The crucial Iowa Republican caucus approaches, and Donald Trump has a giant, evangelical-shaped hurdle to jump if he wants to win.
The Hawkeye State is dominated by evangelical voters, and The Donald has so far done a lacklustre job of winning them over — even with Sarah Palin’s endorsement. Senator Ted Cruz has stolen a march on him, making appeals to religion so often that Salon are now calling him the “face of the Christian Right.”
He isn’t, of course — but he is playing a very shrewd political game, one that Trump has yet to match. Cruz has spent the last month soaring ahead of Trump in the Iowa polls. But if Trump wins Iowa? He runs the table. But how? I recently spotted a series of tweets from John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto. Durant sketched out an argument I’d like to expand on.
Trump needs to match Cruz’s religiosity, but this will be a challenge. Cruz is telling voters that Trump has never asked God for forgiveness. And, sure, Trump is hardly the Christian model of virtue and modesty. Voters would see through his act in an instant if he went full-on Bible Belt. Trump is not Rick Santorum, to put it mildly. It would be like me suddenly declaring my love for Jennifer Lawrence.
As always, Trump’s best strategy is to be straight with voters. But he has to be careful. These aren’t just any voters, after all. Trump’s great appeal is that he’s a winner: he gets the girls, he gets the dollars, he gets the gold-plated skyscrapers. To the neighbourly Christians of small-town Iowa, the big winner of Manhattan isn’t necessarily the most natural choice. He’s no altarboy.
If we go strictly by the Book, Trump is a sinful man. Twice-divorced and with a preoccupation with wealth and power, Trump has plenty to atone for. But Trump’s sins are America’s sins. His greed is the American dream writ large. His gluttony is gold-plated testament to American achievement. His fondness for pretty women no doubt a misdirection of latent desire for blonde British Breitbart editors.
Trump shouldn’t hide these sins. Instead, he should opt for a redemption story. It’s a narrative that can appeal not just to Christian voters but to all Americans. Admitting he’s sinful and having the humility to lay his soul bare in front of the voters would be an arresting spectacle.
Think about it, from an evangelical perspective. There’s this larger-than-life guy, who apologises to no one and never says he’s wrong. Who could ever extract a sincere expression of contrition from such a person? Easy: God, the great land developer in the sky, whose portfolio is yuuuuuge and who has all the best golf courses. Because God’s the only one greater than the Trump brand; He’s the only one who can extract such a statement.
Trump has to really mean it, though. He should stand on the podium and go through all seven deadly sins–pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony, wrath, and sloth–and confess to some of them. For some, such as his divorce with Ivana, nothing less than sincere remorse will do. As for pride, greed, envy, lust, and wrath, he can perhaps be a little more smug. After all, even Christian voters don’t want a wimp for President.
The one sin he should absolutely — and justifiably — deny is slothfulness. Can you imagine the soundbite? “I may have committed sin, but slothfulness is not among them. I will not rest until I have made America great again.”
Christian voters are often misunderstood. They aren’t puritans. They don’t expect everyone to be perfect all the time. They just want to be reassured that the man they’re sending to the White House shares their values and is a good person.
Trump needn’t only talk about his sins, of course. He has plenty of Christian virtues to talk about too. Prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.
The most important of these is courage. The courage of facing the political establishment and the haters within his own party. The courage of going up against the mainstream media and fighting for what America really needs, instead of what’s deemed to be politically correct. Speaking truth where others dare not. Real, American courage.
He could also talk about his pastor and close friend, Norman Vincent Peale (some evangelicals consider the prosperity gospel to be sacrilegious, but it remains highly popular), and how much of a positive effect he has had–not just on Trump’s fortunes, but his spirit and character too. The warrior with the dark past becomes the saviour of civilisation.
It’s also, thinking more cynically, an opportunity to unload almost any negative baggage he wants to unload prior to the knives really coming out for him from the Republican establishment, which is now looking on in horror at the possibility of his candidacy. Ordinary people will say: yeah, I know what you’re talking about, but he brought it up himself and ‘fessed up. We forgave him. It’s in the past.
Trump needn’t be dishonest with Iowans. He just needs to map out his plan for overcoming his own personal sins, just as he maps out his plan for overcoming the challenges facing America. The key is sincerity. Trump has shown himself capable of sincerity, but Iowa is the big test. The moment he can drop the braggadocio for a second and show people that he has the heart, as well as the stomach, of a lion.
A "Redemption Arc" is where the character in a story goes from being the BAD BOY to the HERO, causing the reader to root for him.
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) January 10, 2016
Trump’s redemption story then becomes interweaved with America’s: he is not going to fail and cave into his sins any more, because the country depends on him. America needs Trump to be great again, and that is what spurs him on the road to redemption. It’s an American story — one that 20 per cent of Democrat voters have already indicated they are open to. Trump’s vices are America’s vices; his virtues are America’s, too.
It’s also a very Christian story, from confession to redemption, enabled by grace, mercy and faith. It would be a rare moment of humanity for the Donald, and all the more powerful for that. It would utterly confound his critics, who insist on painting him as an arrogant bully. I mean, he is, and it’s really hot – but he has to show the voters that there’s another side to him. The kind of guy who would fit right in at an Iowa family barbecue.