Toward the end of the Second Great Awakening, a series of revivals that marked the first half of the American 19th Century, one Baptist preacher named William Miller confidently predicted that “Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.” Based on his complex calculations derived from the Bible, the minister was certain that the millennium would arrive no later than that spring day, when melting snow often still blankets the woods of the preacher’s native upstate New York.
At the height of his movement there were numerous Millerites across the United States, with some historians estimating that believers may have numbered close to half a million. When the appointed March 21st came and passed without the breaking of the seals, the blowing of Gabriel’s trumpet, or the appearance of Christ in the heavens, both former believers and the press called the anticlimactic non-apocalypse “The Great Disappointment.” Miller’s error, however, did not lead to the dissolution of Milleritism, for those who still kept the faith were quickly able to proffer explanations as to why their leader hadn’t been in error, though with plain eye it was obvious that the world hadn’t ended.
Miller was by all accounts a pious and steadfast man, a veteran of the War of 1812, and a decent, patriotic minister who upon his conversion remarked with genuine religious fervor that his entire countenance should be transfixed upon that “Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin.” As a diverse and complicated movement, the Second Great Awakening encompassed a variety of beliefs, not just the crackpot sort that we associate with apocalyptic cults, but decent politically progressive ones as well. Which is all just to say that neither Miller nor his followers had much in common with one Donald J. Trump.
Save for a particular thing, perhaps a quality implicit in all cults – a complete and utter disregard for the contours of objective reality. In his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, author Kurt Andersen argues that such irrationality is not just a phenomenon born of human psychology, but that it is particularly implicit in the American national character. He identifies the tendency of “letting the subjective entirely override the objective, [and] people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts” as being characteristic of American “magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanations, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.” In that regard, there is a common characteristic between Miller’s followers waiting for the world to end and Trump’s followers seeing him “Make America Great Again,” holding to their faith regardless of all evidence to the contrary.
Awash in declarations that anything unfavorable is “fake news,” as if such a mantra could nullify all that his supporters don’t like, pining with eschatological yearning for the moment when America will be made “great again,” and policing the contours of national “purity,” Trumpism is far from a benign cult, but rather the most dangerous and destabilizing movement in the world today. For the most extreme of his partisans, “American greatness” is a millennial moment, with some factions of the far-right referring to their messianic president as the “Emperor God.” By all appearances, as we approach the mid-point of Trump’s second year in office, that is what Trumpism has become – a millenarian personality cult which invests its leader with an arbitrary, relativistic authority where he can define “truth” as being whatever he says it is, which psychologically justifies all manner of transparently corrupt and malignant policies embraced by his adherents.
Such a diagnosis was made by Greg Grandin in The Nation last January, who upon analyzing Trump supporters’ unwillingness to ever condemn any aspect of the administration, or to explain away the myriad inconsistencies in thought and behavior exhibited by the president, as being hallmarks of extremist religion. Grandin explains that “Trumpism is a death cult.” Don’t take this as the assessment of another liberal with so-called “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” None other than Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was an early supporter of Trump, argues much the same thing, as reported by Jordan Carney in The Hill on Wednesday that “We are in a strange place. I mean, it’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation.” If that doesn’t strike you, then consider the president’s own son, Donald Trump Jr., who in response to Senator Corker’s accusation bragged to the hosts of Fox and Friends that if their movement is a “cult it’s because they like what my father is doing.”
Certainly, any number of politicians in U.S. history, from across the political divide, have inspired a fervency among their most devoted supporters. Charisma, oratory, and choreographed political theater all contributed to the mythmaking which bolstered the support of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. However, the current situation departs from those earlier examples because the most committed enthusiasts for those previous figures supported them due to their political positions, not in spite of them. As such there was a tethering to objective reality that the hard-core fringe of Trumpists have abandoned. While most people will rationalize away their favored politicians’ inconsistencies, the majority of Trump supporters seem to completely overlook not only his deviations from conservative orthodoxy (which could at least be offered as an explanation for his initial support), but his relentless, dizzying flip-flops on his own positions as well.
