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. Byrd

    The litmus test results are in and everyone in the GOP is on a very bad trip, having indeed ingested the bad brown acid. They were warned not to, but they did it anyway. And just look at the fundamentalist capitalist pigs you've become. How sad.

    April 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  2. libfreak48

    What Trump's popularity really says about Republicans is how dysfunctional they are in ideology, and how desperate they are trying to find any candidate who they think can win next year.

    Trump is to Republicans what Snooki is to great culture...

    April 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  3. GOP hypocrisy

    Trump is the best Republican Democrats could wish for!

    April 25, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  4. Bettie

    I think Sarah Palin is a big idiot, but if it is trump or Sarah I think she will win! There are no words for trump; I will be embarrassed if I were him.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  5. trumped out

    Trump is an idiot. Satan puked and the republican party was spawned. EAT THE RICH!!!!!

    April 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  6. dd

    I thought Trump wanted to seize Libyan oil, not Iraqi?

    April 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  7. Tony

    I really wish that someone (ANYONE really) would explain in some detail (outside of the Palin, O'Reilly, Hannity sound bites) WHY they label President Obama as a socialist. Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources (yes direct copy). Expanding instead of eliminating Medicare will not absorb healthcare providers nor absorb health care insurance companies. If anything, it attempts to accomplish what "going across state lines to buy insurance" will do. give the patient a option to reign in THEIR costs. and spare me the "why should I pay for someone else's insurance" argument. I alreday pay for a farmer to not grow crops, 2 maybe 3 different pentagon programs to produce the same product, tax incentives for companies that really do not need help making money. NOTE: I do not advocate RAISING any company's taxes, just their fair contribution to the federal government's coffers (to pay for the services that they also receive). You may say that right now that sector of our economy pays large sums of money in taxes. while true, their profits have also gone up. 33% on x = taxes. 33% on y (where y is greater than x) should = more taxes but with incentives, deductions, loopholes, etc you have more and more extremely profitable companies actually paying less (total dollars) in taxes. Yet Trump, and other louder than life tea party members, have that scenario at the core of their solution to all of the problems in this country. Derisive comments at or about those who question your platform more defines a repressive, polical regime than an administration that feels spending more on people friendly programs.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      They label him socialist because they don't understand the definition, but it sounds good to the ignorant base.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I think it is mostly because he promotes a larger role for the government in general, and specifically he has supported national(ized) healthcare in the past as well as having the government become part owners in GM. Definitely more like European "socialism" than any Republican, but does he believe in the definition you provided, I wouldn't know.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  8. Old Rob

    It seems simple to me. 40% of Republicans believe the "birther" nonsense, according to the polls. Trump immediately got a lot of that support by taking up that cause, and probably ONLY for that reason. One wonders if the Republicans and their cheering section ever ponder the implications that much of their base would probably believe in the tooth fairy if it got pushed all day on Fox News.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  9. annie s

    The Republican party stands for two things – denying people rights (gay marriage, abortion) and making sure the rich get richer at the expense of the rest of us. I find it a sad commentary on the intelligence of the American people that they are once again being sold on "trickle down" economics, the very system that has been proven to keep the middle class down and the very policies that led to our near economic collapse.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  10. jn555

    This article hits it spot on. The GOP is not about reducing government, rather it just wants to pick and choose which areas it wants the government to be involved in(i.e. social issues based on their religious opinions–forgetting that not all Americans are christians and don't agree with their particular set of values). Populism should be the poor against the rich, but the GOP has successfully confused their party members who obviously do no research on their own(except for the rich who benefit from voting republican–they are the smart ones, but not moral, just looking out for their own wallet and screw everyone else–which doesn't sound christian).

    April 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  11. Bob Dog

    The republican party stands for cheap, self-serving, hypocrites. They run around under the superficial veil of "religion," but go home and beat down the poor, minorities, and disabled.

    It is amazing how they have tricked, fooled, and confused hoards of poor white people into voting republican, hiding behind lies of patriotism, family values, and religion.

    As for Trump, he makes the republicans look even more stupid when he rises to the top of the polls by shouting foolish, idiotic gibberish.

    How you could vote republican (unless you are a middle aged, overweight, southern white guy) with any self-respect is beyond me.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  12. oussu

    BigOil, your were ok up to the stop driving. After that you went off the reservation driving the stupid truck. Fertilizer does not come from oil. Nitrogen-based fertilizers do indeed use methane as a hydrogen source in some cases, but even that is not often and nitrogen fertilizers are less than 1/3 of what is used these days. Plastics come from petroleum, plain and simple, but if people would stop being so damn lazy and recycle religiously, their impact on the environment would be greatly limited. I don't have a problem with 'big oil', I have a problem with out government. Our government has given oil companies preferential treatment for years with billions in subsidies (why would our most profitable companies need subsidies?), tax breaks (ditto), and laissez faire regulatory practices that have fostered a business incapable of self policing and free to pollute with impunity. The matter-of-time disaster in the artic will make the gulf oil calamity look like a minor warm up.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  13. lstro

    Lets get real here, considering what the US President earns do you really think Donald cares enough about this country to run? My guess is, he does not. First of all he loves money to much to run. Secondly, he's already told us about some shaddy deals he made, his life would be an open book. Most importantly he's not smart enough to know when to shut up.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • frontgate

      the bottom line to your post is that the trumper iis "not smart enough".

