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Can Donald Trump win over Catholics?

Donald Trump: in an age of economic uncertainty, he promises riches (Photo: AP)

What should the thoughtful Catholic make of presidential candidate Donald Trump? Love him? Loathe him? Laugh at him? Or gaze in awe at his ageless hair? Somewhere, buried deep inside it, Raquel Welch is probably battling a dinosaur.

In the middle of a rally last year, Trump invited a woman onto the stage to prove that it was real. “Have I ever met you before?” he asked, like a magician. She said no – and he invited her to tug on his locks. She confirmed that they were genuine. His critics, however, retain their doubts. Ricardo Sanchez, a radio host in Los Angeles, calls him el hombre del peluquin. It means man of the toupee.

The hostility of any Spanish-speaker is down to Trump’s signature issue: immigration. He exploded into the race last year with a speech in which he said that Mexico was sending its murderers and rapists north of the border. Normally when the media criticises a candidate for those kind of comments, the candidate buckles or spins. Not Trump. He doubled down. Promising a “great wall” across the border, he lashed out at the media and upped the rhetorical ante. The Republican debates, for the first time in a long time, were actually watched by people. Some 25 million tuned in to see Trump mock his opponents and pledge to bring “strength, energy, quickness and brain” to the White House; the most popular Republican debate in 2011 drew just 11 million.

And while the viewing figures tick up, so do the poll numbers. Trump leads the field by a country mile. He may come a cropper in Iowa, the first state to ballot, because of its complicated voting rules which favour the kind of grassroots organisation that he’s not had time to build. But even if the Trump momentum is eventually stopped, he’s revolutionised US politics. And he’s done it while hardly spending a dime.

What is Trumpism? Let’s start with the billionaire’s biography. He was born in 1946, the son of a real-estate giant. He was a rough kid, so daddy enrolled him in a military school to iron him out. Interviews with friends reveal a college boy who was disciplined, astonishingly self-confident and focused on building a property empire. He used a $1 million loan from his father to buy stock for development. We shouldn’t dismiss his present fortune as entirely “inherited”, however. Trump does have the Midas touch. His genius was to buy cheap in rundown locations, invest in high-quality architecture, win awards, draw middle-class tenants and gentrify. His success was New York’s success, too – he contributed to the emergence of a richer, cleaner city where angels no longer feared to tread.

To this he added casinos and golf courses, including in Scotland.

Some of his businesses folded; he often skirted ruin. But the empire seemed to be kept afloat by sheer ego. Trump branded everything he owned and sold. You can even buy Trump ties, although the department store Macy’s dropped his menswear line after his remarks about Mexico.

While Europeans find Trump vulgar, he’s as American as apple pie. The country was built by businessmen, some of them merchant adventurers, like Mellon, Rockefeller and Ford. Beneath all the glitz, however, what is the nature of the real Donald Trump? That’s hard to tell because he can be surprisingly elliptical. Trump has declared that he is a faithful Presbyterian but that he doesn’t feel the urge to ask God for forgiveness. He told an interviewer: “When I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness.” But, on the whole, “if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Friends say that he is funny, kind and great company. He’s now on his third wife, Melania, and folks could get cynical about the fact that she’s a former model 24 years younger than him. Yet the couple’s recent interview with Barbara Walters, one of the few journalists to show respect to the businessman, revealed a softer side. It was obvious in their body language that Donald knows he’s a very lucky guy. And he’s clearly as much in love with her as the day they first met at a New York fashion-week party. Trump, incidentally, had arrived with a date – and still asked for Melania’s number.

What is Trumpism as an ideology? It might be easier to think of it as a social phenomenon, tapping into economic and cultural anxiety. The golden age to be a white male American was the 1950s and 1960s, when wages rose fast, the living was cheap and the government was there to help with things like free tuition. Since then, things have been sliding. A husband can no longer expect to maintain a housewife and two kids on a single wage – and he’s far more likely now to be underpaid, overworked, divorced and forking out alimony.

America has recovered from its credit crunch but it left deep financial and psychological scars. Many Middle Americans are convinced that Barack Obama has made things worse, that he diverted money towards the poor and failed to protect wages by stemming illegal immigration. In fact, deportations under Obama have hit a record high. Despite this, white male voters with low incomes and relatively low education are apparently flocking to Trump. He taps into a strong, Evangelical, anti-statist tradition of believing that the key to success isn’t socialism but individual liberty. Let us go, leave us alone and we’ll prosper: we could all be billionaires if the government just got off our backs.

