On this issue of the cult of Trumpism, Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism: how did we arrive at this point? Americans, and indeed people from all over the world, want to know what in the hell is going on, in these final days of Trump, the mad king who seems bent on destroying democracy even more so than he has done over the last four years of his presidency. Always a shatterer of norms — and indeed basic, common decency — Trump received a record number of votes in the 2020 election. According to exit polls, Trump received 46.9% of the votes, as compared to Biden’s 51.4%. That means nearly half of Americans, for whatever their reasons, voted Trump. And that 46.9% included, similar to the 2016 presidential election, a significant number of white evangelicals who once again cast their ballots for Trump.
According to Frank Newport in an article on the Gallup site, who cited two different surveys conducted of white evangelicals on or around election day, “The AP VoteCast survey shows that 81% of White evangelical Protestant voters went for Trump this year, compared with 18% who voted for Biden. The Edison exit polls estimate that 76% of White evangelicals voted for Trump, 24% for Biden.
Like any survey (and perhaps more than most surveys because of their complicated methodologies designed to capture both in-person and early/mail-in voting), the numbers produced by both of these research endeavors are estimates with margins of error around them. But even with these caveats understood, it is clear that Trump received the significant majority of the White evangelical vote.”
Although it’s clear that white evangelicals have long tended to vote Republican — going back as far as a majority who voted for George W. Bush — what is different today is the rabidly loyal, cult-like following that Trumpism has become. I went looking for answers….and what better place to find them than with Jared Yates Sexton, co-host together with Nick Hauselman of The Muckrake Podcast? A keen political analyst, Sexton discussed with me in a recent episode of MindShift Podcast the historical background that explains a great deal of what’s going on currently.
Essentially, to understand it all, think of a toxic mix of mythologies that have all come together to form the cult of Trump: Christian nationalism, American exceptionalism, the Christian Right, and conspiracy theories. Combine those all together, add in a wannabe dictator/strongman who admires other strongmen rulers, and you have the mess that America is in today. And despite Biden’s victory, it is certain that he and Harris will have an incredibly tough uphill slog to bring a deeply divided, polarized nation together. This is also not to mention unravelling the economic and environmental raging dumpster fires that Trump has left in his wake.
In other words, according to Sexton, what explains the current situation is the backstory to it all. One must examine carefully the history of both Christianity itself and America. Well, not history so much, but more like the mythologies that people convince themselves, over time, are absolutely true. For many diehard Trumpists, these beliefs have come to form the basis of their worldview, and helps to explain why, for example, evangelicals could support such an obviously incompetent and shameless liar who is a blatantly corrupt, womanizing, twice-divorced misogynist and serial abuser of women: Donald Trump.
This backstory also helps to explain, moreover, why they are so rabidly, blindly loyal in their following of him — their Dear Leader who can do or say no wrong — and why they are so angry and hurt that the 2020 election was “rigged” and “stolen” from Trump, the alleged “rightful winner.” In fact, along with the far-right media, another of the major sets of voices amplifying Trump’s conspiracy theories around the allegedly fraudulent election comes from charismatic “prophets and apostles” and the Christian Right.
Constructing a Mythology
Sexton points out that there are at least six key components that make up the cult of Trumpism, which has essentially become a religion based on mythologies, conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking.
- Christian monotheism — in the context of the ancient world, and particularly Rome, all of whom followed forms of polytheistic religions, Christianity’s insistence on monotheism (worship of the “one true God”) set them apart. Whether intentional or unintentional, this move therefore created an “ingroup/outgroup orientation” that marked Christians out as heretics and atheists (as the Romans labeled them). It also, and virtually immediately, produced an “us-vs-them” narrative that was baked into the very DNA of Christianity essentially from its inception.
