Believe Me! Trumpism and the Messianic Impulse
Mario Cuomo once said that candidates campaign in poetry then govern in prose; Trump’s utterances, however, might better be characterized as speaking in tongues.
Might Trumpism be best understood not as a political set of beliefs but as a reflection of quasi-religious ones, and less as a designation for Trump as for the Trumpers that “worship” him? Is Trumpism essentially a psychological and philosophical condition rooted as much in right-wing religion as in right-wing politics?
But how could this be? Isn’t this the candidate that has been divorced twice, runs a gambling empire, regularly makes vulgar remarks, even more regularly lies, and has no church membership? How could the values-voters of the Evangelical right possibly tolerate such a “sinner”? Isn’t this the candidate that uses The Bible as a campaign prop despite having barely read any of its contents? Prima facie, Trump hardly appears to be the kind of option that could garner over 80 percent of the Evangelical vote; yet he did.
The explanation for this -- and perhaps for Trumpism in general -- lies as much within his supporters as in the candidate himself. Trumpism, it seems, relies less upon its namesake’s religious literacy or character qualifications as it does upon his supporters’ ability to sublimate their conventional religious beliefs sufficiently to create a tabula rasa. “I’m not afraid of Berlusconi in himself, I’m afraid of the Berlusconi in me,” said the Italian singer, Giorgio Gaber, about another recent populist president that captured the imagination of his people. Like Trump, Berlusconi was initially received more as a messiah come to save Italy from imminent downfall than as a politician with a policy agenda to sell.
On reflection, it seems ironic that political observers had commented throughout the campaign upon the notable lack of religion in the hustings. Some even speculated that two of the top three candidates (Trump and Sanders) were atheists. All eyes were on class, gender, race, and geography as pundits theorized about the leanings of their various demographic blocks. The Evangelical Christians responsible for bringing both Ronald Reagan and the Bushes to the presidency appeared in absentia, a footnote in our history books as our nation galloped into its secularist future. Hindsight now shows, contrarily, that not only had this voting group not disappeared, it was Trump’s most reliable and significant core constituency.
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For Evangelical fundamentalists the culture war is a long game, with irritations like the Enlightenment and multiculturalism mere road blocks to navigate around. In Trump they may not have found their ideal character, but they have found one upon whom they can find themselves. He may have arrived with the personal resume of the Devil, but with Trump they knew they could make a deal that would pay future dividends. Now we are facing the prospect of the most theocratic administration in modern history.
Facing few specific policies and even fewer political principles to hang their hats upon, what did these loyal Evangelical voters actually vote for in Donald Trump? The answer resides more in faith than in party planks. If not in the person, they have faith in their vision of that person. What Trump has given them is something to believe in, an invitation to make a leap of faith. When Trump repeatedly said “only I can fix it” and “believe me”, Evangelical voters did not question how or why; they went with their faith impulse just as they do when reading scripture or listening to their pastor. For them, Trump provides a crusade to “make America great again”; what that slogan-as-mantra means is less important than having blind faith in the messiah spouting it.
It would be both patronizing and inaccurate to suggest that this messianic impulse was sparked only by the charisma and vague sloganeering of Trump, though. He's also the beneficiary of myriad circumstances that fostered the environment for his emergence -- some economic, some political, and some media-driven. Common to all three of these is a pervasive anxiety of instability that is both individual and cultural. Trumpism feeds these fears by offering an extensive list of “others” as enemies at the door: racial minorities, secularists, immigrants etc. Whatever the empirical legitimacy of the scaremongering scenarios Trump paints, they establish the “us versus them” dynamic that so historically resonates in fundamentalist religions. For them (i.e., us), “us versus them” translates as “good versus evil”; the fear of “them” bolsters tribal allegiance and loyalty, creating an entrenchment that fosters an unquestioning and defensive faith that brokers no time for complexity or compromise.
Although yet to be broadly recognized as a religion (or even a cult), Trumpism, as Peter Manseau observes, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).
If wealth and the pursuit of wealth can be regarded as religious tenets, then Trump is surely the poster boy for such a philosophy. By good fortune, Trump and his enablers have also been able to give prosperity theology a biographical spin for it was Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and advocate for a pragmatic religion based on self-reliance and material pursuits, that was head pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, the place of worship the Trump family attended when Donald was a youth. Ingratiating himself to his flock with characteristic exaggeration, on the campaign trail, Trump would often recollect with tranquility about being transfixed by this legendary pastor of profits.
Journalist Adam Gabbatt offered kernels of perception in his humor when he titled a 2015 article for The Guardian, "Jesus and Donald Trump: who can tell the difference?". Noting how often the candidate would associate his own book with The Bible, Gabbatt quips, “The Bible has its Jesus, The Art of the Deal has its Trump” and “The Bible famously documents how God created the world, but so does The Art of the Deal -- except Trump is God.” Gabbatt even suggests that Trump is aware of how religious aura might be played to his advantage, using it as a branding technique prior to his presidential run. If The Art of the Deal was the prosperity theology corrective to “New Testament” teachings, a correlation with The Bible was inferred in the way Trump’s book was structurally modeled on “The Book of Genesis”. There's similar quasi-religious branding in the iconic architecture of his buildings, argues Gabbatt, the “gleaming palace” of Trump tower “almost certainly an allegory for heaven”.
Modern branding operates on many fronts beyond just advertising; it's therefore not surprising that Team Trump tapped the messianic impulse in other ways as well. One technique, as Orwellian as those already mentioned, has been to explain away all incoming criticisms as acts of persecution. The IRS is always auditing Trump, not because he's a tax dodger or cheater, but because, he says, he's "a strong Christian". His followers, too, are discriminated against for being Christians, apparently denied their right to discriminate against the LGBT community should they so choose. The persecution card thus plays effectively not only in casting Trump as a martyr, but in aligning his evangelical supporters with those early Christians (us) that suffered for their faith at the hands of oppressors (them).