To borrow from the president’s own anemic vocabulary, consider the “tremendous” example of how with whip-lash alacrity he’s gone from condemning North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man” to now appraising him as a “very talented” young man who “loves his country.” Most worryingly, and maybe with a bit of envy, Trump stated that Kim’s “people love him,” perhaps thinking of the terrifying and obviously staged mass pageants in North Korea. If we were only reflecting on a politician being inconsistent in rhetoric that would be one thing, and even if we were only still discussing the foreign policy contradictions that allowed the administration to abandon the relatively strict Iranian nuclear deal while embracing a flimsy agreement with Kim that gets nothing while conceding much, we could simply chalk that up to Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s exceeding amateurishness.
Where we do see intimations of a cult are in the right-wing media’s reaction to the Singapore photo-op, with Fox News correspondent Sandra Smith attacking Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for his criticism of Kim, asking the senator if his condemnation of one of the most murderous tyrants on Earth was actually “about the president.” In just a few months we’ve gone from threatening to reign down “fire and fury” on North Korea to our equivalent of state-run media defending that country’s Stalinist regime, all because Trump happens to like Kim after they got lunch together. Cliché often has the ring of truth, so I’ll say without too much critical embarrassment that the whole thing has a whiff of Orwell about it.
Something has been fermenting within the more extreme currents of contemporary American conservatism for a while, something that in Trumpism seems to finally be metastasizing into a full-on political cult. That the hallmarks of this particular cult, Trumpism’s casual cruelty, valorization of garish commercialism, and vulgarity seem a far cry from the sorts of millenarian, communal groups we associate with periods like the 19th century Second Great Awakening religious revivals is of no accounting. Rather the death cult that is Trumpism has completely subsumed the GOP, so that now the standard bearers for the party of Lincoln are men like Corey Stewart, the Minnesota-born Confederate apologist and avowed white supremacist who was selected as Virginia’s GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Representative Steve King of Iowa, who unapologetically retweeted a prominent British neo-Nazi last week.
There is a disingenuousness among moderate Republicans who cynically brainwashed the bulk of their supporters with Fox News conspiracies for the better part of a generation only to now find themselves actually governed by the sorts of folks who believe those theories. At Esquire, Charles Pierce makes the important point that the cultist perspective of Trump supporters has been inculcated on the right for a very long time. The disregard for the truth, the defense of anything no matter how heinous, the dehumanization of marginalized people – all of this runs so deep and for so long that at The New Republic last month Kevin Baker made a credible argument that it’ll take truth and reconciliation committees for our nation to sort out the disarray in which we find ourselves.
What is there to be done in the meantime? Conservative Never Trumpers not only have a role, they have a responsibility in grappling with the fruits of a cynical legacy that allowed Trump to come to power. The rest of us are tasked with every legal means to remove the president and his supporters from their positions of power. What we must contend with is that we’re dealing with not a traditional political adversary, but a death cult. Good faith liberals who hold that dialogue and rational argumentation will somehow convince the hard-core of Trump’s supporters that they’re wrong are motivated by a stunning naivety. They’d do well to keep in mind the observation of the religious studies scholar Richard Landes, who observed that “millennial grand narratives carry an elating coherence that skeptical dismissals cannot hope to touch, and even postmodernism does not escape.” He explains that millennial conspiratorial worldviews “are the mother of all grand narratives,” and so for Trump’s most extreme supporters there is no evidence that can be presented to make them reconsider their positions.
It is, of course, a moral duty to engage our fellow citizens in dialogue, but the hope that such discourse will convert hardcore Trump supporters in any great number is a strategically losing proposition. If some Trump voters should realize their error then all the better, but the most important legal and political goal of the Democratic party must be both getting out the vote for likely supporters and ensuring that those who want to and can vote are able to do so. Diverging resources from that goal in the hopes of convincing people who can’t be convinced that they’re wrong would be a profound misstep.
Trump may be distant in demeanor and theology from the preachers and founders of intentional communities which marked that earlier period in American history, but he’s developing a cult which denies objective reality as fully as Miller’s partisans awaiting to greet Christ on his return one warm day in 1844. If anything, it’s the particular fusion of fundamentalist Protestantism, predatory capitalism, and P.T. Barnum-style confidence man grift that makes Trumpism such a particularly American malignant faith. We should scarcely be shocked that he’s arrived, all the dark currents of our culture have predicted him from the beginning.
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.