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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. Jay

    "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.” "

    Yep. It reminds me of urban culture back in the '90s, when anyone who excelled was labeled as "acting white". When ignorance becomes a source of pride, your movement has jumped the shark. It's time for the GOP to go the way of the dodo. We need sane pragmatists leading this country, not proudly uninformed bumpkins. Many of us warned the country of this before Bush was elected.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  2. LeeCMH

    Christians will align with anyone who expresses hatred against the same people they hate. Christianity is organized hatred. Spew hatred and you make music to Christians ears.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • jimbaround

      You seem to be pretty hateful yourself... Hypocrite!

      April 25, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      I do hate Christians back as much as they hate me. I am not sure where the accusation "hypocrite" comes from? There are many insults, but I am not a factually a hypocrite.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  3. m

    David, I believe you do not have your HS diploma. Obama was not born in Kenya

    April 25, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  4. Eric G

    I can only imagine how viscious the GOP primaries are going to get. Trump has been energizing the GOP base by going on the attack against the Democrats and the President, but will any Republican come out clean when Trump turns his guns on the other GOP'ers?

    At this point, I just don't see a potential candidate from the GOP that will be able to do what is necessary to win the GOP nomination and still be mainstream enough to beat Obama.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • TOM

      It will be difficult for the Republicans to get a candidate out of this bunch of conservative morons they have running now. I suspect we will see Rick Perry from Texas run. I understand he is preparing for it. I sure hope Americans DON'T pick another candidate from Texas! Look at where that got us! As far as I can tell, there are not any decent candidates in either party! Not sure what its going to take to get our government back in the hands of the people. I hope its not a civil war or whatever!

      April 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  5. Geez

    Herman Cain is a canidate that can (and should be) taken seriously... Go Herman!

    April 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  6. waterman

    Trump ain't running. Renegotiate his TV contract and he is done. Trump is not a test for GOP, their own policies are. As usual, they have to get average people to vote for them while supporting any and all policies that hurt the average people. THAT is the test, and they usually do well by getting people to vote against their own interest.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  7. David

    Trump is looking better each day. Someone that cares for America. If this Kenyan muslim socialist we have now isnt booted out, we will be in serious trouble.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Sockness Monster

      Warning !

      Birther Alert !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Danger Will Robinson !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 25, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      How to recognize a sincere looney:

      lesson 1

      Ross Perot – Cared about America
      Donal Trump – Cares about Donald Trump

      April 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Mike

      Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, has been quoted as saying, "I had my health director, who is a physician by background, go personally view the birth certificate in the birth records at the Department of Health. We issued a news release at the time saying the president was, in fact, born at Kapi'olani Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. And that is just a fact."

      What part of that do you not understand?

      April 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  8. Observer

    Trump blames Bush for us having President Obama.
    We blame Palin, O'Donnell, Bachmann, and Gingrish for Trump.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. C

    Anybody who disses robert De Niro aint' worth a tinkers damn; in my book.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. gandoman

    Why wouldn't a political party run by GREED support TRUMPOHOLIC?
    I use that NAME because he is DRUNK with his own importance.
    The Republican NAZI Party will use him, just as Hitler used wealthy people, however, when all is said & done,
    TRUMPOHOLIC wll never receive the nomination.
    Vice-President isn't even possible because the Republican NAZI Party only chooses people they can control.
    The American people do not need a wealthy male version of Sarah Palin; Big Mouth, Big Ego & No Substance!
    With no Wall Street Bankers in jail, BIG OIL screwing the country & GREED paying CEO's big bucks again,
    I would hazard a guess that even the average American isn't so stupid (It's contestable) as to want to elect the
    exact type of person who represents all of the above.
    A GREEDY, MONEY HUNGRY, PROFIT TAKING egotistical Con Artist who believes that wealth automatically
    qualifies you as an expert in; Foreign Affairs, Energy Policies, Nuclear Arms, Healthcare, Education, etc., etc., etc.,
    I do not know which is more pathetic .....
    A Republican NAZI Party without any clear cut leadership 18 months before an election ..... or .....
    A Republican NAZI Party with a group of leading candidates who are so different ..... or .....
    Republican NAZI Party front runners who up to now can only agree on '1' thing – "We are right & the Democrats are wrong."
    This isn't politics as usual, this is politics in a Nut House on a Crazy Farm in the Twilight Zone.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  11. Kris