As his campaign’s barrage of sound-bite slogans suggests, language is a significant component of Trump’s rhetorical appeal. Again, Team Trump has effectively employed theirs to appeal to the messianic impulse. Mario Cuomo once said that candidates campaign in poetry then govern in prose; Trump’s utterances, however, might better be characterized as speaking in tongues. Yet, as inarticulate, nonsensical, and contradictory as his orations (and tweets) often are, they speak to his supporters as contrasts to the usual political theatrics they are so weary and cynical about. To them, slogans are not signs of a lack of understanding or nuance; they are commandments designating good against evil. They are signs, as they say, that this leader “tells it like it is” and is willing to fight for the cause, whatever “it” or the “cause” might be.
The emotional weight of this rhetoric finds its larger tribal appeal via Team Trump’s most favored form of campaigning: rallies. In these environmens the messiah is symbolically elevated beyond the merely political. As Clinton supporters scratched their heads in wonder at how Trump could rally such large crowds and incite such energy, the masters of branding created gatherings modeled on revival tent meetings and mega-church services. Here, the “oppressed” Christians could revel in the euphoria of being amongst a community of the like-minded. Here, they could listen to the “only” candidate that could fix the nation’s cultural, economic, and international problems. Here, the chanting rituals of the Trumpers brought tribal cohesion against the various enemies their leader would list and vilify. Here, you could hear the messiah feed the thousands with fire and brimstone promises of instant justice, whether it be locking up Hillary or eradicating ISIS. “Trump’s call for blind, unquestioning followers… his claim that we are close to the end of days and that he, unerring and alone, can save us… should be seen as attractive to a religious mindset, especially of a fundamentalist variety”, assesses Onkar Ghate.
The omnipotence of the messiah over his minions, nevertheless, ignores the additional concerns we now have about the apostles surrounding him. It's sometimes said that the king’s court can be more tyrannical than the king because its operative can scheme behind the scenes unnoticed. We have seen little thus far to suggest that the upcoming administration will not manifest in this fashion. Despite his messianic appeal, Trump has put together a group of disciples -- some would say deplorables -- who will be only too willing to turn the republic in a theocratic direction. Among these are Betsy Devos (Secretary of Education), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Ben Carson (Secretary of Housing), Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection), and Mike Pence (VP). This cast of one percenters is not only united as multi-millionaires, but all also identify as right-wing Evangelical Christians -- presumably of the prosperity theology kind. Mostly dredged up from the swamps of the Reagan and Bush eras, these presumed has-beens are set to be the generals in the upcoming culture wars. They signal that a Moral Majority revival is already being set in motion on several fronts.
Despite right-wing religious believers dominating both houses of Congress, some still hope that the Republican Party will resort to rationality and sense in curbing Trump and his team’s worst excesses. Yet, just this Christmas the RNC doubled-down on the messianic impulse when Chairman Reince Priebus released the following message on Christmas day: “Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new king." During “this” Christmas, who could that “new king” possibly be?
If environmental and education advocates, women, racial minorities, and immigrants are currently harboring fears and anxieties about the future, they have good reason to. The current outline forming suggests that they and many more will be the frontline victims of an upcoming assault upon our secular humanist traditions and governing superstructure. But what can one do? Optimists, some echoing pockets of the intelligentsia of mid-'30s Germany, are hopeful that our institutions will remain intact despite the battering they are likely to take. Others predict that Trump will eventually go the same way as so many other messiah-wannabes: down in flames courtesy of his own hubris. This waiting game has its perils, though, as Hitler showed us with his swift dismantling of all structures in his way. Indications are that Trump is already employing some of the same tactics used by that messianic predecessor.
Because theocrats, like all totalitarians, thrive on censorship, propaganda, and myths, the responsibility of all opposition must be to preserve freedom of speech and promote fact-based critical thinking. This might not be so easy if Trump’s threats of censorship become reality, and he has already shown his adept ability at taking advantage of our current post-truth reality. Fact checkers have been working overtime ever since Trump first took to the campaign circuit.
Maybe the fundamentalist Christians that made up the majority of the 25 percent of American voters that put him in office will continue to march in lockstep whenever their new messiah cries “believe me”, but that leaves 75 percent of the nation yet to be transfixed by his celestial and/or apocalyptic visions. This group includes a lot of citizens that subscribe to inclusive rather than exclusive religion. Only they have the credibility and cultural capital necessary to claw their religion back from those conveniently bypassing Christ’s teachings at the Sermon on the Mount.
Another group we will come to rely upon as the culture wars heat up again will be humorists. Since Monty Python brought us The Life of Brian in 1979, it has been humorists more than any other public spokespeople that have displayed the courage and rhetorical clout required to combat the forces of authoritarian religion. Bill Maher, John Oliver, Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee will not only be providing escapism and relief over the forthcoming years, they -- like the court jesters of the king’s court -- will be our primary truth-tellers, decoding the faux news streaming into the bubbles of Trump’s America.
Traditional journalism has proven woefully incapable of penetrating the Orwellian logic of Trumpism, whereas our comedians have been both incisive and revealing—if not necessarily effectual. Trump’s incessant whining over his portrayal on Saturday Night Live shows that for him, as for so many totalitarian-messiah types before him, satire and parody are Achilles heels. Indeed, his ego has been exposed as so fragile that his press secretary has taken to putting out pleas (a.k.a. warnings) not to mock their sensitive leader. It was President Obama, lest we forget, who is generally credited with inspiring Trump to run for the presidency after the former ridiculed the latter’s birther “beliefs” during the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.