Trump: The Absolver in Chief?

02/06/2017 01:02 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2018

Like millions of other voters, I've been trying to understand Donald Trump's narrow Electoral College victory. There are many reasons, and writers far more thoughtful than I have put them forward.

But I think there is another, more visceral attraction. Trump lifts all guilt. Guilt implies that each of us has some power to change things. But Trump has made us all either victims or villains. And in so doing, he's absolved us of all our sins.

Trump overwhelmingly captured the votes of white Christians. In part, that support reflected Trump's opposition to abortion, and his choice of vice president, Indiana Governor Mike Pence. But that alone can't explain Trump's popularity. After all, Barack Obama, who espoused the same pro-choice policies and tolerance of the LGBT community as Hillary Clinton, did better with these Christians.

And one would think that Trump would be someone difficult for people of faith to accept. He's not been devout, has been married three times, and is not exactly a role model for a good Christian life.

No, I believe that Trump's popularity stems in part from the guilt that people of faith experienced growing up. Faith has taught millions of us to think about what we "should" do and how often we fall short of those goals.

I can understand the power of not being guilty. I'm old enough to sometimes unwittingly slip and use the wrong word to describe an ethnic group. I know I carry a lot of deep-seated racial prejudice that I absorbed as a child. I do not think all this "baggage" will ever go away. I think the best I can do is recognize it and make sure my behavior strives for fairness in every way possible. I don't think I'll ever meet the high standards of my millennial daughter.

I can understand Trump's attraction. He has taken on all the woes of this nation, as he sees them, and the only thing we have to do is follow, not question.

He also has modeled for us what it means to live as a person lacking in both guilt and shame. Not apologizing is not a new strategy: Politicians and CEOs have been doing it for years. But even they developed the art of the half-hearted apology: You know, if my remarks offended anyone, etc. Trump dispenses with all of that. He either denies that an offense was committed or glories in it.

So let's start with wealthy, white Trump supporters. Trump gives them a free pass to flaunt that wealth, and to do all they can to enjoy it, without any obligation to the country. The law requires them to pay taxes, but now, as Trump has done, they can brag about how little they pay to keep the government afloat. If they are church-going, the message of the gospel about justice and supporting the weak and marginalized may prick their consciences less, particularly when Trump promises to bring prosperity to all.

Let's include older white Americans who have lost good jobs because of trade policies and a disruptive economy. These voters have every reason to resent corporations who export domestic jobs, state and federal laws that weaken unions, and decisions by both political parties to promote globalization even in the face of risks to workers, as well as public health and safety and the environment. But Trump has given them new scapegoats.

They now are free to vent their resentments not only at the policymakers but also at the people they believe stole their place in the middle class - immigrants and people of color. They can say out loud what they may have been reluctant to express before.

Let's add in white evangelicals and other people of faith who feel out of sync in a culture that they perceive to celebrate homosexuality and promiscuity. They no longer have to worry about being called prudish or behind the times. They can stand up to their children, who challenge their assumptions and call them narrow minded. Trump is certainly part of the popular culture, and he stands with him.

Let's consider people who have grown up respecting law enforcement, and don't understand "Black Lives Matter" and feel threatened by it. Trump has ended the debate about cops targeting black men and killing them without justification. People who might have been troubled by the sight of a black 12-year-old lying dead in a park because he was playing with a toy pellet gun now don't have to. Trump has promised to rid the inner cities of violence and dysfunction.

Guilt is a terrible burden to bear, the psychotherapists tell us. It creates an endless cycle that erodes our feelings of self-worth and our ability to move forward. We find it difficult to accept and love ourselves as we are. But Trump gave many of us a place to be ourselves without remorse, and to find acceptance. That gift may prompt some of us to forgive virtually anything in the person who has freed us.

Celia Viggo Wexler's book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, was published September 30 by Rowman & Littlefield.