    I just have a few simple questions. If the republican party really wants us to believe that raising the tax rate on the wealthy is a bad idea for the economy then they must explain to me why the Clinton tax rates are so bad when during the time they were implemented the country was booming and the country had great wealth. Explain to me that. Only when George W Bush was elected and the promise of lower taxes did the economy tank. So honestly is raising the tax rate such a bad idea. On top of lower taxes George W Bush added more to our countries bills by going into Iraq and Afganastan without lowering or paying off other bills. Basically he took out a loan against the American peoples futures without any means of paying for it. Thats not very conservative. So for 8 years we payed less taxes however we had higher bills. And we stand here wondering why we have to cut back on government spending and have to layoff thousands of people (Human Beings, and for republicans who claim Christianity, you sold out gods children to make a deal with the devil. You think god wants these people to have no job, you think god wants these people to not make a living, do you think god is sitting up there saying I love rich people and hate poor people like you are.) I am pretty sure the bible that christianity is based on frowns upon greed before human life.) The republican party needs to really understand something. The wealth is not the machine of this country. The common day employee is. They account for a greater portion of the population and account for the most productivity in the nation as well. Without the American worker its impossible to survive economically. The American worker is the mass consumer of mass products not the Corporate Exec. The American worker is the one who buys the mass of cars. Not the single CEO. He buys maybe three or four but if they only amout to 10% well we are still short 90% of the consumers. Its called basic common sense. And the idea that we cant regulate pay because people wont work is silly because over 95% of the people go to work every day knowing that they will not make a million dollars in a single year. So your argument is flawed. 95% of the people go to work each day to feed their families and chase their dreams of doing what they hoped for each day. The only people of whom complain that a maximum of $5 million a year per individual are most likely the kind of people we would not want in charge any way. Their greed will eventually sink the company. I.E. A.I.G, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, Enron. All of which together almost toppled a worlds economy. Only when the government stepped in were we protected from the worst crach in history. If the government did not step in unemployment could have reached 25% or higher.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  12. David

    As a member of the "pragmatic intelligensia" I beg to differ with the author's description of "populism". My view of populism is that we want a political system ruled by the exceptional citizens amongst us, who have the integrity to set policy that serves the interest of the public at large.

    The average citizen doesn't want the buffoon class running this country, they want the educated class whose highest objectives are simply to get it right. They want fairness and the rule of law. They want policy that is appropriately forward looking.

    President Obama has been better than some, but we're still kicking pebbles down the road.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  13. Ed Galbraith

    Trump is an absurd person completely fascinated with himself. The G.O.P. is so starved for leadership it will indulge any baggy pants clown (Trump) who comes along if he says bad things about Dems. Forget the intellect. Forget perspective. Forget decency. The G.O.P. left all that behind years ago.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  14. Jim970

    Trump isn't a "litmus test". He is simply a self-important buffoon. He is doing more damage to the Republican party than one can imagine.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      And I never imagined that it could get better than Palin!

      April 25, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  15. Todd (another one)

    If the republicans actually put forth an intelligent candidate who was for fiscal conservatism and was socially liberal, then Obama would have trouble next fall.

    There is no existing liberterism movement. You can't be for a small government, but discriminate against a minority (gays), dismantle a social net that has helped the working poor for decades (Social Security), and use any savings of wiping out medicare by granting those who make $250k or more some tax breaks.

    Everyone in the GOP field is either a religious nut (Huckabee), a racist (Palin, Trump, Buchannan), corrupt (Gingrich), a flip flopper (Romneycare), or a comination of those characteristics.

    Obama isn't perfect, but he did prevent a second Great Depression. What did the GOP do?

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

      A social liberal cannot get past the GOP primary.

      And the GOP *did* do something... they stood as a wall against the voters' choice (of course, now that they are the voters' choice, they complain bitterly about opposition).

      April 25, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • BG

      @ Todd

      -Obama- prevented a depression? Really? Silly me – all this time I thought it was the Fed.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  16. Observer

    Trump should be used as a litmus test for the hypocrisy of the Republican party.

