The Deification of Donald J. Trump: The Prince of Pieces – The Good Men Project

Posted: March 31, 2021 at 3:10 am

With tens of millions of white evangelical Christians in the fold, Trumpism is more than a cult. Its old-time religious syncretism.

Savoyard philosopher and witness to the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, is best known for the enduring truism, Every country has the government it deserves. Enduring, that is, until the presidency of Donald J. Trump broke it. The final straw was the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. The rag-tag militia that attempted to keep Trump in power against the will of an American majority rammed its way through the Capitol flouting emblems of white nationalism, Confederate flags, Zip-ties and nooses. Yet for every Trump-deserving Q-Anon Shaman and would-be Alt-Right assassin in Januarys anything-but-peaceful assembly, there were five selfie-taking, MAGA-hat-wearing, heretofore law-abiding folks just out supporting their guy. These everymen and women, though most would chafe at the suggestion, deserved better than Trump. For good people to do evil, says Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist once awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal, that takes religion.

I first began this op-ed musing about whether Trump cultists could be deprogrammed. Ive since decided the expression Trump cultist doesnt go far enough. Trump religionist is a better fit. And besides, cult leaders like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite were at least willing to join their followers when the time came to claim their final reward. Trump, in contrast, retreated to the safety of the White House to watch his adrenaline-addled minions finish the helter-skelter he started.

It is often heuristically noted that what separates a cult from a religion is the numbers. While not all of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2020 can be counted as all-in loyalists, those are still some gaudy numbers (eclipsed only by the 81 million who voted for President Joe Biden or, in many cases, simply against Trump).

Before we suggest that a Trumper checkbox be added to religious affiliation questionnaires, we must first answer a question. Dont the Trump faithful already have a religion? The Republican Party (closely though not precisely coterminous with Trumpism) does, at least. According to a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, 73% of the Republican Party identifies as white Christian (compared to just 29% of Democrats). To be fair, some white Christians have found Trump too worldly (to put it kindly) to square with their sincere religious beliefs. But overwhelmingly white Christians and Trump have, for the past five years, been snuggly if unorthodox bedfellows. Too often the embrace has made us squirm. How can we forget the image of Trump holding a Bible awkwardly minutes after teargassing demonstrators to clear his way to St. Johns Church?

We dont often think of Christianity as being adaptable. And yet for it to have, over the past two millennia, made missionary and imperialist inroads all over the globe, it has not only had to coexist alongside of but to have successfully blended with many unchristian things. This mixing is called syncretism. While syncretism customarily combines disparate religious traditions, it sometimes marries a religious tradition and a political movement, party or personage. In the case of American white Christianity and the Republican Party, syncretism has worked largely through the catalyst of Christian historicism, the notion that historical events and key figures are fulfilling prophecies of apocalyptic Biblical literature. Drawing on the intuitions of modern historicisms German architect, G.W.F. Hegel, as quoted by philosopher Karl Popper, The state is the march of God through the world. Viewed in this light, American political drama is inseparable from spiritual drama. The cobbled-together result of this holy union: Christian Nationalism.

Trump isnt the first U.S. President to have landed a starring role in Christian eschatology. Following the events of September 11, 2001, General William G. Boykins stated that, The majority of America did not vote for [President George Bush, Jr.]. Hes in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this. For many white Christians, Republican presidents are upheld as God-backed crusaders going toe-to-toe with the Beast in the prophesied dramas of the end times. The Beastaided by the usual generous interpretations of scripturehas power to assume the form of anyone or anything that requires expedient vilification, ranging from a named political rival to liberal ideologies in general. And when, in the course of a desperate power grab, the standard muckraking of milquetoast public personages and abstruse ideologies fails to provoke the visceral reaction called for to energize the political Rights voting base, the Right is not above getting medieval, going so far as to literally demonize opponents on the political Left.

Calculated to target the disgust reflex in our lizard brains, Right-of-center scaremongers have in recent years produced the shadow play of the Deep State conspiracy, with its well-heeled, black-hatted, elitist, saurian/humanoid avatars hissing character-assassinating lies in back-stairs dealings, their unctuous, scaley hands on the control bars of the public puppets on the Left. While this chiaroscuro shellacking of the Left no doubt helped to secure an Electoral College victory in the 2016 presidential election, it was, by 2020, evidently judged too anodyne for the kind of rabble-rousing needed to ensure a follow-up presidential election victory. To throw wide the floodgates of Right-wing sanctimony, the Alt-Right raconteurs puffed up the playbill with the phantasmagoria of cannibalism, pedophilia and Satanism that is the Q-Anon conspiracy. The result of this double creature feature? A picture of Washington that resembles a Hieronymus Bosch triptych: the foreground depicting half-cannibalized youthful bodies lying prostrate; the background showcasing encroaching flames, silhouetted whip-wielding demons and the instruments of torture. As the prospect of claiming power by legitimate means (winning elections in which all adult Americans vote) becomes more remote for the GOP, one wonders what dark fairytales are to inspire the next fringe Right libel (that even moderate Republicans will have to uncomfortably plug in hopes of sustaining the tawdry productions that keep food on their tables). Having apparently abandoned policy-making as a strength on which to run political campaigns, the Right has come to embrace myth-making as its when-all-else-fails path to power. America even caught them in the creative act on January 6th, as within hours of the storming of the Capitol, we watched their hacks try to blame the insurrection on Antifa agents in sheeps clothing, a pulp fiction even they couldnt sell, as the proud boasts of the sheep were enthusiastically shared on social media, cutting (with dull blades) the legs from under their own spin doctors.