Trump might have a distinctly Protestant ethic, but he’s most often compared with America’s foremost conservative Catholic populist, Pat Buchanan. In 1992, 1996 and 2000, Buchanan ran for president on a platform similar to Trump’s. He was anti-immigration, critical of free trade and, as Trump has hinted, sceptical of foreign intervention. The Buchanan and Trump tickets both tapped into an American tradition of business nationalism, which keeps the government out of personal affairs except to protect industry and raise the prospects of the little man. Buchanan has welcomed the Trump candidacy and Trump has praised Buchanan. They are both pro-life and anti-gun control. (Buchanan once defined good gun control as being able to aim well.)

But Buchanan only represents one dimension of US political Catholicism – its socially conservative wing with fond family memories of the Fifties rosary crusades led by Bing Crosby. There is also a liberal, internationalist wing, keen to remind Catholics of European descent that they were once immigrants too and were persecuted by the Anglo-Saxon “natives”. Contemporary liberal Catholics, who take their lead from the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s and are strongly represented by Democrats on the Hill, regard Pope Francis as an advocate of progress. Buchanan, by contrast, has criticised Francis’s theology. Trump has challenged his economics.

On immigration, Donald said that Francis’s “words are beautiful and I respect the Pope” but that Americans can’t afford to take any more people. And on climate change, he concluded: “Weather changes and you have storms and you have rain and you have beautiful days. But I do not believe that we should imperil the companies within our countries.” Business comes first.

The Catholic vote matters: 22 per cent of Americans identify themselves with the Church. In the past, they were overwhelmingly drawn from European immigrant stock and Republicans hoped to turn them into a powerful part of their culturally conservative coalition. But many Catholics have gone the way of the rest of US society, becoming less white and less Right-wing. They did not overwhelmingly vote for Buchanan and probably won’t go for Trump either. On the contrary, Buchanan’s support tended to rely more on Evangelicals – and his candidacy was controversial and raw in a way that drew intense criticism. In 2000, someone said of him: “I guess he’s an anti-Semite … He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.” That critic was Donald Trump.

This is the problem with defining Trump: he’s been many things. He not only gave money to Hillary Clinton but also invited her to his wedding. Now he says she probably belongs in jail. He has moved so dramatically from Left to Right that ideological conservatives refuse to recognise him as one of their own.

While he’s espoused certain ideas with sufficient strength to give the impression of a coherent platform, that’s not really what he’s running on. What Trump is selling in this election is Trump. After decades of drift, recession and unwinnable wars, he offers the nation his own brand of leadership rooted in his personal story of success. It’s no coincidence that in almost every interview he gives, he justifies a policy by pointing to his poll position. When Jeb Bush told Trump in a debate that he couldn’t just “insult your way to the presidency”, Trump replied: “Well, I’m at 42 per cent and you’re at three. So, so far I’m doing better.” And the audience went wild.

Rather than asking what kind of man Trump really is, it’s perhaps best to ask what kind of times have produced him. In a globalised world disrupted by constant security threats, he offers control. In an age of economic uncertainty, he promises riches. And at a time when celebrity is worth a lot more than experience or intellect, he brilliantly manipulates social media. Britons may not be aware that he was the star of the original US series of The Apprentice – and the visual imagery of a powerful man hiring and firing job applicants has helped define him in the minds of millions. While other candidates have had to go to diners and church halls to meet the people individually, or saturate the airwaves with ads, Trump has been welcomed back into millions of living rooms like a familiar friend.

Will fame be enough to win him the presidency? Probably not. The US Republican primaries are fought over several months: they are a long campaign composed of many individual battles. If Trump loses Iowa on February 1, his momentum will recede. Even if he wins the next contest, New Hampshire, it will require serious organisation to sustain his lead into bigger and bigger states. The more people face the prospect of a Trump nomination, the less they might like the idea. And there are equally compelling alternatives. Marco Rubio is teeing up as the establishment candidate; Ted Cruz is popular among the religious right and women. If Trump falls, there is plenty of talent to take his place and, ironically, both these men are Hispanic.

In generational terms, it would be tempting to see Trump versus Rubio as a tug of war between the past and the future. For the future, demographically, lies with Spanish speakers. If nothing else, that should be good for Mass attendance.

Tim Stanley is a historian, Daily Telegraph columnist and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.

This article first appeared in the January 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here