“I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”
“You’re the television? Or someone in your the television?”
“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”
“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.
“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.”
-Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Why do people love Trump when he can’t advance their agenda but can embarrass himself and his office on a regular basis? The lionization of Trump in the eyes of many religious conservatives is particularly baffling, and it is clear that his rise to power has in fact caused many to change their minds about whether or not character matters in our leaders.
One could be thankful for Neil Gorsuch’s appointment and hopeful that some significant pro-life legislation will pass, but a deep level of intellectual and moral turpitude is required to brush off things like denigrating hurricane victims, cursing black athletes, equivocating on neo-Nazis, bragging about sexual assault, mocking POWs, and smearing entire nationalities as criminal. Furthermore, anyone who voted for Trump expecting ACA repeal, a border wall, reduced deficits, meaningful religious-liberty protections, an infrastructure bill, or less international intervention is surely disappointed that a party controlling the House, the Senate, and the Presidency can’t get themselves together to achieve any one of those.
Our president has not only leapt from his celebrity perch to the highest office in the land, but he has brought along with him the moral sensibilities and spectacle of reality TV. Thus, what matters is not the hard realities of measurable facts nor even the hard work of crafting policy to create hedges in which our culture can flourish, but the sound and fury of making liberals mad and finding ways to make life more difficult for people of color.
Even the things that are being accomplished — like Jeff Sessions’ rollback of various Obama-era policing reforms or the increased arrests of undocumented immigrants — are more about symbolic opposition to vague ideas, as evidenced by the fact that few of them can find any grounding in evidence or decent arguments. People still cling to Trump because he provides an endless stream of culture war spectacle while dangling the hope that their ideological enemies might be crushed, not because he can actually govern or produce results they want.
The erratic implementation of a few policies conservatives might like is hardly enough to justify love for Trump. The only sort of person who could rush to his defense at every violation of good sense and moral order is the sort of person for whom the symbolism of culture war has overtaken the reality of cultivating a good society.
Similarly, those who take every opportunity to redirect the conversation to “the media” and its biases are those whose sense of ressentiment has shifted their moral center of gravity. Both groups will have to confront the ways in which they have they capitulated to the spiritual powers of our age before they can work their way back to civic health.
If you believe something sincerely, it is not hard to consider yourself persecuted. Our cultural affinity for underdogs creates a perverse incentive to sustain this fantasy at incredible levels. There are different loci of power in our society — the GOP currently has majorities ensuring that it has political power, while liberals still dominate the power invested in our mass media and those further to the left hold sway in intellectual and educational domains.
No matter where you are, you can always find an ideological enemy who is more powerful than you and you can almost always find such an enemy who is using that power to harass someone like you. These symbolic martyrs increase our desire for symbolic counterattacks; these counterattacks require less real meaning the more powerful we believe our enemies to be. If you think liberalism is a juggernaut and the GOP is the only bulwark against it, then even some obscene graffiti on one of liberals’ sacred cows is a bold victory.
Once this sense of victimhood has been properly inflamed, the persecuted start to look around for allies and aid. The more intense the persecution feels, the more desperate the persecuted feel for aid and the less picky they get about their allies. The fact that conservative Christians have gotten to the point of leaning on Milo Yiannopoulos and Donald Trump for help indicates that the fever dream of persecution in America has gotten red-hot.
God speaks of a similar situation in Isaiah 30:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In repentance and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said, “No! We will flee upon horses”; therefore you shall flee away; and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill.
The context of this passage was the Assyrian invasion of Judah, wherein a massive army besieged Jerusalem. Isaiah delivered a warning to God’s people that they ought not call for help from Egypt despite the overwhelming threat they faced and the apparent aid that Egypt could offer. Their situation was as frightening as the possibility of two liberal Supreme Court justices, perhaps even worse.
In the Bible, both physical and spiritual forces offer themselves to the people of God under siege. Whether it is the power of the Egyptian army to defend against the Babylonians or the power of the storm god Baal to end a drought, the temptation to compromise for the sake of survival is ever-present. In situations where God wants his people to endure faithfully, their predilection for other saviors only brings more judgment on them:
“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.
