Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Bloom is Off the Rose? Looking Over the Border at Donald Trump

Americans will vote for whom they will. That is the character and nature of democracy, however imperfectly realized. And, I have listened too long and too often to people explaining that "we" (whomever "we" is) can disregard the leaders of Country X or Country Y because that leader has not *really* been elected democratically, not really ... to cast that line at the US. I am skeptical about it when American leaders use it, I won't use it against the US.

This said, just about everyone and their dog wants to try to explain Donald Trump. Canadians -- who, of necessity, must look across the border -- perhaps as much or more than others. Just about every day there is another column explaining Trump's popularity. I have my own views, some of which will come out in this blog. But, I think focusing on recent history -- the alienation of the white middle and working classes, for instance -- misses some key points that can be provided by an assessment that takes into account a longer time span, even if only slightly longer. Trump, I will suggest, is a combination of a series of historical processes. He is one of those figures about whom we might say: if he did not exist, he'd have to be invented. In other words, Trump's popularity likely has little to do with Trump himself and more to do with a series of trajectories that expose the fault lines of American society and the ways in which certain cultural and ideological trends have come to fulfillment. What might these be? Several. Let me address one in this blog and come back to others in future blogs.

Let's begin with the influence of Christianity on American politics. Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Trump is a Christian or that Christianity, whatever that might precisely be in abstract, is responsible for Trump. What I am trying to say is that American Christianity is an unstable ideology. Christians can show up in a North Carolina we-are-desperate-to-find-some-way-to-still-legally-discriminate-against-gays-law and in Michael Moore films. We could spend a great deal of time -- perhaps profitably -- arguing about what constitutes true Christianity, but we'll save that for some other day. For now, what we need to understand is that being a Christian means different things to different people. While I have a strong sense that this is changing, Christian has come to mean certain things in US public life where it is associated not with the moderation of Obama but with conservative views. And, conservative views have, themselves, come to be associated with opposition to gay equality, patriarchal views, support for neo-liberalism, opposition to women's control of their own bodies, and matters like that. In other words, it is not a conservatism that Canadians in the Red Tory tradition would easily recognize or claim. Nor, does it represent the genial paternalistic conservatism of old east coast elite Republicans. I'll come back to that because it is important.

I read a story the other day saying that American conservative evangelical leaders are not sold on Trump and making his selection of a VP candidate -- someone to their liking -- a test of whether or not they will support him. But, that might not be relevant at all. Polls in the last few primaries showed that self-identified Christians were voting for Trump in greater numbers than Cruz (who had self-identified himself as their champion) and this is without any urging from their leaders. IOW, self-identifying conservative evangelicals in the US were already moving to Trump. Why?

That is not an idle question. Trump has little to do with Christianity in just about any form. His moral standards simply don't meet the standards that conservative evangelicals set for society. So, what does their support of him say? It might say that there is some hypocrisy here, but I'd be loath to use that term. Instead, I think that conservative American Christianity is more a syncretic religion than a Christian religion and Trump captures a great deal of the syncretism. He claims, for instance, to love scripture and the Bible yet knows little about it. Oddly, only his critics (say, liberals) have pointed this out. He claims to support Christianity, yet his personal behaviour indicates that his support is shaky at best (let's skip over the marriage issues he's had to think about injunctions to modesty, building up with praise, being a good neighbour, loving God and your neighbour, feeding the poor, etc.).  Trump's Christianity, if we can call it that, is a Christianity that does not take scripture seriously. It does not struggle with it; it does not wrestle with its implications; it does not shun the love of money as the root of all the world's problems; it is not self-sacrificial but self-aggrandizing. Said differently, even if we can say with some certainty (and, I think we can) that American Christianity is an unstable ideological formation, Trump's appeal to Christians -- and, he does appeal, or so polls tell us -- is odd.

Many Christians are, rightly, willing to forgive and forget and not be judgmental. And, that is right. From what I know it is a scripturally sound principle. But, they are not willing to forgive and forget some people and Trump articulates this. They are not, for instance, willing to believe that Mexicans should be forgiven and that judgement should be left to God. The folks in North Carolina seem to harbour a special animosity to trans-gendered people who, without evidence or reason, they view as a threat to their children. Even if one could argue that there is a forgiving and moving on with regard to Trump (which would be fair from a Christian perspective), there is that odd problem that the same thing does not seem to apply to other people whose sins are far less evident. Indeed, they are people who, in many ways, with whom one might find a meeting of minds. Many are Christians, many came to the US to make a better world for their children (family values), and many work in horribly-paid jobs with little future in order to make that happen (hard word, self-sacrifice). Yet, there is a desire to build a wall and to deport.

We could, given the time, draw a bunch of other connections: cherry-picking of scripture, commitment to consumerism, adoption of the culture of the world, hostility and anger (supporting someone who suggests that protesters should be violently assaulted) ... These things come together in an odd combination when merged with American Christianity.

The more important question is: what are we to make of this? Well, we should not take the popularity of Trump as an indication of the stupidity of Americans. For those of us who are not Americans -- who watch US life from across the border -- this injunction is even more true. Nor, do I think, should we focus on Trump as a person. Instead, what is most interesting and important about Trump is not who he is but what he signifies. He is, as I said above, someone who would have had to have been invented if he did not already exist. Perhaps, in some ways, he has been invented (but I'll comment on that in the future). Trump's popularity, for this reason, can become a bit of an ethnographic study. It can show us things about the evolution and current state of American culture. What we can understand in his popularity, then, is several trends and the first of these I'd argue is a syncretic religion. A Christianity that has detached itself from scripture (for Trump's Christian supporters) and, in important ways, ignores it.  This syncretic religion is a religion that is interested in statements of faith -- overt and loud commitments to the Bible or scripture -- but seemingly also uninterested in what is said after that loud commitment (a statement of protection for Christmas, say) has been made and whether or not it illustrates any understanding whatsoever of scripture.

This is not hypocrisy, I am arguing. It represents a syncretic blend of Christianity with other, secular perspectives that for a long time and by an influential group of Christians have been associated with Christianity in the US (say, concerns about immigration or the equality of women). This does not, in any way, represent all Christians but what it shows is that for some Christianity has become a syncretic religion that accepts decidedly unChristian elements fusing them into some new religious perspective that finds, in Trump, an image worth of support. The syncretic religion did not make Trump but, I suggest, it is one of the things that made him possible.
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