The 1980s audiences that explain why Trump’s base still loves him

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Tuesday’s explosive testimony before the Jan. 6 committee by Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, about President Donald Trump’s behavior before and during that day’s uprising has captivated Americans and ignited social media. But 35 years ago this summer, it was another round of hearings that drew Americans to their televisions to watch Congress investigate a popular president’s alleged subversion of the rule of law.

Over six days in early July 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified to defend his actions and those of his commander-in-chief, Ronald Reagan, in the Iran-Contra scandal. In front of the cameras, North transformed from a disgraced soldier into a clean-cut, medal-decorated national hero. A reality TV star before the reality TV era, North was a harbinger of what was to come. Uniting religious and secular conservatives in a right-wing populist movement, North redefined patriotism and foreshadowed the current crisis in American democracy.

North has been accused of conducting illegal covert operations involving the sale of arms to Iran to secure the release of American hostages while using the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan contras – which is explicitly prohibited by Congress. The former National Security Council staffer admitted lying to Congress and shredding documents, but North did not apologize. “It’s a dangerous world,” he said. He did what he did for the love of God and country. And for North, the end justified the means.

Many Americans agreed. That summer, “Olliemania” swept the country. An Albany store was selling T-shirts emblazoned with an American flag and the words “God, Guns, Guts, and Ollie Made This Country.” A restaurant near Buffalo has added an “Oliver North Sandwich” to its menu – made with “American red-blooded beef”, topped with shredded lettuce and served on a hero roll. Pocket Books printed 775,000 paperback copies of North’s testimony transcript to meet anticipated demand.

North was found guilty on three counts (a verdict that would be overturned on a technicality). Before long, Olliemania began to fade for most Americans. A subset of the country, however, continued to celebrate North’s hero status. Conservative evangelicals embraced him not in spite of his illegal actions, but because of them.

In the spring of 1988, the Reverend Jerry Falwell started a national petition to pardon North and welcomed him to Liberty University as the school’s keynote speaker. Insisting that North was “a true American hero”, Falwell compared him to Jesus, “a savior who was charged, condemned and crucified”. Within months, Falwell was selling $25 audio tapes of North’s commencement speech. Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America followed suit, offering a “beautiful color image” of North’s swearing-in to audiences for a $20 contribution.

The affinities between conservative evangelicals and the North ran deep. Although raised a Catholic, North converted to charismatic Protestantism in 1978 under the proselytism of his commanding officer, a born-again Christian. North credited evangelical psychologist James Dobson with saving his marriage, and while working at the National Security Council he participated in Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian retreats. He also actively sought help from the Christian right when seeking aid support for the contras. As one of his friends explained, “For Ollie, religion, flag and family are all part of the same makeup.”

This profile was deeply appealing to evangelical leaders, who found North to be “a shining example of American justice.” For evangelicals steeped in Christian nationalism – the belief that America is God’s special nation and must be defended as such against foreign and domestic enemies – the perceived law of God has taken precedence over the rule of law. .

In 1991 North was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. For more than a decade, SBC conservatives had worked to take control of the denomination, bending the standards and avoiding the niceties in pursuit of what they believed to be right. That year was the first in which their control would not be challenged by moderates.

This made North a perfect speaker for their convention. He was a shining example of breaking the rules to achieve a greater good, and SBC conservatives shared both his vision for Christian America and supreme confidence that God was on their side.

Standing in front of a 40-by-60-foot American flag, North urged the more than 15,000 Southern Baptists in attendance to become politically active to counter “a real Sodom and Gomorrah on the banks of the Potomac.” The president of the SBC Ministers’ Conference conceded that some find the North divisive or problematic, “But for the vast majority of us, it’s an American patriot.” The amalgamation between God and country was evident in the words of another man present: “There is a commitment to country and to God. I think Oliver North represents a commitment to God.

North became a frequent speaker at evangelical churches and, with the help of direct mail strategist Richard Viguerie, he raised an unprecedented $16 million in a single year to cover legal fees and fund an unsuccessful run at the Senate in 1994. -gun control, pro-life, school prayer, strong defense, anti-gay, etc. North tapped into a populist vein in American politics. His strategist and pollster explained North’s appeal in the words of country singer Garth Brooks: He resonated with “the helmet, gun rack, back-ache, overtaxed, flag-waving and who likes to have fun “.

Critics warned of North’s authoritarian tendencies and his lack of respect for the truth, but for his followers there was “what is right” and “what is legal”, and the two were not not always the same. Getting around the law was part of North’s appeal. When God is on your side, the end justifies the means.

In 2016, pundits struggled to understand how evangelical voters could back Donald Trump, a candidate who seemed the antithesis of the “family values” they touted. These observers, however, missed an underlying affinity based on white evangelicals’ penchant for authoritarian populism — to reject political compromise, favor strong, solitary leadership, and break the rules when necessary. Trump’s willingness to thumb his nose at democratic decency and niceties to do what needed to be done made him a hero in their eyes – just like Oliver North 30 years earlier.

The aftermath of the 2020 elections has only exacerbated these trends. The Christian nationalism on display during the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021 reflects broader sympathies: 3 in 5 white evangelicals do not believe President Biden was legitimately elected, and 1 in 4 agree that “true American patriots could having to resort to violence”. to save our country.

For those committed to defending their conception of “Christian America,” the fact that America is no longer a majority white Christian nation means that the democratic process is no longer conducive to these ends. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, contested Supreme Court nominations and annulment decision Roe vs. Wade and revoking the constitutional right to abortion despite assurances that the decision constituted “established law,” all point to a higher commitment to white Christian rule.

There are, however, other ways to be Christian and American, as Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) reminded North on the last day of his testimony. A devout Catholic with his own military pedigree, the soft-spoken senator informed North that the United States was a nation of many races, ethnicities and religions, and that what held the country together were the ideals of individual liberty and equal justice. Respectfully but firmly, Mitchell rebuked the zealous soldier, reminding him that it was possible for his fellow Americans to disagree with him “and still love God and still love this country as much as you do”, and that no matter how important or noble a cause, the rule of law must never be sacrificed. God, Mitchell added, “does not take sides in American politics,” although he is regularly asked to do so.

As the nation once again turns its eyes to congressional hearings examining a president’s role in subverting the rule of law, the fate of American democracy hinges on the view of patriotism that prevails.

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