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. Avsc Bstian


    April 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Caroline

      uh....You got issues, go see a therapist.

      Being a birther nazi doesn't become you.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:05 am |
  2. Nina

    @Brian- did you actually read the article???? how could you say we are more of a police state?? do you have any idea what that means? In a police state, you would not be able to post what you just wrote!!! just another Obama sheep.

    April 26, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  3. Leif

    Trump is a classic snake oil salesman, and there are plenty of rubes out there willing to take a swig.
    He is as phony as they come.

    April 26, 2011 at 2:45 am |
  4. johnsie mebane

    I am appalled that Anderson Cooper and CNN are wearing us out interviewing Donald Trump about his crazy and un-found issues about the president. I think this is cruel and disrepectful to our President that CNN would take up this fight with Donald Trump to try to prove something thats already been proven. Donald Trump really likes to getthis attention. CNN should not play into his hand. We want real news and to debate Trump for 15mins to a half houris just cra.zy.

    April 26, 2011 at 1:50 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      "CNN should not play into his hand. We want real news"

      Yep, but if it were not for Trump CNN would be force feeding us more headlines about the Royal Wedding. At least Trump is here in the states.

      April 26, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  5. Adelina

    Secular Americans are evil because they hate or despise good, moral people in their land. People are known by what kind of enemies they have. Americans hating religious leaders or religious people – this is a real bad sign for today's America.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • SeanNJ


      April 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  6. Adelina

    For America to stay intact, it must reduce the infanticide and the perversion. All other problems can be solved by working hard with honesty. Selfishness and laziness slow down a nation but grave sinful practices literally destroy it.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  7. Adelina

    America needs Christian politicians and Christian educators to reverse the landslide into the hopeless abyss.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • gottagit@gmail.com

      Why not Jewish and Buddist politicians and educators...or are you racist?

      April 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  8. Frieda Robinson

    Give me a break Trump????? Yes Trumped up charges. If people don't know that Trump is a big fat liar, and if anyone wants to vote for him, they need to have their head examened. As I quote (I won't say who) this is the biggest pile of DOG mess I've ever heard. Anderson you guys must be laughing yourself silly back stage. KEEP them honest CNN Staff!!!!!!

    April 25, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  9. john

    Why do people want a privatized society, if our water supply, schools and health care are all privatized what are we going to do when the big wigs need another vacation and jack their rates up to pay for it. i seen what happened to the markets under bush, they boomed then crumbled. the reason we had to bail these banks out was because, they werent the problem. The lack of regulation was the problem.. IF A LITTLE BABY FALLS DOWN THE STAIRS, ITS NOT THE BABIES FAULT ITS THE MOTHERS FOR NOT KEEPING IT CONTAINED. who are we going to blame when the s**t hits the fan and we cant afford health care, who will regulate the cost and how clean the water is, who will make sure we have tuition free schools and our children are learning everything they need to know. The republicans have already said their plan is to cut all of these government bodies and regulations. the only thing i know is the republicans want to destroy every system that helps the poor, and middle class. ask mr. trump if he is gonna pay my $5000 hospital bill, just 2hrs in the hospital for a kidney stone. outragious.. the rich dont let anything trickle down. hell, if their company makes a couple more bucks they dont hire people or offer raises, they send the executives to resorts for facials..
    DONT BE STUPID PEOPLE. we should love to have a public healthcare system to buy into... Do you really believe that every other country has millions of deaths and horrible health care, get off your high horse cowboys. Its ok to have some help, thats why i love paying taxes.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  10. AI

    This underscores the insanity of many Republicans. Their views are self-contradictory. Those that embrace small government and individual freedom should pull their heads out and move to the Libertarian side, because that is the only self consistent position. The idea that you want small government, but at the same time want to nanny people on moral grounds, e.g. drug laws, is simply incongruous. You have to engage in doublethink to be a conservative of that stripe.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  11. John Brigance

    Great article in the most recent edition of Vanity Fair, called "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%." Certainly there can be little doubt that Trump represents only the top 1%, and everyone else is simply fooled into believing they could be part of that exclusive club.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  12. Robert in Vermont

    The most intelligent article about Trump and the GOP so far.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  13. Paul M

    Forget about Trump's vow to uncover the "greatest scam in American history." He's already uncovered it: himself. In other words, The Donald IS the scam he's claiming to uncover. For starters, Trump is no populist; he's always been an elitist, thus his "populism" is a ploy that he expects us to fall for.

    I have more about Trump here, if anyone's interested: http://paul-mendoza-line.blogspot.com/2011/04/line-against-donald-trump.html. A different perspective on things, so to say, that CNN and such hasn't yet dealt with in their pieces.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • LetoAtreides

      No need to substantiate. Anyone who lives in Atlantic City area knows exactly how Mr. Trump operates. He is an elitist and opportunist. Trump doesn't deserve the attention he's getting. We would get as much quality from "Snooki" or one of the cast from "Jersey Shore".