While we cant know which monster masks the Right will pull over its Leftist opponents heads next, we can guess who it intends to pit against these enemies of the Godly state. Unless Jesus himself offers to front the GOP, the man once referred to (with what degree of seriousness, we are left to guess) as God Emperor Trump will be wearing the red trunks in the spiritual showdown to come. For those who think it sacrilege to mention the donkey-riding and wholesome figure of Jesus and the escalator-descending, hedonistic Trump in the same sentence, I remind them that the latter did run his campaign for the 2016 presidential election on a Jesus-like promise. In the context of a morally corrupt landscape, Drain the swamp! and the cleansing of the Temple narrative share a similar thematic ring. But whereas the Son of God overturned the moneychangers tables, the fortunate son was more likely to ensconce his cronies behind them. Though not hawkish on foreign wars, Trump is no Prince of Peace. He is, rather, the undisputed prince of his piece of America. To the rest of us, hes as insoluble as a blank jigsaw puzzle.

For Christians under The Donalds wing, the better-placed obsequiousness evident in the imitation passed naturally from Jesus and landed on the profligate Trump, a more imitable idol for fallen humans. Aping their petulant and rule-flouting worldly messiah, the Trump faithful eschewed masks, tried quack Covid-19 cures, and (years after its relevance in the 2016 election cycle) regaled themselves en masse with repeated chants of, Lock her up!, the orgiastic mantra that will come to characterize Trump rallies for ages to come, and which, to an alien anthropologist, might appear indistinguishable from ten thousand Hindus chanting, Om bhr bhuvah svah, in synchrony. You and I know theres a difference. But wholl deny that those alien anthropologists arent seeing something that we should see too?

Theres much in a Trump rally for a Pentecostal tent preacher to like. Of course, hell be pleased to discover that the man behind the pulpit shares his penchant for off-fashion suites, over-styled hair, superlatives and watchwords, but more importantly, hell appreciate the facility with which the maestro steams up the room, the froth of his warmest invectives against the devil and his consorts forming a collective petrichor in the nostrils of thousands standing by in expectation of a storm, an excoriating deluge the likes of which the world is said to have witnessed only once before. According to some interpretations, when Nineteenth Century poet William Blake wrote his famous line, Among these dark Satanic mills, he was referring to the churches of his day. Watching footage of a mostly-unmasked Trump rally during the Coronavirus pandemic, we peer into a pit blacker than any the hyper-imaginative Blake could have envisioned. The sick puppies spat out by these condemnable mills proved the sort that, offered the chance, would do their business in the marble corridors of the U.S. Capitol.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, recognizes the mechanism at work in rallies, congregations, masses and marches: the hive switch, a groupish overlay, a state of self-transcendence elucidated in the 1890s by sociologist mile Durkheim. Quoting Haidt, Durkheim believed that these collective emotions pull humans fully but temporarily into the higher of our two realms, the realm of the sacred, where the self disappears and collective interests dominate. As psychologist William James pointed out in the Varieties of Religious Experience, such states, however deeply felt, are transient, ordinarily persisting no more than an hour or two, after which they, fade into the light of common day. But with social media, the atmosphere can be returned to and sustained between live events. Through the membership-confirmatory vehicle of shares, likes and replies, enmeshment in the hive need never be more than a click away. Facebook and Twitter act like a continuous Oxytocin drip that chemically maintains the intragroup bond so firmly galvanized at a Trump rally. If Trump himself, harrowed in Mara Lago in a social media blackout, can no longer administer the drip, his apostles surely will. There will be a second coming, we are assured; he has vowed, after all, to return in some form.

White Christians are used to seeing their favorite televangelists fall to scandal, forgiving those who, in the damage-controlling presser, most convincingly shift blame to the devils machinations. They are accustomed as well to doubling down on their own embarrassing metaphysics in the face of damning scientific scrutiny, not to mention explaining away their Gods contradictory words and actions in libraries-worth of theodicies and apologetics. Gaining the loyalty of a troupe of moral contortionists has its perks, as Trump has discovered. The big lie of widespread voter fraud, it turns out, flourishes in a shared space with the mysteries of Christian metaphysics. Too nebulous, intangible, and unquantifiable to be tested in a laboratory, these claims survive by sheltering in shadow realms imagined to exist beyond reach of our established (and inadequate) truth-seeking instruments, such as science and the courts of law; they thrive in a next-level dark space, more real than reality itself, apprehended only by those possessing the gift of discernment (or access to Fox and Breitbart News, apparently).

