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Ahlin: Professor Harold Hill, Trump and the evangelicals

Last weekend my husband and I watched the 1960s movie musical "The Music Man" with our grandchildren (who pretty much know the dialogue and song lyrics by heart).

In the movie, a con man using the name "Professor Harold Hill" shows up in River City, Iowa. He manufactures fear over ways a new pool table will ruin the town's young people in order to sell the community an antidote in the form of a boys' band, complete with instruments and uniforms. Of course, he knows nothing about music and plans to skip town once money is collected. Then he falls in love with "Marion the librarian" and shows himself to be a lovable shyster with a moral compass.

It occurs to me that Trump voters see him as a lovable shyster. That he stirs up fear and then plays to their irrational resentments for his own benefit is part of his charm. Hiding his tax returns? Playing footsie with the Russians? Lying through his teeth? Scapegoating immigrants? Labeling any fact he doesn't like "fake news"? From the perspective of his supporters, he's just thumbing his nose at political correctness. And they're in on the joke.

One of the most enthusiastic groups to embrace Trump—in fact, the group probably comprising his strongest base—is evangelical America. (Correction: White, evangelical America.) If we've long-suspected that the modern evangelical movement has much less to do with Christianity than it has to do with cornering political power, the Trump presidency has turned that skepticism into glaring truth. What began in the 1970s with groups, such as the Moral Majority, has conflated political power with an ongoing persecution narrative—a narrative in which even Christmas is under assault—finally managing to completely coopt the Republican Party. The party platform is written to please and appease the white religious right.

Several years ago, journalist and historian Neal Gabler wrote an article bemoaning the loss of complicated moral values formerly held by many Americans (perhaps the majority). He said that in the past the very same citizens who took pride in "the Puritan-inflected America of rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility in which you reap what you sow....also [celebrated] an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility." If the Republicans and their philosophy came down more on one side and Democrats and their philosophy more on the other, attitudes of the rank and file ran the gamut of both.

In asserting years ago that such moral complexity was long gone, Gabler was predictive for today. The belief "God helps those who help themselves" spitefully discounts the belief that "compassion is among the greatest of virtues and our highest obligation is to help others." In fact, in Trump's world, self-interest is more than a virtue: it's the only virtue.

The evangelicals love their shyster president in his fecklessness and fact-lessness. Unlike Professor Harold Hill, however, neither they nor the president seem burdened with a moral compass.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email