- A perceived persecution narrative — the above-mentioned belief in monotheism, and ultimately the repudiation of the Roman pantheon of gods, brought early Christianity into conflict with the official state Roman system of worship. Much of the initial persecution of Christians in Rome was due to the fact that they refused to worship official Roman deities, pledging their loyalty to Christ and God instead. Also, Yates does admit that while there certainly was persecution of Christians by various Roman emperors — of that there can be no doubt historically — perhaps the martyrdom was not as bad as we’ve been led to believe in the official recitation of Church history. It is also the case that certain Christians actually sought out martyrdom. But following the decision by the Roman emperor Constantine to make Christianity the official state religion of Rome in the 4th century CE, Christianity ultimately became the oppressor. The victim ultimately became the abuser of others the Church labelled “heretics,’’ apostates or infidels.
And this all had theological warrant, too: Sexton points out that according to by the time of St Augustine of Hippo, there developed the belief in a “wrong persecution” (persecution of Christians by any non-believer or pagan) versus a “right persecution” (persecution of anyone by Christians in the name of God). This same mentality is seen today in the Christian Right’s persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, minorities and immigrants, and Muslims in particular. Of course, despite having had Trump’s ear for the last four years, and incredible amounts of power, influence and money, for decades the Christian Right in America has been promoting a persecution narrative about evangelicals.
Therefore, rather than being seen as the oppressor, an overwhelmingly common belief among evangelicals is that instead Christianity itself is under persecution today. This was seen most recently in the “ungodly” liberal, progressive Obama administration, where major advances were made in terms of rights for certain minority communities. Trump, along with his evangelical backers, has sought to repudiate and overturn as many of these gains as possible over the last four years.
3. Nationalist Christian mythology — after Christianity became a hegemonic force in the West (after Constantine and then the fall of the Western Roman empire), each “Christian” nation created its own narrative — or actually, mythology that may have had little to nothing to do with their actual history. The deeply-entrenched notion that “God is on our side” was “proven” every time one nation defeated another ostensibly Christian nation. Moreover, conflicts could be recast as “fighting a holy or just war” on both this basis, and the examples in the bible of “holy wars” that resulted in genocide and mass slaughter (as commanded by God, according to the text).
Additionally, in this way of thinking, “every war becomes a holy war; every action becomes a holy action” (Sexton). Examples include how the Crusaders shouted “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) as they launched into battles with Muslims, or committed horrific acts of barbarity in the name of God in the Holy Land and elsewhere. In recent history, George W. Bush deliberately used the word “crusade” deliberately to frame America’s response to radical Islamist terrorists after 9/11. America has told itself a version of this same storyline too, which is essentially Christian nationalism combined with American exceptionalism. That mythology has led directly to such doctrines as Manifest Destiny, in which white European-American pioneers and settlers justified theologically and biblically their colonization and human-rights abuses of Native Americans as they moved westward.
4. The myth of American exceptionalism — the deeply-held belief among a great many Christians that God has specially, and specifically, chosen America to be a chosen people, a covenant nation. This obviously rests a great deal on the above point about the Christian nationalist myth too. This also encompasses the notion that God has chosen America to be the arbiters of justice and conveyors of his will worldwide. Thus, the various wars in which America has engaged have been recast in a “holy war” context (as in, for example, the letter that evangelical leaders wrote to GW Bush authorizing theologically/biblically his invasion of Iraq). The belief in American exceptionalism also justified the enslavement of Africans; the brutal colonization of Native American land, massacres and genocides; and the oppression of women, minorities, immigrants, Muslims, etc. As the mythology develops, this is different from our history; “Our history is completely different than our mythology” (Sexton).
5. God is constantly being undermined by supernatural evil — in the Bible, as well as Christian theology/mythology, this involves the notion that there is an invisible, but cosmic war being waged “in the heavenly realms” between the forces of God and Satan. According to Scripture, Satan and his demonic hordes are working overtime to thwart the plans of God, and also to lead non-believers astray to an eternity in Hell. Satan has somehow succeeded in “spiritually blinding” nonbelievers to the truths of the Gospel; therefore, rational argumentation means nothing to the spiritually-dead unbeliever. In addition to this apparent victory, Satan doesn’t just rest on his laurels; he’s also constantly working to lead Christians astray into sin, to sow doubts about the genuineness of their faith and security of their salvation, and the ruination of their lives by tricking them to backslide, thus straying from the path of righteousness. Undoubtedly, then, Satan is the enemy of God, “prowling about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” according to the Scriptures. As an example of this type of thinking, Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White-Cain spoke of a “demonic confederacy” shortly after Election Day that had apparently upset God’s plans for Trump’s re-election.
