Many academic disciplines can be consulted to explain the on-going tragedy of the Trump administration. History can give us a sense of the precedents, the shameful nativist tradition in groups like the Know Nothings and the John Birch Society. One could use the language of sociology to explain how the white working and middle classes enthusiastically supported a candidate manifestly not in their interests. An economist could model how stagnant wages and the increasing financial gulf resulted in an anti-status quo vote with disastrous consequences while ironically bolstering the elite. A foreign policy analyst could examine the ways in which Trump embodies a revanchist anti-liberalism, a nascent internationalist fascism which serves as a worrying harbinger of future reaction. Rhetoricians could analyze how Trump’s oratory, often maligned as a jumble of word salad, was carefully calibrated with social media to market the politician. So many hot-takes and columns have been devoted to a man who is so obviously odious that you’d avoid sitting next to him on the subway; so much of our mental energy has been consumed with this self-evidently damaged soul. As Katy Waldman wittily asked in an insightful column for Slate last month: “What’s left to discuss when you’ve discussed everything, and nothing has changed?” So, from my perspective, one of the most insightful methods of approaching Trump is theology.
I speak not just of the ways in which a profoundly irreligious man is able to conveniently don the minister’s figurative frock when it serves his purposes, mouthing spiritual inanities and corrupted civil religion as he did at the State of the Unio. All empty faith, dog whistles, and red meat to his base. Rather, I write of the actual metaphysical qualities which define a man so rapacious, lustful, gluttonous, lazy, entitled, wrathful, and most of all vainglorious. Theology is capable of explaining a man who has so emboldened evil, as philosopher Susan Neiman has argued. And if Trump’s soul is so diseased, what does it imply about our nation that he’s been empowered to lead it?
I’ve already written about Trump’s unholy alliance with conservative white evangelicals before; in a manner far more effective than myself, religion writer Jeff Sharlet has considered the same question. Sharlet points out that it does no good to only observe that there is a hypocrisy about Trump’s religious supporters, since Trump’s religion is its own kind of twisted faith. Sharlet writes that “no other major modern figure has channeled the tension that makes Scripture endure, the desire, the wanting that gives rise to the closest analogue to Trumpism… the American religion of winning.” There is much that can be said about this particular strain of reactionary, jingoistic fundamentalist Protestantism, and the actual role it has played in right-wing politics from antebellum justifications for slavery through the latest incarnation of fascism that is Trumpism. But when I say that theology can be used to explicate Trump’s spiritual malignancy and the unfortunately outsize role that he plays in our national consciousness, I mean not simply tracing policy connections between various religious interest groups, but considering the metaphysics of the man’s soul itself – and the disastrous effect such a sadly shriveled thing has on the rest of us.
Trump’s is the sort of personality which John the Revelator would have been able to insightfully parse, while meditating in ecstasy on some Patmos grove. The president’s very personality can seem Caligulan, a type of Nero for an American colosseum who rather than giving us bread-and-circuses bestows on us never-ending tweets. As that biblical author was able to (albeit in allegorical form) critique the tyranny of the most powerful rulers of his world, so too can theology illuminate the diseased consciousness of the most powerful man in our world.
Historians like Timothy Snyder and Masha Gessen have deftly charted the similarities and connections between both past and present authoritarianisms around the world with Trump’s current manifestation of that odious political methodology. And yet, Trump’s embodiment of authoritarianism seems so finely calibrated to the American psyche, combining as it does those myths of the boot-strapping rugged individualist, the revival preacher, and the snake-oil salesman, that it’s important to consider not just what’s sui generis about Trump, but indeed what’s particularly American about him. Writing in The Atlantic, historian Julian E. Zelizer astutely observes that it feels difficult to consider Trump because “Americans see too much of themselves in him. He is the mirror that exposes the nation’s contradictions.”
Trump’s performance of a certain type of fast-food engorged, porn-obsessed, corpulent, digital depravity is so manifestly an incarnation of our worst national ideals, that the closest parallels to Trump as an authoritarian seem not to be a Viktor Orban or even a Vladimir Putin, but rather the Roman emperors. That is to say that more than any other aspiring dictator, Trump most reminds me of the sovereigns who presided over a similarly decadent empire in decline, this one some two millennia ago; which is why the vocabulary of Patmos might be that which is adequate for this particular moment.
