Avid, unwavering support for Trump by millions remains something of a mystery. I’ve read opinion pieces from pundits, scholarly articles based on solid research, and have offered my own casual observations to explain some of it. But something has been missing in each of them. A few have commented on the religious like fervor his supporters have expressed, and that may be the clue.
Trump has become a religious idol for his followers. Idols have one thing in common, they promise to guarantee relief from the uncertainties of life. They promise that, through them, and only them, anxiety can be exchanged for the security of all that is good and desirable. Trump ran on that ticket quite convincingly for millions of voters.
As a people we’re quite fond of idols, even many who claim to be Christian prefer idols to following Jesus. It’s not like we worship statues and totems. We prefer our idols in the form of things or events that promise fulfillment of our desires: the right vacation, car, career, wealth, body, romantic love, perfect boss, the list is endless, but the advertising industry has done a good job of indexing as many as they can. None of them ever produce what they promise, but we keep at it just the same. If they can be dressed in Christianish style, so much the better – it helps absolve one of the sin of idolatry if Jesus can be mentioned frequently.
What Trump lacks in intelligence and formal learning, he makes up for in the street smarts of a practiced con man. It’s no accident that the anxieties and uncertainties of life he promised to fix, and he alone could do it, focused on people who identified themselves as white working class, or near cousins, who expressed anxiety about:
• changing demographics challenging their majority
• stagnant wages and diminished opportunities for economic security
• changing social standards redefining what is and isn’t acceptable
• threats to ill defined but deeply held beliefs in certain rights and freedoms
• government sold to them as the enemy, something alien, not really American
• feelings that others looked down on them with distaste and disgust
• highly visible differences between the affluent few and struggling many
They handed him an agenda about which he could make fantastical promises with no plan or intention to deliver.
Some of it was the result of the Great Recession with its slow, steady recovery that didn’t produce results fast enough. Some of it was due to real dislocations caused by globalization. Some of it was caused by corporate policies treating them as consumable inventory, mere commodities in the machinery of production and sales. A great deal of it was caused by Reagan style condemnation of government as the enemy behind it all, and oligarch backed tea party libertarianism engineering right wing populism as the way to fight back.
The point is, anxieties about the uncertainty of life were real, and Trump knew how to take advantage of it. He alone could fix it. He alone would return America to an industrial golden age. He alone would take the government off their backs by neutering bureaucracies and voiding regulations. He alone would make America the supreme authority among nations. He alone would “make America great again.” Millions bought into it and made him their idol in every religious sense of the word.
Like every idol, he couldn’t deliver. Not one of his promises has been fulfilled, although he’s done well making some look promising. Disastrous tariff wars were touted as victories. Debt spiraling relief to agriculture was proclaimed as saving America’s heartland. Betrayal and belittling allies was hailed as restoring respect. Pandering to dictators as opening new avenues of diplomacy. Revelation of pervasive corruption bordering on treason as machinations of a rogue deep state. Disambiguation through well crafted propaganda, crude truth twisting and floods of outright lies veiled reality while absorbing airtime to the exclusion of much else. Few can even remember the promises of new steel mills, new factories, and the return of coal. The fog of war had nothing on the fog of Trump’s non stop bluster.
How could such miserable performance not undermine the religious faith of those who adopted him as their idol? Part, I suppose, has to do with the old phenomenon of unfulfilled promises generating renewed faith that, if not now, soon. Another has to do with creating the illusion that some have been fulfilled, even if it’s obvious to disinterested observers that they haven’t. Las Vegas magicians know how to do that, and so does Trump. But there’s something else at play. All his promises, and all his deceptions and illusions, are related to things in the economy that can be controlled by ordinary human actions, or if not controlled, at least strongly influenced. He has been able to credibly claim success where there is none, or cast blame on others who got in his way, and it’s not his fault. What human agents can create and control can be managed, one way or another, even if by deception.
Then came the novel corona virus, COVID-19, a product of nature, not of human origin. It spread, for whatever reason, rapidly and without concern for national boundaries or treaties. It has no interest in what governments say, think or do. It can’t be bullied from a podium in front of t.v. cameras. Being novel (new), no one had immunity. The entire world was vulnerable, and it was fatal to many. Most important to the idolatry of Trumpism, it didn’t care and wasn’t influenced by anything he had to say about it. It hasn’t gone away. It’s still here with no intention of leaving.
The idol who promised I alone can fix it has been revealed as utterly powerless, and, in his ignorance, as worse than useless. He’s dangerously floundering about unnecessarily risking millions of lives in the process. It’s not that he has had many options. Like other governments around the world, the U.S. has joined with them applying the crude tools at their disposal, almost entirely limited to physical distancing. It’s crippled the world economy, not just our own. As crude as the tools are, the virus would have crippled it even more had it been allowed to run its course. None of that has stopped Trump from ducking, weaving and boasting to proclaim victory that isn’t there and cast blame wherever he can.
Trump, the idol, can do little but bluster as others race to find medical treatments and vaccines that work. He alone is a stumbling block, but they’re doing their best to work around him. Having spent three years aggregating power and authority creating a make believe dictatorship, he’s claimed no responsibility, forcing governors to work out things on their own, as cooperatively as they can.
Will the COVID-19 era do anything to weaken Trumpism as an idolatrous religion? I have my doubts. His true believers will likely offer sacrifices demanded by Trump as the cost of restoring order, and he will claim only he can restore order. Order, disciplined order establishing hard lines of white hegemony, that’s what they believe will resolve their uncertainties and anxieties. Order requires opening the economy. Sure more people will die, but they‘ll be old, black and brown. Who cares? There will be more for the rest. Trump will again claim only he can get the economy going again, quickly and better than ever. He will be aided by untrustworthy interests who see their dream of plutocratic autocracy dissolving in the aftermath. They will do what they can to revive tea party populism laying all the blame at the feet of the true enemy, government. It might work. It worked before, and not only in our time and our country.
Idolatrous religion is a powerful drug. Don’t underestimate it.