Tag Archives: Donald Trump

One Nation Under Theocrats

In Trump’s America everything depends on the manner in which Republican factionalism is resolved. In Alabama we may have come closer to a resolution

✎  Wayne K. Spear | September 28, 2017 | waynekspear.com

HOURS AGO, as of the time I write these words, the President of the United States deleted his endorsements of Luther Strange from the Twitter account @realDonaldTrump. Now, in the untidy corner of social media he alone controls, let the record show that the President is and always has been a Roy Moore guy.

The likelihood has increased that Alabama will send a theocrat and conspiracy theorist to Washington in December. There he’ll join fellow-travellers Trump and Co. in the work of stirring a witch’s brew of fake populism, culture war, and white resentment. (I can’t resist observing that, if Trump had won the day, it would be a Strange Brew.) An irony of the Strange-Moore contest is that Trump backed the lesser-Trumpist candidate and the more-Trumpist contender won. Moore is just what the Republican party needs in 2017—another Bannon-and-Mercer-backed extremist who loathes the government and who comes to Washington not to build but to destroy.

Alabama Capital Steps | Photo by sunsurfr (Creative Commons)

Across his career Roy Moore has agitated to “bring the knowledge of God back to the United States,” whatever that means. Eighty-six percent of Alabama voters self-identify as Christian, half of them as evangelical Protestants, and still Mr. Moore deemed his fellow citizens sufficiently god-stupid that he commisioned a 5,000-pound Ten Commandments granite memorial for the state’s Supreme Court building. Ordered to remove it by unanimous resolve of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, Moore refused. This was the first occasion of two dismissals from public office—in 2003 and 2016—for (among other things) disregarding a federal injunction, abusing administrative authority, and demonstrating an unwillingness to follow the law. And so, to return to the theme of fellow-travelling, one can hope that if Moore goes to Washington, he might well go at the moment the President is facing dismissal on similar charges.

The only law Mr. Moore recognizes is the law of God. Under the law of God same-sex marriage is “the ultimate destruction of our country” and homosexuality is “an inherent evil” and the deaths of September 11, 2001 and Newtown, Connecticut are deserved punishments for America’s waywardness. Under the law of God Muslims are not fit for office and lesbians are not fit for parenthood and the laws of mere mortals may be ignored. It’s worth noticing that the victorious Alabama Republican primary candidate for the US Senate holds views that would be unremarkable in a Wahhabist-jihadist training camp. Also, why do these God people always have sex on the brain?

Beginning in the 1980s the Dixiecrat Alabama of George Wallace slowly morphed into the Republican Alabama of today. Here political diversity does not take the form of parties, but rather of Republican rivalry. It is easy for outsiders (and especially for northeastern urbanites) to sneer and condescend at Alabama, but what is happening in Alabama matters because it is happening everywhere. One need look no further than Washington, D.C. for confirmation. Conservatism has split into two principal factions, one grounded in political norms and institutions and the other in theocracy and resentment and the culture warfare of ethnic-nationalism. Everything depends on the manner in which this factionalism resolves, and in Alabama the nation just took another step closer toward resolution.

Fake News, Real Money

We have all heard the President say that the news is fake, and we have seen this assertion take root and spread like a kind of conceptual weed. The phrase “fake news” contains within it the connotation of counterfeit and thus the insinuation of an act of wilful deception. Or, to use a more plain word, lying. If I were to spread around the claim that the Prime Minister of Canada is addicted to Xintopan, the way that Hunter S. Thompson did of Ed Muskie and Ibogaine, it could be correctly said that I was spreading fake news. The presumption that something like this is widely taking place in the dominant commercial media, each and every day, could only be maintained by the most credulous and lazy. A news outfit that deliberately fabricated would soon find itself discredited and driven out of business. And yet there is no denying that news is a manufactured good, like bicycle tires or washing machines or laxatives. The news does not drop from heaven, it is made. What is it then that the media are doing, as makers of a mass-consumer product called news?

