This was not what the Founding Fathers envisioned: the United States turning into a religiously-driven, if not religiously-institutionalised country. Yet, it is drifting in that direction, in part through public preferences, shaped largely by external developments, and in part purposefully as, for example, President Donald J. Trump becoming the first, not just US, but international leader to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital (and even send Vice-President Mike Pence, the mouthpiece of deeply conservative US bloc, to cement the thought).
Tapping nationalistic and militaristic buttons, these may merely be outgrowths of foundational developments: internally, the 1979 rise of the now-defunct Moral Majority under Televangelist Jerry Falwell in reaction to the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment and 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights legislation, and with a goal to convert Jews into Christians; and externally, the simultaneous rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spearheading a fanatical movement in which the United States was depicted as the 'Great Satan', holding 52 US embassy personnel as hostages for 444 days in Tehran, and petroleum politics against the United States doubling the $14 price per barrel in 1978 by 1980 because of the Iranian Revolution, then the Iran-Iraq war.
Over the past year, public preferences have taken a life of their own: not even the most sagacious reporters could predict Trump's election victory, for example, let alone fully understand what is happening locally to raise such a populist spectre in a country long associated with open arms for 'huddled masses'. Whether the argument that this may be the last generation of a white US majority is alone responsible for too many un-American behaviour, it is hard to say so soon, but the emergence of 'fake news' industries (both creating and vilifying them), gerrymandering so as to retain white-controlled constituencies, and thereby the House of Representatives, revolutionising the country's most-hated group, the Ku Klux Klan, and thereby inviting Civil War-laced discrimination, obnoxiously preventing immigrants from the passage to citizenship, despicably labelling foreign countries and their leaders, and reducing just about every policy problem to the country's only non-white president constitute too long a list of aberrational outcomes in too short a time to say the United States will return to normalcy so easily.
Poll analysts are not alone to blame for these information gaps. Political parties create and perpetuate them. If we take the Democratic Party, for example, it has moved too far from its doctrine-spawned pathways to fully appeal to its 'base': note how white Democrats in the Evangelical Belt have been slowly deserting their own party; and if that is not enough, how the party is rebuilding its platform against these just-described long-term domestic changes remains as mystical as ever until some game-changing event happens within the party.
More than the Democratic Party, it is unorganised groups, such as women, who have stood up to protect what they see as their own rights. Very likely they will vote for the Democratic Party, but a large chunk may do so reluctantly, indicating not just the party's failure to formally and publicly adjust to the changes but also the country's need to offer other institutionalised choices, such as a third party (and if that needs recalculating congressional voting rules to enact policies, then to do so quickly and constitutionally) to cater to the diversifying interests.
From being the Civil War villain, the Republican Party has risen as if like the ghost of the Confederates; and steadily with them, so too everything the Confederates stood for. This is the formidable pillar behind a Christian United States: it appeals directly to the plausibly affronted Evangelicals dominating the small towns and heartland of the United States, and the group increasingly noisy about supporting Israel given its scriptural anchor. Trump's bold but undiplomatic announcement to shift the US Embassy to Jerusalem as a step to recognise the hallowed historical city as Israel's capital gave the Evangelicals the reason, rationale, and punch to reassert the United States in their vision.
This vision is at odds with the fastest-growing group in the US population: Hispanics. It may be a little too late to prevent them from becoming a more decisive component of the United States policy-making firmament, but Trump has become the heaven-sent instrument and originator, from their viewpoint, of all measures, fair and foul, to prevent that outcome. That he is not alone, and why the 2020 presidential election outcome remains as blurred as any fog-smeared vision, may become the pivotal political consideration from now on.
As the widely available January 18 Pew Research Center report observed: "The [US] partisan divide in Middle East sympathies, for Israel or the Palestinians, is now wider than at any point since 1978," with 79 per cent Republicans and 27 per cent Democrats favourably inclined towards Israel. It went on to add, just in this century, the Republican mood about this issue climbed 29 per cent, while the Democrat mindset declined 11 per cent, with their corresponding support for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, being 52 per cent and 18 per cent.
Positioning Israel is pivotal to Trump's survival, Republican resurgence, and Evangelical veto-power instrument. For Trump, it cements family relations owing to his publicly silent but ubiquitously functioning son-in-law, Jared Kushner; glues the Republicans and Conservatives to him, in spite of Trump's chemistry not willingly accepting this combination; and supplies him something of a foreign policy initiative, using which he has brought Saudi Arabia in line with Israel, and reinforces, both directly, sonorously, and venomously against Iran.
All of the above feed into vilifying his predecessor, Barack Obama, and thereby the Democrats, castigating Muslims, as a step towards building his military to thwarting Islamists and closing one immigration window, while making some claim to fame by forcing Palestinians into vassal statehood, thereby ostensibly delivering on the two-state puzzle that has haunted every president since Jimmy Carter (highlighted, coincidentally, in the Moral Majority year, 1979).
Republicans will approve any approach to bashing Democrats, building the military, punishing terrorists, and closing unnecessary immigration windows. Similarly, Evangelicals will applaud putting Muslims in their own place, that is, corner them, close even more immigration windows, indeed recruiting immigrants far more selectively, while driving US minorities into their own corners.
This combination is fragile, but without it all three groups could be perennially doomed for demographic and technological reasons. To make it work raises the policy-making ante; and no better a conductor of the necessary dynamics as a voluble, short-sighted, dim-witted, subjectively driven, and piquantly buoyed person as Trump. Its strategic goal is to reconfigure the United States socially so that no future non-white president happens and minority foreign groups, like the Hispanics, can grow in the shadows; while its tactical front is to cultivate foreign friends as a populist breed rather than democratic. Democracy, indeed, belongs in the villainous category for this band.
Unfortunately for the United States, the multifaceted Democratic Party also needs a combination strong enough to win. It has not come even half the distance as the Republicans to fulfilling that. The end-point would shake the souls of the country's Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and all others who stood up for the cause of democracy promotion, since a Judeo-Christian United States was not in the cards for any one of them at all. That outcome, unfortunately, could only be a whisper away.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.