It’s hardly surprising that the perfect symbol of the democratic crisis created by the Trump “presidency” would be found in one of his tweets, and it’s fitting that the tweet arrived on the Fourth of July, a day dedicated to celebrating our long history of resistance to egomaniacal, self-serving, out-of-touch, petty, petulant tyrants. What is distressing is how unsurprising all of this is. Months of constantly embarrassing, un-presidential, and blatantly dishonest behavior by Donald Trump has so numbed us to the erosion of our national stability that the outcry over this latest horror was decidedly muted.
We ignore or understate the multivalent dangers of this particular tweet, however, at our grave peril. In it, a choir from a fundamentalist Christian mega-church appears at the Kennedy Center to perform a cloying, orchestral recreation of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s tweet can be found here. The jingoistic doggerel that comprises the lyrics can be found here.
It is difficult to know where to begin in listing all of the problems with this tweet. Perhaps the easiest place is the largest target: Donald Trump’s stunning lack of comprehension of how to behave in a presidential manner. Rather than celebrating the Fourth by sharing a rendition of a traditional song from the patriotic canon, one all Americans might find unifying, Donald Trump chose to further hammer our citizens with a divisive campaign slogan. Rather than making the Fourth of July about our ancestors’ sacrifices, Donald Trump made the holiday about himself, and rather than seeking an opportunity to unite, he found one more opportunity to divide. That is his “presidential” modus operandi in a nutshell.
The slogan itself is also deeply problematic. Donald Trump responded to eight years of economic, social, diplomatic, political, environmental, and technological progress by claiming that the past decade was a time when America’s “greatness” had been sacrificed, and that we needed to move in a new direction, undoing that progress, to make America “great” again. One wonders who could look at the Obama legacy of prosperous industries, greater equality and fairness, increased international respect, protection from voter suppression, cleaner air and water, and drives toward freedom from fossil fuels and think, “This is terrible! We need to reverse all of this!”
A quick look at the video Trump gleefully posted provides an answer. In it we see a uniformly white crowd of aging, suburban boomers, some even wearing the pearls they presumably clutch in fear as they are fed a steady diet of unsubstantiated ignorance and unfiltered bigotry. This is hardly surprising considering the demographics of Trump voters, but the tone-deaf enthusiasm with which Trump tweeted an all-white choir chanting his reactionary slogan further underscores the racism and xenophobia underlying his campaign’s message of returning to the “good ol’ days.”
Of course, equally problematic is the fact that this is a church choir singing this Orwellian piece of propaganda, which its creator chose to classify as a hymn. As history consistently teaches us, prostituting the Church in the service of Empire never ends well. More surreal, though, is the fact that any Christian group anywhere would have chosen Donald Trump and his slogan as the inspiration for their song.
Yet the overwhelming support of Donald Trump by fundamentalist Christians is well-documented, and ongoing. On the surface, it makes no sense. Trump, after all, has no grasp of Scripture, is a thrice-divorced misogynist who brags about sexually assaulting women, and a professional con-artist and liar whose egocentric self-promotion and lifestyle of venal over-indulgence are the very opposite of Christian piety. This is the man who wrote in Art of the Comeback, “I believe in an eye for an eye – like the Old Testament says” and “Some of the people who forgot to lift a finger when I needed them, when I was down, they need my help now, and I’m screwing them against the wall.” Trump subsequently cited Exodus again during his political campaign, seemingly unaware of Jesus’ categorical rejection of the concept.
Yet, presumably because of his willingness to deny refuge to the stranger; deny healthcare, food, and educational access to the poor; disenfranchise minorities; and, undermine our stewardship of creation, Christian fundamentalists have flocked to his side. This only makes sense if we recognize that Christian fundamentalism (or “conservative evangelicalism” as its proponents prefer to label the movement, to hide its radical, anti-democratic agenda) has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with advancing a self-serving political ideology of ignorance and bigotry.
The relationship between the ascendency of Trump and the forces of fundamentalism in America, however, is about more than the blind allegiance of pablum-fed, theologically illiterate congregations. Essential to the survival of hucksters and strongmen like Trump is the ability to convince people to ignore the validity of thoughtfully analyzed and sourced information in favor of empty rhetoric. In Trump’s case, the list of confidence games he has perpetuated in the service of his bid for power seems endless.