When I was a boy the news was something trotted out by three news stations each weeknight between 6 and 7. This was before the cable networks invented the 24-hour news cycle. Where once it had been accepted that a one-hour dose of news per day was sufficient, the cable universe substituted the proposition that news is something requiring round-the-clock attention and comment. Whatever else this substitution may entail, it is beyond doubt a scaling-up of manufacture. To go from one hour of news a day to twenty-four is more than a quantitative change: it is an admission that something arbitrary is at work, untethered from any underlying principle or logic. News is only another product that can be made in batches small or large. Here I do not mean to equate the manufacture of a product with fabrication in the sense of lying. I mean only that the news is made up in the way that a book or song or photograph is made up. It is a matter of perspective and of discrimination. An outbreak of war or the assassination of a public figure will be obvious instances of news to most people, but many daily events will necessarily occupy a grey area which only subjective considerations will resolve. It is someone’s job every day to scan the landscape and to package up a selection of found objects for this thing we call the news.

I have been claiming that the news is a product, but in a sense this is misleading. While news is packaged, the media do not deal in the business of selling news. The actual product of the news media are the eyeballs of their audience, which the industry sells to advertisers. And just as every audience constitutes a market, with exhaustively studied desires and beliefs and tastes, so too the media audience is a market. Everything produced by a news corporation will defer to the interests of advertisers by taking pains to court the market they are selling, because that market is the fruit of their efforts, hence their chief product. The specific character of a news outlet is a reflection of this ongoing and often imperfect effort to attract and to hold viewers. It is possible to parse the various news outlets into the grammar of their respective markets, taking into account matters such as aesthetics and social class and political assumptions. Here are some rough examples off the top of my mind, of the respective markets targeted by media outlets, to demonstrate how this might look:

PBS Newshour: “I believe there are two sides to every story and so it is important that we seek out balancing points-of-view in a rational and civilized manner. I’m a pretty informed and intelligent person and I think of myself as open-minded and highly educated. I think the great malaise of our time is partisanship. The parties must work together to find compromises that serve the broader public interest.”
New York Times: “To me America is an imperfect country whose history is marred by hubris and miscalculation, yet it remains a beacon to the world. I care about the arts and humanities and I don’t apologize for wanting sophistication, and I like my news to be informed and thoughtful. Our system is unique in history and to protect it politicians must be held to account, in particular by media.”
FOX News: “I’m sick of the establishment. It’s corrupt and must be brought down. The GOP is Republican In Name Only. Liberalism is ruining America. I am angry as hell and it’s time to fight back to reclaim the real America our forefathers fought to protect. I love this country and I love God and I am not ashamed to call myself a Patriot.”
National Post: “There’s nothing worse than Social Justice Warriors and the Culture of Entitlement. Taxes are too high and free enterprise plus individual responsibility will solve most of our problems, if anything can. Most politicians are clowns, and we would be better off without them, but Canada remains the greatest country in the world and our system is fundamentally sound and just.”
The Rebel: “I love this country and I care about what happens to it. We’re at war with Cultural Marxism and Islamic terrorism, whether you want to admit it or not. Political correctness be damned. Radical feminism and the fascist left are huge dangers today, and the mainstream media is either too weak or too biased to see it. If we don’t act now, our civilization will be lost.”

These sketches are of course caricatures, but even a caricature projects the recognizable outline of a face. What the media share among them is an unspoken but firm assumption that “our way of life” is fundamentally sound. This is why no allowance is made for outside-the-system cranks and revolutionaries, even on a more extreme network such as Fox. The media target and trade in, above all else, aesthetic differences, from the calm establishment tit-and-tat of PBS to the fringe-establishment agitation of Fox. The New York Times marketing department knows exactly what ads to put in front of the people who read it, and in the main they are ads for “luxury” watches and automobiles and not for obesity medication or adult diapers. Even the PBS fiction of a publicly-funded broadcaster has a marketing/aesthetics impetus, aimed as it is at upper-middles whose tastes lead them to abjure anything they regard as vulgar capitalism. Because the PBS NewsHour ads come at the end of the program, disguised as public-service announcements, the viewer may enjoy the wholesome illusion of an organic, free-range, untainted media.

