Aug 24, 2015

How Donald Trump felt like Billy Graham

Donald Trump, the populist presidential candidate currently leading in the Republican primary polls, has connected himself to Billy Graham, the famed evangelist and pastor to presidents.

At a rally in Alabama last week, it was the first thing Trump said.

He came out on stage and "Sweet Home Alabama" was playing and people--about 20,000 people--cheered and applauded.

Trump said, "Wow wow wow. Unbelievable. Thank You. That's so beautiful. You know now I know how the great Billy Graham felt. Because this is the same feeling. We love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

What does it mean to say he felt like Billy Graham felt?

It doesn't seem obvious, in context.

The next thing Trump talked about, after mentioning Graham, was how his campaign originally booked a smaller venue but then had to relocate the event to a larger space. Perhaps the point was only about the size of the crowd. Trump felt like Graham because Graham preached to large crowds.

This is how the Associated Press understood it. The news organization reported the line about Graham in the lead of its story. The AP added that "Trump evoked Graham--the evangelist who packed stadiums around the world--as he brought his message to the Deep South."

Graham isn't the only person who has packed stadiums around the world or in the South, though. Nor is Graham the most obvious comparison. One Trump supporter interviewed for the AP story compared Trump to George Wallace, the popular segregationist who ran for president in 1964 and '68. Others have also made that comparison. Trump could have just as easily gone with a politician--if not George Wallace then Ronald Reagan--or any other celebrity. He has elsewhere referenced Richard Nixon, in the sense of being popular despite being disliked by establishment voices.

If Trump felt like Billy Graham just because it was a big crowd, then he might just as easily have said he felt like Wallace or Reagan or Nixon or even Sweet Home Alabama's own Lynyrd Skynyrd.

He didn't though. Trump specified Billy Graham.

According to the Daily Beast, Trump specifically said he felt like Graham because, like Graham, he was preaching to a stadium of true believers. But that actually isn't like Graham. Graham, after all, was an evangelist. He is famous not for rallying people who agree with him but for changing the hearts of people who didn't.

Perhaps the reference can be better understood for its connotation than it's denotation.

Perhaps Trump only said he felt like Graham so he could add that next line, which he repeats: "We love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham." The point of connecting Trump to Graham could be just to connect Trump to Graham, regardless of whether or not that connection makes any sense, because Trump is appealing to voters who love Billy Graham.

In the same speech, after all, Trump announced that his favorite book was the Bible. The reference to Graham can be understood as a play for the evangelical vote. This is the politics of identification. This is how a politician like Trump gets people for whom New York and TV are alienating and hostile to nonetheless identify with a New York mogul/TV celebrity. He mentions how he feels just like Billy Graham.

Billy Graham who "we" love.

There's some evidence to support this cynical interpretation. The Washington Post's Robert Costa--one of the best reporters covering conservative politics--argues that Trump's "visit to Alabama was coolly strategic."

According to Costa, "The Manhattan developer, who strode onstage to 'Sweet Home Alabama,' is trying to show that his candidacy has broad and lasting appeal across every region of the country--especially here in the South, where Alabama and seven other states are holding a clustered voting blitz March 1."

So maybe Trump is a smart, smart politician who knows what it takes to connect to evangelicals, a not-insignificant bloc of the Republican primary voters. He mentioned Graham and connected himself to Graham to connect to them. Even if the statement appears, on the surface, entirely incongruous--"You know now I know how the great Billy Graham felt. Because this is the same feeling."--it doesn't matter, because the words do this other work.

The words don't denote, they don't mean. The do something besides mean. They indicate identification, which is important in identity politics.

That explanation would make more sense, though, if Trump were struggling to connect to evangelical voters. He's not. He doesn't need to coax evangelicals to see him as one of them. Despite some opposition from evangelical leaders, Trump has a lot of conservative evangelical support. This can be seen in the polls. Even more clearly, it can be seen in this instantly iconic photo of supporters at the Alabama event with a sign that says "Thank You, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."

Maybe those voters, with that sign, heard Trump's invocation of Graham as a shout out. It hardly seems they needed to hear it, though, to think of Trump as their answer to prayer.

There's at least one other possibility, explaining what Trump was talking about when he said he felt how the great Billy Graham felt "because this is the same feeling."

Maybe Trump strongly, personally identifies with Graham.

Graham, after all, was a winner. Not a loser, which is one of the worst things you can be for Trump. Graham is a winner. That might not be how Graham is typically imagined, today, but it's not wrong.

As Graham biographer Grant Wacker wrote in "Religion and the Marketplace in the United States," "One of the important but less appreciated aspects of Graham's relation to American society law in the manifold modes of his self-presentation." One of those modes, Wacker says, in manliness: Graham presented himself as a manly American man, well dressed and not-incidently being seen frequently with manly celebrities, especially athletes. And presidents. Winners.

"The manly preacher was a haberdasher's dream," Wacker says, and he "relished posing for photos with celebrity competitors such as Arnold Palmer and Muhammad Ali, grafting some of their cultural capital onto his own while mingling the different male ideals that he and they represented."

In this sense, at least, one can imagine Trump feeling like the great Billy Graham. When he walked out on that stage and 20,000 people cheered, he knew how the great Billy Graham felt great. Because it felt like this, being great. Being manly. Being a winner.

Trump says he's never asked for God's forgiveness. Graham spent a life time telling everyone they needed that forgiveness. According to a certain cultural logic, though, it makes sense that the one celebrity would so strongly and personally identify with that other celebrity. Cheered by 20,000 fans, the first thing he might think and might say might be: this is how it must have felt to be that famous person I admire for his fame.

He might say, "Wow wow wow .... You know now I know how the great Billy Graham felt. Because this is that same feeling."