced social justice aspects of the modern version."

      I'm not sure I follow. The hypocrisy on the right is blatantly obvious to me, the left, not so much.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • tim Ricard

      Exactly, i have been thinking the same thing. both uphold liberty in their speeches but destroy it in their actions. The only consisent position are either moralistic socialism or libertarianism

      April 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I'm thinking along the lines of personal freedom and the civil rights guarantees of liberty as in conflict with legislating fairness. How do you reconcile a right to live as you like in civil rights with social justice legislation enforcing what is "fair"? I'm probably not being as clear as Prothero was with Republicans, but I think there are inherent inconsistencies, or conflicts, in both parties.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  17. Reality

    Trump? "Silver-spo-oned", womanizing, over-weight, mouth-running, hair-dyed and "Rogained", crazy, landlord from NY? Is that the one ?.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • BG

      Yep – that's him. The one with all his own money, money money monnnn-ey. Mon-ey!

      April 25, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  18. Mark from Middle River

    Prothero... Look at your calender, Easter is over, you can go back to attacking traditional churches. We already knew where your "my takes" normally land at and your "litmus testing" is more likely to get folks like Trump elected.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  19. Peter Principle

    Alan West. Right - because Sarah Palin and Donald Trump aren't absurd enough.

    The true defining moment for the GOP posed by Trump's candidacy is this: Are you really completely freaking crazy?

    April 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • BG

      @ Peter

      Forget Palin, and Trump is entertaining, but...

      Call me irresponsible... I like someone who can talk without a teleprompter. The last time we had someone with actual military experience was who? Ike? Worked out pretty well. (not counting 41 (bailed) and 43 (awol.)

      April 25, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Peter

      I would someday like to do a paper on how parrot phrases permeate American political dialog regardless of facts. Many parrots keep squawking about Obama's Teleprompter, when every President from Ike forward used one. Speaking of Ike, there is one TV recording of a live broadcast where his teleprompter jammed and he was dead in the water. We never hear about that from parrots. And this business of "military service"? ALL presidents since FDR, except Clinton and Obama, had military experience of some sort or another. So again, more wrong information and selective damnation.

      April 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      BG...as long as people with military experience are in the correct cabinet positions they need to be in, there is no reason military experience should be a factor in choosing a President, since we are not a military dictatorship.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • mike

      pretty much full on crazy, I would suggest. they claim to be terrified about the deficit but don't do the math. they claim to be Christains but don't take any responsibility for the poor or other wise act like Christians.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Musomesa

      @BG, reading from a TelePromTer is no harder than reading from a piece of paper. Even the Gettysburg address was written. Reading is not voodoo!

      April 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • BG

      @ Peter

      When you do your 'paper', make sure you include the phrase "parrot phrases."


      Carter was on a boomer, Reagan made military promotional movies during WW2, Nixon served in the Navy in a non-line capacity. The only one since Ike that was actually in combat was 41, Carter if you want to count 'cold war' service as combat. 43's "service record" is a standing joke.

      When I said "military service", I was thinking about combat experience. My mistake, so apols. Otherwise, my point stands. A 'Commander in Chief' needs to have been 'in the sh-t' at some point, or reasonably close to it.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • BG

      @ Not All Docs Play Golf

      " there is no reason military experience should be a factor in choosing a President..."

      Yes, they do. Your perspective breeds chickenhawks. And "Military Dictatorship" is immaterial (silly, too.)


      April 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • BG

      @ Musomesa

      Of course it isn't. But extemporaneous speech is an excellent measure of a person's intelligence.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Peter

      Cute video of Obama, but was this a teleprompter failure or just a guy that lost his thought flow for a moment in a town meeting? If it were a promoter failure, it would not have been the first for a President. Again, I wish I had the Ike footage where he just stopped and stared at the camera for literally 45 seconds. He didn't even TRY to ad lib. Johnson was a notorious teleprompter guy. You seem to be suggesting that this is somehow unique to Obama. Why?

      April 25, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Peter

      "Of course it isn't. But extemporaneous speech is an excellent measure of a person's intelligence."

      No so sure about that. George W. Bush was a terrible, terrible ad libber, and many considered him dumb because of it. I don't think GW was "dumb" simply by this evidence. He had all kinds of other flaws and poor judgment, but I hardly think he was a stupid man.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • BG

      @ Peter

      I emphasize Obama because I've rarely seen him ad-lib his major points. He's usually -very- well prepared.. but almost too rehears-ed. (Of course politics is a form of theater) When Obama does ad-lib it's poorly delivered, as per the Town Hall meeting vid.

      "I don't think GW was "dumb" simply by this evidence."
      How much evidence do you need to make a reasonable judgment? Geez.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  20. BG

    Prothero –

    Please return to your social activist academic hole. We'll send a crew to clean up after you.

    I don't think we -really- have to worry about Trump, who will likely de-rail before he actually announces any intention to run. Let's put another name up for consideration...

    Alan West.

    April 25, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Qi

      Reliable sources confirm that Trup is planning to have Glenn Beck as his running mate. A true match made in heaven. At last a republican team I can realy get behind...

      April 25, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Drknowsbest

      My preference is for Adam West. Holy unemployment Batman!!

      April 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      No, that is a dream Democrat ticket! What a guaranteed win for them!

      April 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
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