Critical Essay

How Trump won the 2016 fear sweepstakes

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson understood evangelical anxieties and played to them. But the strategy backfired.

When the 2016 presidential race began, the evangelical candidates with the best chance to win the GOP nomination were Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Catholic who attended a large Southern Baptist church, and Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban-born preacher, who rode evangelical support to a Senate seat from Texas. And the evangelical parade of presidential candidates did not stop there. Baptist minster and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio governor John Kasich, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina all had positions on social issues that made them appealing to evangelical voters.

These candidates understood the political commitments of conservative evangelicals. Some of them would even feel comfortable preaching a sermon in an evangelical church or comforting people using the words of scripture. But what gave them a legitimate shot at the GOP nomination was their ability to engage in the politics of fear. To win the evangelical vote, these political candidates knew that they would have to convince the faithful that the Christian fabric of the country was unraveling, the nation’s evangelical moorings were loosening, and the barbarians were amassing at the borders, ready for a violent takeover.

Evangelicals felt marginalized and even threatened by the social progressivism they witnessed under Obama’s administration. The traditional institutions they deemed essential to a healthy society—the society of their childhoods and upbringing—were crumbling around them, and they were terrified. The country was not getting better; it was getting worse. It was evangelicals’ turn to call for “change.”