Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election to the presidency was aided by the efforts of a political action group organized by evangelist Jerry Falwell. Known as the Moral Majority, the PAC advocated fundamentalist Christian views as a basis for political policy.
The moral majority, however, soon took on a life of its own and became a kind of right-wing populist codicil. To cite the moral majority, as Ronald Reagan and other folk heroes of the religious right soon began to do, was to tap into a subculture that, if not actually oppressed, was disdained and reviled by the “enlightened” popular culture which was exclusively the domain of the left throughout 1960s and 1970s. To the rest of society, the moral majority was Don Quixote—disillusioned by the strength of their own beliefs and tilting at cultural windmills. The genius of the positioning of the “moral majority” is that it not only embraces the ridicule, but makes it a necessary and desirable part of success. The moral majority was a silent, invisible plurality of the polity, driven underground by fear of being publicly shamed. Those who identified with the moral majority were encouraged to view their social status as being part of an uncouth counter-culture as a badge of honor. As a result, the strength of its numbers could not be disproven. Without having to really articulate its argument or justify its strength as an identity group, the moral majority was encouraged to see its members everywhere.
There is an implicit element of social conspiracy in this, often connected to reactionary populism, which is exactly what the conservative resurgence spearheaded by Regan was; this was not the intellectual puritanism of Barry Goldwater, whose intransigent stand for ideals led him to be crucified—wrongly—as a racist.
The right learned from the martyrdom of Goldwater and embraced the ludicrous foppishness of being Don Quixote, the unlikely folk hero, loveable particularly for his own impotent quest, which was born out of his abounding desire to do justice—not for his own ends but to pursue an indefatigable moral calling. To try, with everything one possesses, is enough, a particularly comforting message given how little headway the religious right made. This, undoubtedly, is emotionally-driven sophistry, but it nonetheless effective, as is evident in the morphing of this line of thinking into the “compassionate conservatism” of George Bush.
Its most recent iteration, however, is far less nuanced. Donald Trump, throughout the 2016 campaign and during his first few months in office, has tried to tap into the power of this emotionalism. However, despite Trump’s credentials as an entertainer, he lacks the nuance to understand what has made social conservatism, despite its lackluster record of success over the past few decades, a powerful driving movement within America’s preoccupation with identity politics.
Trump’s venial grasp of what constitutes the construction of voter identities primarily conceives of the moral majorities as being about majoritarianism. This explains his seemingly monomaniacal obsession with irrelevant details like the magnitude of his electoral victory and the crowd size at his inauguration. To Trump, morality is a function of numbers; it is as if the magnitude of his victory gives him greater legitimacy to act and makes criticism of him simply a function of stubborn ideological opposition.
The primary difference between Trump’s conception of the moral majority and that which drove the conservative resurgence of the 1980s is dialectic. Under Reagan, the right needed the left as a contrast. Yes, it disagreed staunchly with liberalism, but it also relied on left-wing policy and culture to define itself. The ideology of conservatism was still tautologous, but it was mobilized through the threat which liberal morality presented. There is a dialectic between the right and left which is healthy to a free society in this relationship. Trump’s majoritarianism, on the other hand, is far more vicious. It needs the left only insofar as it defines its own merit by its ability to ridicule and shame its opponents, not by making superior arguments, but by asserting itself as a larger, more aggressive movement.
Also published on Medium.