Recently, commentators have been making suggestive comparisons between Donald Trump and Roy Moore in the wake of the sex scandals uncovered in Moore’s Alabama senate campaign. The similarity between the two men in their personal misbehavior is apt and well documented. But as important as this issue is, another one has been scarcely touched upon: the close similarity between the two on political and ideological grounds.
At first the parallel seems counter-intuitive. How can two people with such alien backgrounds, one a product of a secular Queens gated community, the other a native son of the Bible Belt, be closely similar in political outlook and behavior?
One could answer first by showing that Trump and Moore both score high marks on scales of meanness, mendacity, and authoritarianism. Trump’s maltreatment of people, his abuse of facts, his highhandedness toward institutions that are meant to prevent the undue accrual of executive power are well codified. Moore’s behavior is less well known, but no less egregious. On the bench, Moore has repeatedly shown overt bigotry and intolerance toward those who do not share his biblical morality or belief system. He claims to be an admirer of the U.S. Constitution while willfully misinterpreting its written words. And he has repeatedly acted in a cavalier and authoritarian manner in his role as an Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, refusing twice to obey federal court orders and facing dismissal in each instance.
Both Trump and Moore, moreover, come across as apostles of fear and desperation. They exude a palpable sense of victimization at the hand of so-called dark forces and a predilection for evoking grand conspiracies. One could almost use Richard Hofstadter’s phrase “paranoid style” to describe the phenomenon.
To fully understand the Trump-Moore parallel, it is worth taking a close look at their actual political worldviews, to the extent that they are known to us, and exploring their approaches on such things as tribalism, truth, and law.
Moore’s “worldview” is easier to identify than Trump’s since it has a definable religious origin. It is an ideology of sorts, known to right-wing evangelicals as “Christian Worldview,” having served as a defining stance for the Religious Right since the rise of that movement in the late 1970s. Widely expounded on the internet and in conservative Christian academies and home-schooling texts, it serves as the movement’s credo.
Christian Worldview, in brief, stipulates that the world is divided between two antagonistic groups, Christians and non-Christians; that secularism is out to destroy Christianity; and that culture war between the two groups is inevitable. In line with this polarized view of the world, it asserts an epistemology (theory of knowledge) that takes a hostile view of secular knowledge, especially science, which it brands as the distorted worldview of the enemy. Secular knowledge can only be approached with the protective armor of God’s guidance.
Clinging to the idea of truth as based on God’s thought as modeled in the Bible, Christian Worldview denies the possibility of neutral or universally accepted axioms in the pursuit of truth. Roy Moore is a true exemplar of this sort of worldview thinking. It is especially evident in his most striking political claims, notably the notion that the American Constitution must be seen through a biblical lens and that God’s law supersedes human law.
By contrast, the untethered Mr. Trump has no such clear and well-articulated system to guide him in how he sees the world. His attitudes indicate that he is basically nonreligious and unprincipled, and his overall outlook fluid and personal. Nonetheless, his worldview, to the extent it can be gleaned from his tweets and actions, seems to share many of the same attributes as Moore’s.
Trump’s worldview, like Moore’s, displays a keen sense of being vulnerable and embattled. It is based on a polarized view of reality, where friendly and hostile forces confront each other in a state of conflict. The opposing forces are defined by Trump’s common trope of winners and losers. Winners are hard working and industrious, while losers are unproductive and undeserving. The world as Trump sees it is not “great” because winners like himself are squeezed and placed on the defensive by a liberal establishment that “rigs” the system to benefit unworthy losers (especially minorities, foreigners, women) and upholds political correctness and the expansion of rights. The only possible corrective is reversing the situation by rewarding the truly deserving, whom he identifies with the traditional white working class and its business allies.
Trump’s epistemology, like that of Christian worldviewers, is ultimately tribal. That is, “my” facts are right while the facts of the other tribe are false. While Moore reaches this conclusion through a God-centered ideology, Trump reaches it through a delusional form of narcissism. In both cases, however, there are no neutral arbiters of the truth, since experts, scientists, academics, and journalists are deemed to be mere mouthpieces for the enemy. The truth is simply what Trump or Moore say it is based on their epistemological assumptions.
In sum, Trump and Moore represent two central elements of the Republican coalition, the party’s xenophobic anti-immigration wing and the Christian Right. Together, they coalesce around similar impulses and now pose a genuine threat to American democracy. They consciously encourage tribal passions, undermine facts and truth through non-transparency and fake news (making it difficult for citizens to make informed choices necessary for democracy to function), and launch frontal attacks on institutions, especially the courts and the press, that get in the leader’s way.
The trend toward authoritarianism could not be more stark.