Elizabeth Bruenig at The Washington Post channels the analytical acumen of an Augustin or an Aquinas when she observes that Trump is “insulated from consequence by power, money and fame in a way not imaginable to the ordinary person. He is the freest man alive.” She recounts all of the strange, childish, abusive, and petty actions of Trump, from spying on dressing beauty queens to demanding two-scoops of ice-cream at White House dinners while everyone else is only allowed one. Trump exemplifies a nihilistic, selfish freedom, one where there are no consequences. But there is also a sense, as Bruenig perhaps implies, that Trump is ironically the least free of men as well. Quoting Aristotle, she observes that “where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man.”
Trump’s world, as deftly if salaciously recounted in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, is a petty, small, miserable, anxious, angry one. Images of the bathrobe clad leader of the free world madly pawing at his phone with KFC greased fingers. Who among you would actually want to be Donald Trump? What emerges is a portrait of one who has accumulated everything he wants, even the presidency, and yet who does nothing to enrich or empower the citizens whom he ostensibly governs on the behalf of, preferring to enact revenge on his perceived enemies. Of a man so limited and incurious, so incapable of any fraternal, romantic, or loving connection with another human being (seeing all relationships as simply transactional) that he is seemingly incapable of genuine laughter, being only partial to the sneer. Laughter, such a basic human response, which the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said was the “language of the soul.” What Charles Dickens or even Christopher Marlowe could have made of a spirit as ugly as Trump’s!
Or C.S. Lewis, who so effectively married the imagination to the theological. As clear-headed an observer of both human goodness and fallenness as any author, there is a passage in his classic of Christian apologetics, 1945’s The Great Divorce, which seems to presciently describe our current president. Structured as a dream vision, Lewis describes the psychology of figures in both heaven and hell, including a character led about on a chain by a demonic dwarf who represents his myriad appetites, and who has been spirited to a heaven he cannot experience from a hell which he cannot escape. Lewis writes that he never “saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy. For he had almost been overcome. Somewhere, incalculable ages ago, there must have been gleams of humour and reason in him.” So it is with a creature like Trump, for whom whatever has happened to him in the past has resulted in this joyless and unempathetic man, a being who told a group of evangelical voters “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness” (and yet so many still support him). Lewis understood that sophisticated theology teaches that hell isn’t some geographical location reached by drilling into the earth (or fracking?), but rather that hell is a perspective, a mindset, a distance from man and from God. The 17th century poet John Milton described it as such in his epic Paradise Lost, when his Lucifer exclaims “Myself am Hell;/And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep,/Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide;/To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” A Trumpian image, isn’t it? The fallen demon so divorced from any connection and so deep in his own perdition that he mistakes his excess and his power as a type of happiness.
In suggesting that there must be something hellish about the experience of being Trump, I am not trying to engender any sort of sympathy for the man. Questions of his redemption are between him and those he harms, and then to whatever God he directs his prayers. Instead, I worry about what the implications are that such a man occupies so much of our attention, colonizing our very consciousness, dominating not just our livelihood but our inner lives.
Does such a small, angry, cruel man not risk making all of us small, angry and cruel? Does the bully pulpit threaten to turn us all into bullies? That is not to minimize the very real material repercussions of his policies, or the callousness and cruelty of his administration. The assaults on immigrants and workers, women and LGBTQ individuals, Muslims and African-Americans are sadly very real. But I also fear the intangible results of his rhetoric, of his perspective, and his emboldening of hate. If Trump is in his own hell, I worry that every day he threatens to pull us into it with him. Mephistopheles’ said in Marlowe’s 16th century play Dr. Faustus that “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” something I understand every time I receive a new push notification. This is the peculiar logic of the autocrat – he demands attention and you no longer have the option to direct your interests outward, to be free of him. His ultimate ideology is narcissism, and his only faith is himself.
But if Trumpism is just a new manifestation of that particular type of dark religion, we can answer its machinations with our own faith. For though the means of resistance must always be directed outward, we also cannot neglect the inward. Necessity compels us to march, organize, protest, and most of all vote, but it also compels us to reflect, meditate, and pray. We need not regain the system for the price of our souls, for to carve out a place of identity independent of Trump is not that narcotic of ignorance, but rather the building of our own personal independence from the authoritarian, who will one day thankfully be gone (as all authoritarians ultimately are). Where his life is empty, ours must be full; as he is incurious, we must be alive to wonder; where he is brimming with hate, we must at least try to embrace love. For ultimately, that is not only the most effective rebuke, but also simply that which we are fighting for.
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A frequent contributor at several sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post Religion will be released by Zero Books in November of 2018. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.
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