Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Trump Church" (on Donald Trump's personal brand of religiosity)

trump church

By now most of us have been reminded that the presidential presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, does not just put his name on tall buildings, hotels, casinos, and golf courses, but on wine, steaks, water, ties, and even a “university.” While he falsely claims he is the “king” of several things, he surely is a prince of branding. Now, if we can believe scholar Peter Manseau’s Los Angeles Times op-ed, Trump can claim a new religion.*
      Manseau convincingly argues that what Trump is offering many of his supporters is “a belief that will bring about our national salvation.” Despite knowing very little about the family Bible he often clutches to his chest, and the fact that he has openly admitted that he has never asked God for forgiveness—a fact that suggests is has a very loose relationship with his professed savior—Trump is so popular with his mostly Christian, working-class supporters because he offers them a new kind of religion. As Manseau writers:

                   The religiosity of Trumpism…is not dependent on his
                   level of religious literacy. The Church of Trump draws 
                   from a deeper well—specifically from what the sociolo-
                   gist Emile Durkheim called the “elementary forms of
                   a religious life.”
                        A century ago, Durkheim proposed in a book by that

                   title that religion might be defined as a system of beliefs
                   and practices that unites a community through the
                   experience of “collective effervescence.” The euphoria
                   of losing oneself in a crowd is projected onto a sacred
                   object as if it is its source, when in reality the collective
                   feeling and the sense of sacredness feed off each other,
                   distancing both from all that is considered profane.

      The author points to Trump’s own categorizing of the world in terms of “winners” or “losers,” a kind of shorthand for believers and sinners; and by offering his congregants the sacred “winning” side, he offers them also a protection from all outsiders, including Muslins, Mexicans, and “low-energy losers.” Even his argument to build a wall, calls up an attempt to strengthen the borders between believers and all others, what Durkheim described of as the “the limit of the collective personality.”
     For both Trump and his believers his message is clearly a messianic one: not only will the members of Trump Church be “winners,” but, as he has proclaimed time and again, “we’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored.” A tweet expressed his message much better: “If I win all of the bad things happening in the U.S. will be rapidly reversed.” And his followers are motivated, as Manseau notes, “by a kind of faith: They believe in the man, and in his promise that all their losing will come to end.”
      Perhaps that explains why, when a Trump supporter in Burlington, Vermont responded to a CNN reporter’s question, “What do you think of Donald Trump?” he answered: “I don’t need to think; he’s my man.” Religious zealots and gurus generally absolve their believers from thinking and encourage them to rely simply on faith.
      While nearly all religions have based much of their scriptures and canons on obvious myths, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods, however, the Trump Church is an almost entirely based on a series of lies. That the country is in absolute decline and laughed at by most the world’s great nations, that he will suddenly be able to transform a failing economy with the exodus of millions of Mexicans, that he will be able to protect us from fear and physical harm by refusing entry to the people of any country who has had supported radical Anti-American viewpoints or itself seen radical Islamic uprisings, that he might even be able to build a wall and have the Mexican government pay for it, that his seemingly isolationist positions will help make America great again, all outright nonsense—as anyone with even a little bit of knowledge about these issues can tell you. But, as with most religions, such “truths” matter little to the church-goers.
      In fact, Trump’s brand of demagoguery is grounded, very assuredly, in a previous time, in the horrible period of the modern American witchcraft trials of Joseph McCarthy through Trump’s own personal mentor, Roy Cohn. Cohn, as McCarthy’s legal counsel was deeply involved in the senator’s attacks on gays and American Communist members, and personally worked to see Julius and Ethel Rosenberg tried and executed for espionage. 
     Trump, as The New York Times and other papers have recently revealed, friended Cohn early in his career, and Cohn remained his advisor and associate until that man’s death by AIDS in 1986. Trump was one of the few people whom Cohn confided to that he was gay, and called him to discuss his AIDS diagnosis. Trump carried a photograph of Cohn in the top drawer of his desk, presumably to intimidate individuals with whom he was negotiating. And you can hear Cohn and McCarthy’s highly exaggerated claims and finger-pointing in almost every one of Trump’s speeches. (The very moment I wrote this sentence, Trump proclaimed on television: “Hilary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States.”; and earlier in the same speech he claimed that Secretary of State Clinton had been personally responsible for the loss of thousands of lives: if the first is a ridiculous opinion, the second is a just a lie.)
      The fear of going back to that time of mad “spiritual” fervor—to a time when anyone who others claimed “is not one of us” were hounded and his or her life destroyed—daily terrifies me.

*The account is based, in part, on the op-ed piece, “The Church of Trump” by Peter Manseau, Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2016.

Los Angeles, June 22, 2016