      April 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  14. Sockness Monster

    Is that a bug crawling near his right eye ??
    Maybe a pet ?

    April 25, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Sean Russell


      April 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  15. Fred

    I'm not ready for a second dictator. I'm still reeling from the George W. Bush era.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  16. JennyTX

    Why do so many birthers say, "All Obama has to do is produce his birth certificate and this issue will go away." Don't they read the news before talking? Obama DID produce his certificate; his certificate is the ONLY type that Hawaii issues.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Sockness Monster


      Unless they see him pop out of the womb
      it wont matter.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • phil

      Jenny – birthers will accept the evidence, just as soon as the POTUS magically turns into a caucasian man.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  17. Awcmon

    While progressive gleefully hope that someone like Trump actually runs...there is no media scrutiny of other serious GOP candidates...they are getting a free ride and saving their money while left pre-occupies itself with a fantasy candidate who will bring mana from heaven in 2012. Whether this is deliberate or not, Dems focus on Trump as a viable threat at their peril, while two GOP governors rise in the polls and in theoretical votes vs Obama. Wake up, this isn't going to be easy and Trump is more than happy to take the punishment for the other candidates. Has he viisited Iowa? New Hampshire...South Carolina? Not in any serious and direct way. He's a distraction...genius if on purpose, lucky for GOP if not.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • p

      Dems are in no way threatened by the ridiculous Trump. I, for one, hope he runs, not that he would ever get the repub nomination. Anytime he gets any real scrutiny, and responds by lashing out like a bratty petulant menstruating little girl. If he has the balls to run, which I doubt, the repub primary debates are going to be an absolute HOOT!

      April 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  18. Tim

    I think Trump is just as much as an idiot as the rest of them. He hasn't even decided if he is going to run, and is already lying about his religion, and other things. WHY? Does it really matter if you go to church or not, if you an active Christian, or even if you are a non believer? They all are hypocrites anyway,,,,,,Truth is, all politicians are liars and thieves, so if these are your strong points, you have a chance in the poles.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  19. paul

    I can't wait to see Trump as a candidate, this will be the greatest show of the century. He is like a girl with a big mouth
    who quarrels everyone in the classroom. He never held a public office and thought his business is like the government. He needs to realize that the president is employed by the people not the way Trump is used to where in he employs his people.
    He will be scrutinized by the media which he dislikes very much people talking against him, oh c'mon donald please, please
    run for president !!!

    April 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  20. BigOil

    For those of you that cry about big oil, stop driving, stop eating (where do you think fertilizer comes from), stop using anything that has a plastic component, stop taking all perscriptions, stop consuming......period!!! When you accomplish that, then you can complain about the big, bad oil companies.

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

      Yes, because we use plastic, we should not have discussions about conservation. The fact that we need to drive places should compel people to burn tires and pour used motor oil on the lawn.

      Next up, why I have no right to complain about financial mismanagement because I have money in a 401(k) .

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

      This is America, I can complain about anything at all, even for absolutely no reason. I see big oil favors communism.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Sockness Monster

      @ BIG OIL

      Get Off Your Soap Box.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • jn555

      It's more complex than just stopping using oil. Our country was designed around the automobile. (i.e. suburbs, driving to stores that are far from houses, etc). If you have been to Europe, you would see how cities were built before cars existed, and how much easier it is to get around walking, biking, or on public transportation. We would have to re-design our cities and suburbs, and/or find alternative fuel, as well as invest in public transportation. Looking at this issue as black/white without addressing the gray area is naive, and simplistic in thought.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • messup

      Lets see: My semi will now run on some electric motor? A charging station will be about 50 miles down the road (because I'm haulin' 80,000 pounds of dry goods). My fork lift will also run on electrical power, be charging at a warehouse outlet. Warehouses will operate on an electrical grid (yet to be defined), and city byways and highways will also fall under this electrical grid. Locomotives will convert to electrical power as will all maritime shipping. Every supply chain delivery system will be electrically powered. Has anybody bothered to figure out the cost of converting to such a "Alice in Wonderland" fantasy? Let alone copper, fiber optics, substations, transformers, power generators, repeater stations, ad infinitum? Folks, get a handle on reality, Drill, Drill, Drill! Stop this mumbo-jumbo stuff about "alternative energy sources" it's a waste of time, money energy and really scarce resources...especially since China has long term contracts on all world basic resources..

      April 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • who

      And if you drive on roads, or send your kids to public schools or you go to the library or have need to call the police, don't complain about government.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
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