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

      Exactly, not to mention the do as I say not as I do folks.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  17. 2cupsofjoe

    A Trump election will be as entertaining as American Idol....I actually look forward to it. Trump is the ideal candidate to compete against Obama because he has the name and power recognition, but it will not be enough to beat Obama. I think he can deliver some enjoyable zingers to Obama during a debate and vice versa, but the American people don't like it when politicians are impolite to one another. It will all be for entertainment value.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Edwin

      Trump is like Perot, but without the seriousness...

      April 25, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  18. Manny

    Score another invaluable headline for brand Trump. His price just went up in negotiating his tv show contract renewal. Cha ching. Thanks big media suckers for playing the game.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  19. jj

    It doesn't matter at all whom the Repubs run because Preident Obama is going to be reelected.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • blf83

      As he should be.

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

      blf83: I'm not sure he should be. He is fairly lackluster. Don't get me wrong - I'm still gonna vote for him, maybe even campaign for him - but he really seems to be more about political maneuvering than actual direction.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • sector7

      Why should Obama get re-elected? What has he done to improve our country? In fact, it's getting worse by the day, and he seems to have no answers whatsoever.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • BG

      @ jj

      Watch out... Ouija boards can be scary!

      April 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • suresh m

      No one pays the marginal tax rate period. Take any number, 39%, 33%, 70%, 80% – no one pays this on their total income – if you calculate all the deductions, tax breaks, etc, the effective tax rates are much lower, somewhere in the 20% range. Which is why evern of the tax rates are increased, the revenue will not be sufficient to address teh budget deficit. The marginal rates are good for demagoguery though mainly by Republicans, claiming, falsely, that these "high" tax rates are hurting the economy.

      The budget deficit can only be successfully tackled by a combination of increased revenue and decreased spending.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Donald

      @sector: What has he done? 1. How about used the Republican health care plan to put our health care, finally, on a path towards something reasonable (yes I would have liked more... gov option or single payer, but the Republican plan from 1995 is better than what we are transitioning out of).

      2. He took office with our country losing 800,000 per month and now we are gaining 200,000 per month. Yes, still not good enough, but wow that's a HUGE improvement.

      3. Passed the Dodd-Frank bill that regulates derivatives as well as puts comsumer protections in place, particularly on the credit card companies, which were badly needed because of the fleecing they have consistently given people.

      4. Repealed DADT.

      5. START II

      6. Limits on lobbyist access.

      7. Ended the previous practice of forbidding Medicare from negotiating with drug manufacturers for cheaper drugs; the federal government is now realizing hundreds of millions in savings

      8. Ended previous policy of awarding no-bid defense contracts

      9. Making more loans available to small businesses

      I can go on if you'd like...

      April 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  20. yaa

    Yes there is a real issue and trying to reconcile positions of both the right and left. You can't be for small government and then turn around and want to government intricately involved in telling you how to live on a social basis. It's hypocritical. When I find most amusing is for Americans who are making less than 250,000 a year to be opposing tax increases for the rich which solves our deficit problem in a heartbeat. We've grown accustomed to government help when we need it, such as the Wall Street bailout that George Bush signed into law–and turned out to be necessary. New Orleans disaster–Texas wildfires, and other areas where we need help.

    We have clean water and somewhat clean air because we regulated it. Without such services we are buyer beware and everyone knows how that works out. Greed takes over and families lose while big business breaks in record profits. Can you imagine what your phone bill would be if AT&T were not broken up years ago? If we did not have rules on monopolies? If the derivative controls recently enacted are now outlawed as some Republicans wish? Regulation of industry is not bad it is necessary.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Edwin

      Tax increases for those above 250,000 would not solve our deficit problem. They would help a lot, but they would not solve it. Certainly if we went back to the 60-70% upper rate of the Reagan years it would fix things, but that will never happen anymore. The days of the rich paying for infrastructure and education are long gone.

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

      Trump must be a secret democratic plant.
      He's going to take away precious votes from "real" GOP candidates.
      He's nothing more than a side show and you know how the less than educated in this country flock to circus freaks like moths to a flame.
      All he's going to do is split the party even more than it already is, just to get publicity for his TV show.
      There are so many blind sheep in this country that will send this billionaire their hard earned money.
      With the GOP line up so far, Obama is a shoe in for a second term.
      You crazies better get your act together unless you want to whine and cry and complain for another four years.
      Maybe that's it.
      If you don't have any solutions of your own, the best thing to do is let someone else run the show so you can blame them for all your problems.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.