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. Luigi

    @KCRick, I *did* check out John Stossel's video. At least I checked out the video that I found. In that video, he offered no evidence. He did check his notes. The notes weren't even shared. How is that even remotely credible?

    April 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  2. Hmmm

    Trump is glaring spotlight on the weakness of the GOP alliance;

    How do you appeal to the majority of GOP primary voters, who honestly believe in wild conspiracy theories, while trying to appear mainstream enough to capture the middle ground. So far they have done this by throwing out social issues to the primary voters while promising responsible spending to the middle ground. Unfortunately for them the middle ground has realized neither party is actually responsible and the far left appears to be less crazy than the far right.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  3. Argle Bargle

    Donald T Rump for P Resident. Why not? We're all going to hell in a hand basket anyway.
    How much better that we have a buffoon leading the parade.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  4. nru

    Wheeeeeee – whoever sounds the best at a given time wins!!! Knowledge, pshah, background, pshah, ignorance is bliss, lets go there!

    April 25, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  5. nobucks bill

    I for one think Mr. Trump and other patriots (Mrs. Palin and Mr. Beck) are getting a bum rap. They obviously are 100% true blue 21st century Americans. They should be canonized for the contributions to our society and serve as role models for our children. By now we all know that what truly matters in this country and what truly defines every great patrioit is how much moola they have in their bank accounts! And Trump, Palin and Beck have a ton without any real quantifiable political attributes what so ever. I, for one am incredibly impressed. How exactly do they get all us fools to even think they are serious about anything? To buy their books? Give them free press? To believe they really care about anybody or anything other than themselves? It's sheer genious! Hats off to these outsatnding patriot$.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Hmmm

      'blue' and 'white' are words that actually refer to different colors. I think you used one when you intended to use the other.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  6. jj

    Just picture Trump's finger on the nuclear button. Case closed.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  7. leelanau

    Trump is not a litmus test for the GOP, rather he is a plant by the Democratic dirty tricksters. We don't want Trump. you can have him back.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      The bright one finally figured it out...Lol...

      April 25, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  8. Global Economy

    I think Presidents should be required to prove that their is bona-fide American hair from the USA.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  9. cbr

    This article about the Republicans offers good explanations of the various factions. The author lets stand Mr. Trump
    s desire to run for president. In my mind Mr. Trump is using the "bully pulpit" for his own selfish reasons. Maybe more people will watch his reality tv show. Maybe more will push him to run. The best thing the American public can do is to let him sputter, call him out when he is not truthful or wrong, and ask that he return to the boardroom. He does not have the temperament to be president. He would have difficulty working with others and it would be his way or no way. He cannot fire the American people or their representatives.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • IrishHillSider

      Right you are!

      Trump is certainly looking at the marketing angle of running, no matter how serious or non-serious the run proves.

      The mere fact that he promotes the "birther" point of view–an extreme and unpopular one, and not only because it is so easily disproved–shows he is not serious, and if he is, would not be taken seriously as a candidate.

      He's running for ratings, not President.

      As a Dem/progressive who realizes much of what our nation does is necessarily socialist (and totally misunderstood by those with socialist phobia)–such as money for roads, schools and other government programs that benefit society in ways an "all for me, I've got mine so screw you" libertarian society cannot–I welcome Trump, Palin, Bachmann and other clowns running for all the wrong reasons.

      Because they will, their candidacies will suck the life out of any GOP contender, giving a landslide victory to Obama in 2012. Run, Sarah, run! Run, Donald, run! Run, Huckabee, run! Thank you from a progressive. You're doing us the biggest favor possible.

      The only other candidate I might support would be Kucinich from Ohio. And he has no chance, even if he runs again.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  10. me

    What a spectacle
    What a clown
    What a liar
    What a racist
    So on

    April 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  11. Dave

    Not sure why this article was written. Many of the GOP have already given their opinion of Trump, and it isn't good! Quit now, Donald, before you get further behind in the polls.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      "before you get birther behind in the polls"

      April 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  12. Todd G

    Donald Trump = the male Sarah Palin.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • jj


      April 25, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  13. Cindy

    Yes, Trump, let's slap a 25% tariff on Chinese imports and see how fast they call in their loans. Plus, I'm pretty sure they loaned us all that money under the condition that we didn't raise tariffs on their imports. Der.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      He'd just say "No problem, drop a nuke on them." Then he'd go off whistling. The guy ain't smart.

      April 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  14. Jimbo

    The two party system has failed us, plain and simple. This article is spot on with that point. Fiscaly conservative republicans that want nothing to do with abortion or gay rights....Evangelicals that only vote to ban gay marriage and against abortion (pretty obvious who the idiots are in that group). Left wing socialists (morons) vs. moderate democrats. All we need to do now is create a few extra parties to please the morons (left wing socialist and evangelicals) so we can get apples to apples comparisons of the actual parties that represent the majority. The two major parties need to stop pandering to the morons!

    April 25, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Moron? Nobody in the current government is a socialist. Do you even know what a socialist is? When you figure out how to make AMTRAK profitable without actual socialism, let us know, but right now you sound like a moron.

      April 25, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      Nothing screams MORON! like someone who does not even understand the definition of socialism...