This is a man who convinced coal miners and factory workers he would bring back jobs that are never coming back (including in manufacturing). This is a billionaire real estate developer who convinced working-class voters he was their ally, and then stocked his cabinet with fellow members of the very class that has been cheating them of their wages for decades, and then said he wouldn’t want a “poor person” in that role. This is a man who convinced voters that the protections that keep their air breathable and their water drinkable were bad for them. This is a President who put in place an Attorney General who wants to make the country “safer” by ignoring decades of evidence-based research on policing. This is a President who claims to love veterans, while cutting the programs that support them. This is a President who ran on helping the middle class, and then “leads” by advocating tax cuts for the wealthy. Every single policy and program of Donald Trump flies in the face of his own rhetoric, logic, and peer-reviewed research – yet tens of millions of Americans are convinced that he is the one to finally make America “great.”
How is this possible? How is it that so many members of the American electorate are willing to ignore facts, research, and logic? How is it that the President of the nation that gave the world the concept of a free press has millions of Americans celebrating when he sends out a video showing himself pummeling a mainstream news organization – a news group so rigorous in its commitment to journalistic integrity that it fired three journalists for an erroneous news story? How did we get to the point where tens of millions of Americans lack the critical thinking and intellectual sophistication to differentiate legitimate journalism from right-wing propaganda? How did we get to the point where tens of millions of Americans cannot tell when a con artist lies, explicitly, to their faces?
As much as it pains me to admit it as a person of faith and a member of the clergy, the answer is: religion. Not all religion, certainly, but specifically the vile, cancerous form of it that is fundamentalism. The very cognitive process that allows fundamentalism to thrive is the same one that gives legitimacy to Donald Trump’s agenda of anti-intellectual fakery.
I will give one hypothetical example as an illustration. An atheist scholar studying the first three chapters of the biblical book of Genesis, lacking any theological imperative and working simply off the extant facts, would likely conclude that they represent two different, regional variants on an older, Babylonian creation myth. A mainstream Christian scholar at a seminary like the one I attended, or – less hypothetically – teaching a Hebrew Bible course like the ones I have taught to undergraduates, would make the exact same observation. As Christians, we would add, however, that the relevance of these two creation myths comes from trying to hear what eternal truths our ancestors in the faith found in each story, separately, such that they saw fit to preserve them.
A fundamentalist Christian “scholar,” on the other hand, would insist that the myths must be read as one, historical account – all literary, anthropological, linguistic, physical, and geological evidence to the contrary. The fundamentalist approach requires that facts, logic, and good sense must be abandoned when they come into conflict with dogma. Consequently, in order to research their pre-ordained conclusions, a fundamentalist must undermine, ridicule, or simply ignore any research based on verifiable or observable data, intellectual rigor, or professional expertise.
Whereas mainstream Christianity and scientific/humanistic scholarship can co-exist without conflict, fundamentalism cannot do the same. Fundamentalism, like its anachronistic followers, cannot live comfortably in the modern world. As a result, fundamentalism must inculcate into its adherents a complete mistrust of all of the expertise and scholarship of educators and researchers, because the conclusions of experts inevitably erode the ear-tickling creeds of fundamentalist religious leaders. Accordingly, fundamentalist congregants are conditioned to rely on the charismatic rhetoric of their clergy, while also being trained to ignore all other sources of information.
This mindset – trusting only those charming speakers who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how incoherent – is the perfect breeding ground for the cult of personality and anti-intellectualism that has driven Donald Trump to power. Trump’s presidency will undoubtedly deal devastating blows to the viability of the United States as a modern, healthy, secular democracy, but he is merely the symptom. The near metastatic threat to our future as a nation is not in the Oval Office, it’s in the pulpits of the fundamentalist mega-churches. Until we can resolve the larger issue of a significant voting block that is immune to critical thinking and scientific research, we will constantly find ourselves pulled back into the medieval superstitions and neo-feudalism of Trump’s policies.