Rick Perry has recently made the news for his criticism of Donald Trump, because really, what else does he have to distinguish himself from the other Republican candidates? I know I sometimes confuse him with Ted Cruz. Running for President has become the Republican way of saying, “Hey, I’m just as much of a rich jerk who pays lip service to God as these other guys!”
Obviously Trump is a pretty easy target, although that hasn’t stopped him from doing well in the polls. Then again, the election is still pretty far away at this point, and some of the people being polled probably just want some conflict. I would think the one who was hurt the most by Trump’s entry into the race was Chris Christie, because being an insulting loudmouth was HIS thing.
Never mind that Trump claimed in the last decade to be more of a Democrat. Perry compared Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to the Know-Nothings, a nativist political movement in the middle of the nineteenth century. The thing is, the Know-Nothings (who called themselves the American Party; the nickname supposedly came from their refusal to say anything about the party’s activities) were particularly anti-Catholic, and Trump was apparently a Catholic at one point, although he later left the church.
The Know-Nothings had some spiritual descent in the John Birch Society, named after a tree that was cut down with the sickle from the communist symbol. No, seriously, he was a missionary or something, and didn’t really have anything in particular to do with the society, a paranoid group seeing communism everywhere and opposing the United Nations. Its founder was a paranoid guy who ran a candy company.
Uh, no, not Willy Wonka, but Robert Welch Jr. The Tea Party also has some similarities, although here it’s a little less clear what they’re against, because there’s a lot of coded language going on. And really, I don’t think Trump’s comments on Mexican immigrants are all that far off from the Republican mainstream; it’s just that his racism was far too blatant. Nowadays anti-immigrant beliefs have to be couched in the statement that it’s only ILLEGAL immigration you oppose, despite the fact that the people saying this are still often judging based on appearance. You can still be racist, but you generally have to have a few examples of non-white people you like so you can trot them out when someone accuses you. There is an important difference between legal and illegal immigration, but wouldn’t more liberal laws mean fewer lawbreakers? Anyway, to give Perry a little credit, you probably can’t be elected Governor of Texas if you badmouth the Latin population. I remember Fox News getting on George W. Bush’s case for being too lax on the immigration issue.
While anti-Catholic sentiment continued to be significant a century after the heyday of the Know-Nothings when people suspected John F. Kennedy would favor the Pope over the United States, it doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue now. In today’s Republican Party, you can be Catholic or Protestant as long as you’re incredibly vocal about how important your faith is.
And while Trump has done this in the past, it was always a little difficult to buy that he was worshipping anyone other than himself. Some consternation was caused when Trump told Frank Luntz that he never asked God for forgiveness, because this is apparently something we need to know about presidential candidates. Trump’s words were, “I think 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.” And you know what? I agree with him on this point. There’s too much of an idea in this country that, if you ask Jesus to forgive you, you don’t actually have to change your behavior. The problem is more that Trump doesn’t appear to practice what he preaches. When’s the last time you heard of him trying to make something right instead of just doubling down on his wrongness? He also referred to communion as having “my little cracker,” which interestingly enough is also a good description of his base. Trump identifies as Presbyterian, and communion isn’t anywhere near as much of a thing for Presbyterians as it is for Catholics, but it’s still a weird thing to say. It’s like he’s trying to talk up religion while also making fun of it.