      April 26, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  14. Nina

    Is there a single CNN columnist who is not Anti-Trump or Anti-GOP? Answer..No, they have all been indoctrinated from birth. You say the Republican party is the populist party... and what about the Democrat Socialist Party... if the 3% tax hike on higher income earners is a bone of contention for libs like you, then I will happily pay the extra to fund your social welfare state but please, pretty please.. just be fair. Every time you criticize the elements of the GOP, you should also criticize the Dems. when you criticize the rich, criticize the despots who refuse to look for a job and have learned to work the system. When you criticize the religious right, you should also criticize the Islamophanatics who are always out to get us. When you keep going back to blame GWB, just look at the last 3 yrs and what your beloved Obama has done to this country. Is that too much to ask for????

    April 25, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • stejo

      And when exactly were YOU indoctrinated?

      April 25, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Smags

      And when were you ever unemployed? Were you ever unemployed in such a horrible recession that out of 200 resumes you only got ONE response?? Maybe you should walk a mile in someone else's unlucky shoes before you judge them for being lazy or stupid or whatever you feel like calling them that day. I wouldn't wish unemployment on ANYONE. Go ahead, see how 'easy' it is to live off that kind of piddly money.

      April 25, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Nina

      FYI, I much prefer the libertarian party.. I do think the media however, is unfair in their analysis of the right. another FYI- I grew up poor, and worked my way to the top. I work an average of 60 hrs per week and yes, I have been unemployed before so your point is???????????????

      April 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Brian

      The libertarian party, how droll. Individualists unite!
      Firstly, this is an article about The Donald. Why would anyone discuss Obama, islamophantists (lol), Democrats or 3% tax increases? Oh, that's right, people that do not wish to actually discuss anything. Those, like yourself, that are so mired in idealogy and a false sense of individualism. Boring.
      Secondly, Donald Trump is a sham. (not a sham-wow, just a sham)
      Lastly, your ideas about the bulk of our government spending is absolutely off target. The US is not a 'social welfare state' as you so boldly wail. The US is a corporatist state and bordering on a police state. Your tax dollars, I assume you pay them, are spent on the DoD. That is the bulk of spending. You should cry out against that not against the paltry sums paid to those that are not working. Alas, you don't actually care. You just want to lord your percieved personal triumphs over others. Congrats, you made it, all by yourself. Ha!

      April 26, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  15. Joseph

    I must admit, I like Tramp sporting The Flock of Seagull hair piece... "And Iran Iran so far away!"

    April 25, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • WWJD1965

      Cute. I like it. The pun, not the hair! Or the Chump.

      April 25, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  16. Joseph

    Trump and Palin! Everybody's a winner!

    April 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  17. svscnn

    This would all be extremely amusing, if not for the sheer stupidity of the average voter.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  18. Barking Alien

    The Litmus test shows that Trump must be acidic since he is corrosive to many voters. The whole GOP has gone from basic to acidic and corrosive over the past few years.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  19. Bob

    Why not Trump? Obama had no experience when he came into the spotlight at the Democratic Convention in 2004 when the media had already elected him.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • Mark

      Yeah, except for working as a civil rights attorney, teaching consitutional law, and serving three terms in the illinois senate.

      April 25, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Jor

      Get your head out of your rear and realize that Trump is to involve in Obama's birth place instead of worrying about what
      the people needs. I honestly do not believe that he hears what he is saying. If he did, he would shut his mouth and quit embarrassing himself. He needs a hobby!!!!

      April 26, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • LetoAtreides

      As a Reagan conservative, I remain dismayed how people like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin can even be considered let alone endorsed for a GOP ticket. Palin epitomizes political and leadership amateurism at best. Trump is flat out unethical, arrogant, undignified, and exploitative. Neither of these people represent even the remotest sense of what we need in America today for leadership, vision, and common sense politics. Wake up America!

      April 26, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Mac

      Bob, I have to agree with JOR that Trump is obsessing over Mr Obama's birth record rather than real issues. Can you really trust a man that has filed for bankruptcy as much as him with our country's national debt? If he is starting a mudslinging campaign already, it would be to take the focus off of the things that he has screwed up. beware of the "TRUMP" card! If you win my vote, finesse me with your issues that you stand behind, besides, I can take a man serious that looks like he has a wolverine curled up on top of his head.

      April 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Mac

      CORRECTION: I CAN'T take a man serious that looks like he has a wolverine on top of his head!

      April 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  20. Con me not

    In other words the gop is feeling out the intelligence of the average voter. Once again they want to see how dumbed down you are.

    April 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Greg Kells

      At least they are trying to gauge it rather than accept it as a given. Both parties have failed miserably, at least one of them shows signs of progress. It's ironic that the self proclaimed "progressives" seem to be so stagnant in their views, while the Republicans are exploring libertarian and populist ideas within their party. I'll still vote Libertarian, but it's nice to see some of the message is crossing into a mainstream party.

      April 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • David Welsh

      A come-over or a dingbat will NEVER be elected President!

      April 27, 2011 at 9:02 am |
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