Described by some as the Teflon President, Trump remains credible to his followers no matter what he says or does, no matter how the law courts rule, and no matter how the numbers reflect on the bungled policies of his stint in office. Like the Christian God, Trump has been playing three-dimensional chess all along, and if we cant keep up, its our problem. The Christian God, ever evading the lengthening arm of physical law by ducking into sciences as-yet-undiscovered country, is sometimes facetiously referred to by modern critics as the God of the gaps [in knowledge]. With a head-scratching talent for staying ahead of rational criticism, Trump, one foot in his mouth and the other out of step with the times yet in sync with the religious Right voting bloc is deserving of an alliterative nickname (his favorite kind) coined in a similar spirit: God of the gaffes.

For the aspiring dictator Trump, his marriage of state with white Christians couldnt be more convenient. As Christopher Hitchens once suggested in a debate at Emory University, the pairing had worked well for the opportunistic Joseph Stalin, finding in those Christians under his rule the perfect herd animal for the pointy end of his authoritarian staff: says Hitchens, You shouldnt be in the dictatorship business if you are not able to take advantage of a huge reservoir of servility, and credulity, and worship thats already freely handed to you by the Christian predecessors and by the devout.

Perhaps it isnt so much credulity that primes an enthusiast of Christian eschatology to back Trump as well. Not only must the mind of such a one be wide-open; it must also be oxygenated by a heart of darkness. In a 1964 article for Harpers magazine, entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics, social scientist Richard Hofstader provides us with an angiogram of the diseased pump. It shows a craze for politicking on the mere gut-felt suspicion that omnipotent malefactors are plotting to rob U.S. citizens of the America they were promised and to which they are entitled: America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. Delivered nearly sixty years ago, Hofstaders words sound as if they were written with the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 in mind.

In the following excerpt from The Sick Soul chapter of William Jamess The Varieties of Religious Experience, it isnt difficult to identify the paranoid thread that knits together Americas religion and her politics on the Right like a penitents hair shirt: With their grubbing in rat-holes instead of living in the light; with their manufacture of fears, and preoccupation with every unwholesome kind of misery, there is something almost obscene about these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth. Yet to say that this suspicious mood began with Christianity would be to ignore suggestions of game theorists (a subset of evolutionary theorists) that we are descendants of paranoid ancestors who gained an evolutionary leg up on their less anxious species-mates by making more of what Dr. Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, identifies as type 1 cognitive errors (false positives) and fewer type 2 cognitive errors (false negatives). Mistakenly believing that the wind in the willows was a lion (a type 1 cognitive error) came at a low evolutionary cost, that of being a worrywart and passing on worrywart genes. On the other hand, mistakenly believing that a lion was the wind (a type 2 cognitive error) came at the highest possible cost: elimination from the gene pool. To hear eschatologists, Q-Anon conspiracists, Deep State conspiracists, and Trump himself, the wind is never just the wind; its always a lion. The paranoid stylist, in both politics and religion, adopts the attitude expressed in Peter 5:8: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. The strategy of ascribing nefarious agency to every ambiguous thing may once have served humans well. On Americas current religiopolitical landscape, as happened during the Salem Witch Trials and under McCarthyism, its getting people harassed and killed. Just because news footage from January 6th didnt show any actual pitchforks, doesnt mean that a proverbial mob with pitchforks didnt show up that day. By their fruits shall you know them.

On Americas political Right, the paranoid stylists attention flits between the devil we know: crooked Hillary and nervous Nancy, and the devil we dont know: the shadow demons of the Q-Anon and Deep State mythos. These are, to the suspicious psyche, all ephemeral forms of the unclean spirit that answers to the name of change. Feared for its power to push clouds to blot the sun that in this hour shines so warmly on ones haymaking, the winds of change, as the metaphor suggests, originate in nature and are not of mans making. Ever ready to assign agency, the paranoid stylist smells a rat on the wind. His subsequent grandstanding builds toward avowals to contain or exterminate, to drain the swamp, build the wall, and stop the steal. Determined never to move his feast, he takes quixotic aim at the free-floating global zeitgeist of progressivism by firing potshots at its quickly passing dust devils, in whose vortices he wants us to notice Americas hunting rifles, suburbs and Christmases all spinning round and round, about to be carried off forever. Like diverting a hurricane with a nuclear bomb, his broadsides and those of his loyal battalions are doomed to failure, but they release a lot of heat in the process (as well as a lot of fallout). No fan of wind turbines, Trump has nevertheless managed, through the Right-turning revolution of his wound-up cranks, to convert the winds of change into dark energy to keep his towers and resorts lights on, killing more than a few of those blameless birds he claimed to care so much about along the way.

As some of Trumps faithful are having come-to-Jesus epiphanies in jail cells following the January 6th raid on the Capitol, it becomes apparent that, urged by a leader who once stared into a solar eclipse, they spat into the wind.

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The Deification of Donald J. Trump: The Prince of Pieces - The Good Men Project

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