Whatever one may want to say about Donald Trump’s style of political leadership, it can plausibly be described as charismatic—grounded neither in tradition nor in rational interest, it depends on the continuing faith in the leader by the mass of followers. Because of this it is inevitably brittle. One way of making it less so is to consecrate it with religious symbolism. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the great charismatic leaders of modern European history, but even he found it opportune to be crowned emperor in a religious ceremony. I suppose that Trump would not be strongly averse to becoming emperor, but the U.S. political system missed its last chance to become a monarchy when George Washington turned down the suggestion that he be made a king. The Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Clintons evinced some inclinations toward hereditary rule, but, alas, republicanism has become a strong American addiction. But the United States is still the most religious Western country, and claiming a religious identity remains politically useful.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tried. While Obama constructed himself as a genuine black politician in Chicago he attended, for no less than twenty years, the church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. After Obama was already in the White House, he dissociated himself from Wright, who was outed as a black racist when a passionate anti-American sermon was caught on tape and widely disseminated. It ended with the exclamation “God damn America!” (This outburst could not have been the first of its kind. Obama was credible when, after that sermon, he said that it did not represent his views. One must wonder what he was thinking as he sat under Wright’s pulpit all these years.) Hillary Clinton, like Obama, had made religious affirmations during her campaigns, identifying herself as a Methodist. Neither came across as a religious person, however. Trump, curiously, did better at least with one politically important constituency: 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for him. On January 2, 2017, he followed the tradition of Presidents addressing the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington that brings together more than 3,000 religious leaders. (The name is a bit misleading: More than just a breakfast, the program includes a series of meetings in one day.) The first National Prayer Breakfast took place in 1953, the first year of the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (“I believe in faith, I don’t care what it is”). The event is interfaith, though it has a strong Evangelical flavor. Trump began his address quite emotionally by saying that he still reads the Bible from which his mother read to him when he was a child.
I don’t know how many Evangelicals believe that Trump has had (at whatever stage in life) a born-again Christian experience, though one prominent Evangelical said that God must have intervened in the election to make Trump win. A more empirical fact is that Trump in earlier years attended Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan (a theologically liberal offshoot of the Dutch Reformed tradition), when its pastor was Norman Vincent Peale (1988-1993), author of the best-selling 1952 book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Trump has acknowledged his debt to Peale, who taught that everything is possible if one has faith in God, always rejects negative thoughts, and acts self-confidently. Actually, Peale stands in a long American tradition going back to Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), the founder of Christian Science, which still teaches that illness is due to wrong thinking, and to Bruce Barton, advertising executive and author of the 1925 book The Man Nobody Knows, which celebrates Jesus as the world’s greatest businessman. Trump comfortably fits into this tradition, which today is expressed by the so-called “prosperity Gospel,” which flourishes in the powerful Protestant movement in developing societies (“have faith in Jesus, support his church, and God will make you rich”).
About four months ago I wrote a post on this blog about Evangelicals planning to vote for Trump. I proposed that they would be people who are interested primarily in domestic policy, while putative Clinton voters are focused on foreign policy. I think now that I had it about right. Very few Evangelicals thought then or think now that Trump is one of them. So far those mostly focused on domestic matters—including issues south of the navel—are likely, with whatever reservations, to feel that sticking with Trump still makes sense. They have had one disappointment—his upholding the Obama policy of banning discrimination against LGBT individuals, not only in Federal employment, but also by contractors doing business with the Federal government. More importantly, Trump used strong language about respecting and supporting LGBT rights. There may be some worry about the depth of his opposition to same-sex marriage. But he has not waivered on his pro-life stance or on his defense of clergy and others who voice opposition to the left-liberal agenda. His nominee for the vacant chair on the Supreme Court is not an ideologue, but seems to be well within the juridical “mainstream,” though he is at present a target of Democratic retaliation for what Republicans did to Obama’s seemingly equally moderate nominee.
On foreign policy, Trump has successfully alienated just about every country on earth (including, heaven help us, Australia), culminating in the (supposedly temporary) ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees. Federal judges have already intervened to block executive orders. Enormous demonstrations against him in the United States and across the world have shattered respect for America, possibly for a long time. There was considerable concern over what appeared to be a mutual admiration society between Trump and Vladimir Putin, and over Trump’s initial refusal to take seriously the Russian attempt to influence the U.S. election in his favor. This concern was somewhat mitigated when Trump admitted, though rather reluctantly, that Russia had indeed intervened, and when Nikki Haley, appointed by Trump as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, made her first speech in the Security Council with sharp criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere (the speech must have been approved by Trump).
What has been surprising is that Trump’s personal lifestyle and constant verbal aggression have not undermined the support of many Evangelicals despite their tradition of personal morals. Some, like much of the Republican leadership, have undoubtedly supported Trump while holding their noses. I just make one observation on this: The major source of revulsion has been Trump’s bragging about assaults on women in the notorious 2005 taped interview with Access Hollywood. He dismissed these stories as “just locker-room talk.” This phrase has been widely interpreted as a brazen admission; there is also a different interpretation—that this was bragging about things that never happened. I’m reminded of Saddam Hussein’s bragging about his alleged weapons of mass destruction—which in fact he didn’t have. Be this as it may, Evangelicals also have a strong tradition of humanitarianism. Many must have been appalled by his defense of torture and of killing the families of terrorists. So far there have been no actions to match the words. But then came the executive order of January 20, 2017, about Muslim refugees. This was implemented with blatant brutality, not just brutal words—families with terrified children taken off from planes about to start, detained in airports under degrading conditions, with no immediate help available. The Administration has indeed stepped back from some of these actions, but the disregard of human decency displayed here is very disturbing—on top of the obvious incompetence with which this action was launched, and the fact that the claim that this would make the country safer is clearly spurious. The ban on Syrian refugees is specially mindless as well as cruel: Refugees are being blamed for the very terror from which they are desperately fleeing. In 1939, when World War II began, German Jewish refugees in the UK were interned as “enemy aliens,” sometimes in the same facility with aggressive Nazis—some of the refugees were deported to Australia. Equally surreal is the claim by some critics that giving preference to Christian refugees is illegal discrimination on grounds of religion, given the fact that Christians have been singled out for genocidal persecution by radical Islamists. It is as if in 1939 Jewish refugees were given preference over “Aryan” ones (in fact, Western governments, including the United States, did very little at that time to save Jews from the impending Holocaust).
What are the prospects? Personality rarely changes at the age Trump has reached. It is a dangerous mix of several qualities—a (let me put it kindly) remarkable sense of self-esteem, coupled paradoxically with a thin skin punctured by any degree of criticism, and the urge to hit back (preferably on Twitter every night) even when the issue is trivial. During the very same National Prayer Breakfast Trump bragged how the ratings of his TV show had gone down after Arnold Schwarzenegger took it over (“I’ll pray for Arnold”).
I watched Trump’s victory speech after his election. He sounded generous, even Lincolnesque (one phrase was actually taken from the Gettysburg Address). I thought that, paradoxically, his debilitating personal traits might possibly make him calmer, less aggressive, and eager to be a truly historical figure—and thus more open to reasonable concessions. A couple of weeks later this seems less likely, and darker scenarios loom. Could the Lincolnesque Trump still happen? I’m reminded how Zhou Enlai, the only Chinese leader left standing in the midst of the Maoist insanity, responded to the question of what he thought of the French Revolution—“to early to tell.” In the meantime, let us pray for Donald.