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February 28, 2024   5 mins

Last week, Donald Trump accused the Left of wanting to “tear down crosses
 and cover them up with social justice flags”. “But no one will be touching the cross of Christ under the Trump administration,” he reassured a convention of religious broadcasters. His speech appeared to confirm widespread suspicion that “Christian nationalism” will play a prominent part in the next Republican White House.

After all, it came just three days after Politico published a report pointing to a Christian nationalist faction of conservatives that is preparing to “to infuse Christian nationalist ideas in [a future Trump] administration”. For detractors, such as Atlantic writer Tim Alberta, this is an attempt to establish “far-Right religious dominion over the government”; for its leader Russell Vought, former Office of Management and Budget Director under Trump, it is a positive step towards “preserving our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage”.

Such accounts would suggest that Christian nationalism is a novel, ascendant force on the American Right. Yet politically vocal Christians have been a part of the Republican coalition for decades: from the days of the Moral Majority to Trump’s successful courting of the Evangelical vote. Vought’s fiscally hawkish brand of “Christian nationalism” is not, therefore, a catalyst for radical change — but rather a device for the old Republican political class to insulate itself from drastic reform. In fact, Vought embodies the striking ideological continuity between the pre-Trump and post-Trump Republican Party.

Vought began his political career at the turn of the millennium as a staffer to Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and later to then-Representative Mike Pence of Indiana. The two figures reflected Vought’s own mixture of social conservatism and devotion to fiscal austerity, at a time when the Reaganite gospel of cutting taxes, slashing regulations, and unleashing the free market was the unchallenged dogma of the Republican Party. Vought later made a name for himself as a policy wonk in the House Republican Study Committee, where the main priority was finding ways to cut entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, before joining the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, the most prestigious think tank in the conservative firmament, in time to fight the battles of the Obama years. This era was the high tide of the “fusionist” creed of conservatism, which saw no contradiction between hard-line Christian moral conservatism and free-market fundamentalism.

Besides his expertise in shrinking government, Vought became known for his aggressive personal style. When Trump emerged as a presidential contender in 2015, Vought became a convert to the nascent MAGA cause — though his affinity with the Republican standard bearer was more stylistic than ideological. This is because Trump ran the first time around against the GOP’s fusionist sympathies: he promised to tax the rich and defend popular entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while expressing a nonchalant stance toward Planned Parenthood and transgenderism. In many ways, this early incarnation of Trump was the opposite of Vought: a most un-Christian social liberal with a penchant for redistributive economic populism.

It speaks to his sheer tenacity that Vought, on joining the Trump administration in 2018, thought that he could bend the president to his vision of traditional fusionist conservatism. In the White House, an interesting dynamic emerged between the two men, one that perfectly encapsulates the push-and-pull dynamic between the pre and the post-populist versions of the GOP. As a former senior Trump administration official told The Washington Post: “[Vought would] take these dream budgets in to Trump, and Trump would say, ‘I don’t want these cuts; don’t make these cuts. I don’t want to touch social programmes. I don’t want to touch entitlements.’ And he’d back down
 It would drive Russ crazy, because he wanted to make actual cuts.”

“In the White House, an interesting dynamic emerged between the two men”

In spite of Trump’s populist instincts, the conservative establishment, working through operatives such as Vought, largely succeeded in turning the Trump administration into a platform for realising a slate of pre-Trump fusionist priorities. They ensured the passing of a giant corporate tax cut, the appointing of a social conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and, of course, entitlement cuts in the White House budget proposal. Meanwhile, funding for Trump’s wall was voted down by the House Republican majority.

Once Trump had left office, Vought did what any out-of-work Washington operative with access to donor money would do: he founded his own tax-exempt think tank as a means to further entrenching his policy agenda in the DC Swamp. The priorities of his Center for Renewing America are remarkably consistent with longstanding fusionist goals — restoring “fiscal discipline” and fighting “Big Government Socialism” while doubling down on social conservatism — with a patina of anti-woke, America First rebranding. In the CRA’s case, appeals to Christian nationalism are once again bound to small government orthodoxy.

Vought’s mission seems to be to preserve as much of the fusionist programme as possible within the Trump era. For instance, he’s switched from advocating cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which Trump has defended, to proposing axing Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and other federal programmes. In doing so, he has sacrificed some of his economic principles: other budget experts have pointed out that Social Security and Medicare are the biggest impediments to the dream of perpetually balanced budgets, unless conservatives are willing to raise taxes. Vought has also sought to make Trumpian immigration restrictionism another leg of the fusionist synthesis, but his attempts to justify restrictionism in the name of Christianity have come across as confused and convoluted: after all, Trump did it in 2016 without any reference to Biblical teachings.

In light of these continuities, one wonders what Vought’s “Christian nationalism” is beyond an opaque rhetorical device to give the impression of a seismic philosophical shift while masking what is essentially a self-perpetuating conservative ideology. Indeed, Vought’s involvement with the fusionist flagship Heritage Foundation and its Project 2025, a plan to re-staff the federal government with conservative apparatchiks with Reaganite pedigrees, should be viewed as a fulfilment of pre-Trump conservatism, with its desire to smash the administrative state.

Yet beyond the Republican elite, Vought’s worldview has never been so unfashionable. Polling data shows that ordinary Americans are moving further away from the fusionist orthodoxy that he is trying to uphold. His fiscal hawkishness around federal programmes, including Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, have consistently proven to be broadly unpopular with the American public. And the social conservative component is also proving a hindrance, with 61% of voters disapproving of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe. The continuing stridency of the pro-life movement has become an electoral liability for the Republican Party — as we can see from the appalled response to the recent Alabama IVF ruling — and ordinary Americans appear to be far more comfortable with the socially liberal, economically populist Trump of 2015-16.

Vought is right, however, when he claims that ordinary Americans oppose “woke” elites. But, beyond the Evangelical minority, they do so out of a “live-and-let-live” attitude closer to “Barstool conservatism”: in other words, they are not likely to want to overturn wokeism only to see it replaced by another moralistic creed that judges their personal lives. Still, “Christian nationalism” could perhaps be one way for Vought and his ilk to mobilise and consolidate the country’s shrinking share of Evangelical voters on behalf of an intellectually decrepit Republican Party, which hides its unpalatable policy agenda behind culture war crusades and incessant professions of loyalty to Trump.

Yet Vought is not the only Christian nationalist in town. Another faction of Christian political thinkers is represented by intellectuals Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Sohrab Ahmari, as well as, to varying degrees, by Senators J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley. This group is just as militantly social conservative on issues such as abortion and LGBT identity as Vought. But, unlike him, they have sought to refashion conservative governance in response to the material failures of the Reaganite consensus. They have introduced the tenets of Catholic social teaching and something akin to European Christian Democracy into American political discourse, and offer Christian-inspired defences of the welfare state, industrial policy, and the New Deal — a direct rebuke to the small government fanaticism of the fusionist camp.

And while this tendency remains a minority on the Right, it likely represents the most serious long-term threat to Vought’s Christian nationalist vision. For, if it ever succeeds in displacing fusionism, it would invalidate the very terms of their political existence, namely the symbiosis between political Christianity and free-market economics. Such a vision of Christian statesmanship would still encounter challenges in a secularising post-Christian America, but it would, at least, be responsive to the severe conditions of economic inequality and social dislocation that afflict Americans in ways that Reagan-era conservatism just can’t be. That free markets have often been the scourge of traditional values is a possibility Vought simply will not consider and therein lies the limit of his imagination — and his usefulness to any future Republican administration.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.