      April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Jimbo

      Bible Clown, learn to comprehend a paragraph before you think you are so smart. Where in the paragraph I wrote does it state there is a socialists in office? You can't becuase I didn't say that. If you think there aren't socialist voters out there, splitting up the democrat party which in turn pushes the democrats to pander to this voter base then sir I think you are one of these morons.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      I have not heard anyone advocating we permanently privatize means of production. Have you?

      April 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • leelanau

      h's the real Clown, Bible. Yes there are socialists in our government, and there are planty of them. Let's start with anyone who thinks that wealth re-distribution is a means to an end vis-a-vis our current budget woes. Frankly, there are members of the GOP who can be so labeled. So yes, moron is probably an apt word.....

      April 25, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Luigi

      Make Amtrak profitable? How about dumping the routes that lose money? Would that work?

      April 25, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  15. Bible Clown

    Trumpy's not about issues, he's about sound bites. What about Libya? "Take their oil." How exactly would we do that, Mister Trumpy? "Not my problem." But if you were the prez, would it be your- "Still not my problem. Shut up. You must be stupid." No, I'd just like to know your legal basis for saying- "Shut up. Not my problem." And so on. He's a one-trick pony; he's good at what he does, which is build coalitions of investors to get large projects built. But that's not what a president does. Don't they keep telling us they don't think Obama is experienced enough? Why would Trump, who's never been elected dogcatcher and has NO experience, be better?

    April 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  16. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    What's the big deal? Republicans don't follow the teachings of Jesus anyway. You know.....the part about feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, curing the sick, taking care of the elderly, and giving to the poor.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Individuals do, but as a party they prefer Ayn Rand: "Let the poor people all die, and decrease the surplus population." Or was that Scrooge? No real difference, I guess.

      April 25, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy


      April 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • KCRick

      Your statement is a myth! John Stostle did a piece on this several weeks ago. Republicans are twice as likely to give than Democrats, but it is not through taxation, it is through charities. Go check it out! That is not to say that all Democrats don't give, the do, but only at half of the rate of Republicans.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • leelanau

      Bible Clown, you are really the fool here. For starters, you might do well to understand Ayn Rand's biography, and understand the station in life she endured which makes her point of view fairly salient. So before opening thy mouth, please engage the brain.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Luigi

      @KCRick, I *did* check it out. At least I checked out the video that I found. In that video, he offered no evidence. He did check his notes. The notes weren't even shared. How is that even remotely credible?

      April 25, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • KCRick

      Hey Luigi, maybe you should try google, I found it about 4 seconds – here is the excerpt. (if you don't believe the data go argue with the professor from Syracuse who did the research.

      But the idea that liberals give more is a myth. Of the top 25 states where people give an above-average percentage of their income, all but one (Maryland) were red - conservative - states in the last presidential election.

      "When you look at the data," says Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks, "it turns out the conservatives give about 30 percent more. And incidentally, conservative-headed families make slightly less money."

      Researching his book, "Who Really Cares", Brooks found that the conservative/liberal difference goes beyond money:

      "The people who give one thing tend to be the people who give everything in America. You find that people who believe it's the government's job to make incomes more equal, are far less likely to give their money away."

      Conservatives are even 18 percent more likely to donate blood.

      Just a few of the lines from the article.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  17. azreal

    Trump shut your pie hole already....... or throw the old hat into the race........

    April 25, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      the old toupe you mean

      April 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  18. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    Does Donald want to turn the Old, Sick, and Poor into Soylent Green too? Nice combover Don!

    April 25, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • KCRick

      Your assumption is that the only way people "give" is through the government via taxes. John Stostle did a piece on this a few weeks ago. His research showed that Republican nearly give twice as much as democrats. But it is not through forced government taxation, it is through charities, the way Jesus taught. This is not to denigrate democrats who do give to charites as I am sure there are many – but just half as many as Republicans. Go check out the story!

      April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      and how exactly was that counted or polled? sure Republicans donated, to their churches and libelous campaigns, I have no doubt of that.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • leelanau

      We'll keep the poor, we can largely work with them. It's all you mouthy Commies, that we'd just assume melt down for glue.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • TheTruth

      Your right KC......the repugs do give more to charities...BUT – only because they get "TAX BREAKS" for the donations. I would be willing to bet any amount you want that if there were no tax breaks then the repugs would give not evern 50% of what dems give !

      April 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Luigi

      @KCRick, I found a video where Mr. Stossel claimed that. I watched the video. He didn't provide any evidence to support his claim. Do you have any evidence to support his claim?

      April 25, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • KCRick

      Hey, THETRUTH – so you are a mind reader and the Democrats reason for giving is altruistic while Republicans only do it for the tax break? So, what you are saying is that Democrats in turn only give half as much? I am not sure I can follow that pretzel logic.

      April 25, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • KCRick

      Hey GOP Hypocrit – you can't deduct campaign contributions and since when are churches not charities?

      April 25, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  19. newsie

    rofl donald is a church person hahahahaha. let me see one of the deadly sins GREED! LUST! ENVY!

    April 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      That hair piece should be on the list of deadly sins, if it's not there already...

      April 25, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  20. newsie

    I think someone should do a spot on his workers and how they like him????? PLz I wanna know, cause the man is only good at makeing himself money, but how do his workers feel about him. I might take all our money and run! If this man gets in idk if I want to live here did you see he gold room???? I say donate your gold room to a homeless person.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
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