This belief system is obviously based on many biblical passages, Eph. 2 and 6 being some of the clearest examples. Therefore, when combining the spiritual warfare aspect together with Christian nationalism, the storyline is now complete. Anything bad that happens to America, such as a natural disaster; the Covid-19 pandemic; or even Trump losing the election, are all somehow the result of demonic activity disrupting the plans and purposes of God. That, or it is somehow the judgement of god for America’s corporate sins.
The words of Jerry Falwell Sr after 9/11, appearing together with Pat Robertson on The 700 Club, is one of the clearest examples of how this type of thinking works — evangelicals tend to connect natural disasters or terror attacks on “corporate sins” of America because the country violated the covenant it originally had with God. This belief comes out of the Christian nationalist/American exceptionalism mythology, in which the Puritans saw themselves as a “replacement” for God’s original chosen people, the Israelites. Guided by its righteous Founding Fathers — themselves staunch believers, according to this narrative — America therefore entered into a covenant agreement with God from its inception. This is what Sexton refers to with his trope of America becoming “the cult of the shining city” — it is from the United States that the “good news” will be broadcast to the rest of the world. According to this line of thinking, as with Old Testament Israel, obedience to the covenant brought blessings from God; disobedience brought curses and judgement. The other side of this coin is that bad things can also be blamed on humanity’s lack of faith, lack of holiness or commitment, or even on satanic activity.
6. Conspiracy theories — when combined with #5, conspiratorial thinking is one seemingly inevitable result. Typically, when people in a nation feel powerless to change things, or to control their world, that oftentimes leads to conspiracy theories to explain it all. Someone else is to blame for the way things are going — but who is to blame, exactly? In conspiratorial thinking, it’s always the mysterious “they” (whoever it is — the Illuminati, the deep state, international Jews, a shadowy cabal, etc.). “They” are really the ones pulling the strings and running the world. Conspiracy theories, when combined with the first five elements, also leads to the following: wars of conquest; the white Christian identity movement that led us to Trump; Islamophobia and the Muslim ban; oppression of the LGBTQ+ community (battling against “the homosexual agenda”); and finally, the shocking and inhumane treatment of immigrants at the US/Mexican border. Everybody knows that there were Middle Eastern terrorists and violent MS-13 gang members mixed in with those “caravans.” In Trump’s conspiratorial way of thinking, they were recast as more of an invading horde of bad actors, rather than the truth: a group of desperate people fleeing violence, seeking political asylum, or simply the promise of a better life in America.
Trumpists who hold up Donald Trump as a messiah figure factors into all of this mentality also. Why exactly? In this conspiratorial, distorted view of reality, Trump is the savior who is going to save us from all these various malign forces. It also explains why, for example, in the cult of QAnon, adherents revere Trump as the one who’s going to bring down the “deep state” and put an end to the Democratic-controlled cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, locking up all of the offenders in Guantanamo Bay prison.
While there are certainly many other factors that could be added to the above list that helps to explain the cult of Trumpism, and the rabidly loyal evangelical base that makes up a vast percentage of it, Sexton’s argument is clear: the cult of Trumpism is an amalgam of mythologies, and not actual histories. It’s what people believe to be true is what really counts, and not “what actually happened.” Their privileged interpretation of the events of the past, and the mythology it has turned into, carries the most weight. Taken together, when such a mentality is combined with conspiracy-theory laden thinking, the picture starts to become a bit clearer.
Can one reason with the diehard Trumpist? Should this even be attempted, and is it possible to break through the strong cultic mentality of his ultra-loyal base?
In our interview, I posed that question to Sexton. In order to find out what his answer was, and to hear the rest of this excellent and thought-provoking interview, click the episode link below to find out more.
Episode Link on iTunes
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