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When Trump told evangelical leaders earlier this week that a GOP loss would lead Democrats to “overturn everything that we’ve done…quickly and violently, and violently,” he was borrowing a staple of what authoritarian leaders (both left and right) have done for centuries: using religious institutions as a source of their power and legitimacy.
In both his domestic and foreign policy efforts, Trump has governed as if evangelical Christianity were America’s state religion, empowering groups and individuals whose voices were considered fringe and largely ineffectual until last year. As Americans on average have become increasingly tolerant and liberal on a number of issues, many evangelicals have become more conservative. Because of this, the symbiotic relationship between Trump and evangelicals mirrors the type of relationships other autocrats across the world have developed in order to legitimize—and maintain—their grip on power.
The use of religious institutions as vehicles for governance is nothing new, but in the post-industrial era, autocrats have grown increasingly reliant upon them in order to fend off demographic and political change. Vladimir Putin has relied upon the Russian Orthodox Church to expand his power and influence, and in the process, accelerated attacks on religious minorities and LGBTQIA Russians. Similarly, Bashar al-Assad has imported Shi’ite support (financially and militarily) from Lebanon and Iran to maintain his grip on power—even as government-controlled territory shrinks and the country has all but been partitioned by sectarianism. In India, a restive young population and dimming economic prospects have helped to fuel the rise of vigilante groups made up largely of Hindu men and tacitly backed by local and state officials from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Even “secular” rulers and political parties have embraced religious institutions when it suited their convenience, tapping into their deep wells of grievance in order to cultivate loyal bases of support. In order to fight off threats to his power (and distract from violent riots), Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni appeased a growing evangelical presence in the country by signing one of the harshest anti-LGBT laws in the world in 2009 (which was later overturned). Over the past five years, the secular Awami League in Bangladesh has looked the other way while Islamists have killed secular bloggers, gays, and other religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims.
Trump’s fealty to evangelical leaders isn’t surprising, given that they may be the only thing standing between him and political ruin (e.g., a Democratic takeover of the House). But in the process of trying to cement his own survival, Trump may be sowing the seeds of a Christian autocracy that can easily be replicated by a future GOP president. That should be a chilling prospect to anyone seeking to assess the long-term implications of the Trump era in America.