Christians generally think of dramatic confrontations with demons when they speak of “spiritual warfare”, but these situations are limited to the case of King Saul and the few healings recorded in Acts and the Gospels. Far more common is what Paul describes in Ephesians 5 as our engagement with “powers and principalities”, which represent the spiritual and physical power bound up in various institutions and authorities. The Bible gives us every indication that demons can certainly still torment and possess people, but the battles that Christians ought to be most concerned about are with the spiritual forces that insidiously work to corrupt us.
Christians can easily identify such powers and principalities when discussing the onslaught of sexual perversion or the fanatical love in some quarters for abortion. In both of these cases we can see that as people have given their love to these false gods and sacrificed at their altars, the powers and principalities have grown more powerful and then in turn used that power to seduce more people into their death cult. We don’t know if the powers and principalities are ever personal in the way that demons are described in the Bible, but they are certainly real; faithful Christian communities must do battle against their influence.
Many apologists for Trump even argued that voting for him was the most meaningful way to reckon with these powers. Such moral calculus, like the appeal to Egypt, may have seemed wise in the ways of the world but so far the Trump administration has mostly been rearranging a few of the idols in the American temple to face rightward. The powers and principalities in liberalism’s penumbra are real and dangerous, but Trump is at best stalling one or two while letting countless others run rampant. As Andy Crouch put it last year: “Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence.”
Similarly, the enablers — those who might have described themselves as anti-anti Trump or who halfheartedly threw in their support for him — are no better. For even though they perceive that Trump is a fool and a bully, they are too interested in settling petty feuds with liberals to actually fight a war against the powers and principalities of liberalism. Their tepid indifference to the suffering that Trump’s incompetence and spite has inflicted and could inflict on millions of Americans is no virtue; mastering their instinct to yell “Gotcha!” at every anti-Trump liberal who descends into foolishness would be no vice.
Again, one might have good reasons for supporting the Republican Party and thus good intentions in voting for Trump. I, too, want an end to abortion, an immigration system that is at least consistent in its application of the rules, a clear set of protections for religious liberty, and a healthcare system that is less tortuous and more just. If the recent ACA-repeal debacle shows us anything, it is that the GOP is so caught up the politics of spectacle that it will not offer any meaningful solutions to the problems our nation faces. The GOP is morally and intellectually bankrupt, and there is neither hope nor sense in thinking that it can deliver on these issues or that Trump can lead the party to a place where it will.
Again, Isaiah speaks of such trust here:
“Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant.”
The process by which Republicans eroded their own capacity for governance and Christians eroded their own moral imagination began long before Trump, though his campaign certainly catalyzed the process. Indeed, Christians would not have gone for Trump unless they had been discipled for years by right-wing media and inflammatory Christian celebrities to think of themselves as a persecuted minority whose only recourse was scorched-earth politics. This discipleship was not demon-possession, but a surrender to the powers and principalities that has demanded ever-increasing loyalty to party and political power in return for eviscerated moral and intellectual capabilities.
By this point, anyone who is under the sway of the powers and principalities I have described has accumulated enough objections — many of which start with “But Hillary…” — to talk themselves back down. I would argue that anyone who is unfazed (or even glad for) Trump’s toxicity has hardened their hearts through the liturgies of talk radio leading them in the worship of political power. They are like Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair, who spent 23 hours of each day convinced that his evil queen was in fact good; their surrender to evil inhibits even their ability to recognize that which is good or evil.
In order for my fellow Christians who are stuck here to even countenance these arguments, they must first be willing to admit their captivity to the powers — a task impossible without the Holy Spirit. I am hopeful, though, for Rilian had one hour of every day when he was not entirely in his right mind but he was also very aware that he was a prisoner to evil. The gods of our age are incredibly seductive and make it a point to ensure that leaving them behind feels miserable, but they are no match for the hope we have in Christ. We at Mere Orthodoxy have written many pieces here, here, here, and here arguing for what we ought to do to work for the good of our society in our current era.
The great fear that drove many Christians to trust in politics and sacrifice their other principles at its altar was the fear that their livelihoods or freedom to worship might be lost at the hands of the state. God has a message for those whose fear paralyzes them:
And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, “Be gone!”