To appreciate how thoroughly the news is market tested and market formulated, one only has to spend some time watching a program that makes no accommodation for one’s tastes and outlook. To begin with, the aesthetics and the social-class markers will be all wrong. You will either find the program too loud and uncouth, or you will find it boring and pinheaded and elitist. The villains will be wrong, as will the heroes. A Marxist-Leninist will be unable to consume any of the widely-available news except critically and oppositionally, as imperialist-capitalist propaganda, because in capitalist societies Marxism per se does not exist as a market. The same is doubtless true for white-power fascists, who until the arrival of Mr Trump saw little in the media tailored to their obsessive hatred of the elites, and especially of establishment race traitors. In recent years however outlets such as Breitbart and The Rebel have courted what might be termed under-served markets. As the media markets further segment and diverge, we approach the point at which the news can refer to a widening range of subjects, for example Tucker Carlson dedicating weeks of programming to a Hillary Clinton scandal from the past. Presumably there is a sizeable chunk of America that wakes every day enraged at and obsessed with a woman who is not a politician and who is no longer pursuing public office. It follows that such a person will be deeply unsatisfied by news that doesn’t take up as its operating premise the notion that Ms Clinton remains America’s foremost menace.

It is easy to conclude that the news is so much fabricated, or fake, nonsense if one’s assumptions and tastes and prejudices go unserved. The final ineluctable truth of every human life is that it is brief and pointless and of no enduring consequence, but only a person of mental instability would seek out a messenger and a message emphasizing this point day upon day. For reasons having to do with our animal survival, most of us prefer to believe reassuring if also distorted propositions about our own intelligence, beauty, rightness, and significance. In the same way the news is forever serving up a workable and reassuring version of the world, even when it is delivering word of the latest political scandal or humanitarian disaster. Mr Trump objects to the “fake news” for the simple reason that much of the press is neither workable nor reassuring from his perspective, both practically and psychologically. He is a pedlar of emotions and not of arguments, and if the facts do not serve his emotional needs then they are in a sense inauthentic. It goes without comment that Mr Trump runs what amounts to a media platform, via Twitter, that has all of the New York Times‘ reach but none of the fact checkers or editors. Much of what he claims in public would not pass the hastiest edit, because the standards of even a small-town paper exceed those of the Commander-In-Chief. But facts are not what the Trumpists have in mind when they complain of fake news. What they have in mind is a different test: “Do I like what I am hearing?”

Beyond this is another consideration, the fact that the President is so far outside the norms of American politics that it is impossible to say whether political norms will move him, or vice versa. What is clear is that the liberal-centrist-consensus media markets, which have long been the dominant markets, are under an organized attack that shows no sign of relenting. As a celebrity media personality, from roughy 1980 to 2015, Trump got what he needed and wanted from the media by providing them outrageous and therefore attention-getting tidbits to distribute, which they faithfully did and continue to do. Only, Mr Trump is no longer in the celebrity business, or perhaps is in it but in another business also—a business where his provocations and broadcasts can lead to international scandal, impeachment, violence, and war. Under the former dispensation, both sides got what they wanted, that is to say celebrity-and-profit-promoting click-bait. Now the President wants something more. He wants media that are supplicants of his reign. And there is no reason to assume he won’t get it if, in exchange, the media get eyeballs and clicks and dollars.

Thoughts on Christianity and Authoritarianism

If the reports are to be believed, one-third of Americans today approve of the President’s performance. The constituency most likely to go on approving of Mr. Trump is evangelical Christians, in particular middle-aged white evangelical Christians. Much has been written of this political alliance, along the line that Donald Trump is a man of un-christian character, angry and vain and materialistic, and so on. How can the faithful regard him as theirs?

They have done so by casting Mr. Trump as a modern-day Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, which is to say a flawed individual who nonetheless—perhaps even because of this—has been chosen by God and through whom the divine is achieving His will. Anyone who has been to an evangelical gathering, especially of the revivalist-testimonial type, knows that the best witness is also the most lurid. Invariably a solemn and clean-looking fellow will electrify his audience with a tale of debauchery, the lascivious details of his previous life of depravity serving to underscore the point that “if God could save a wretch like me ….” Before he was St. Paul, Saul of Tarsus by his own admission was a dangerous fanatic who went eagerly about the work of murdering the followers of Jesus. The tradition of playing up one’s nastiness in the service of a cracking testimony obtains from Saul through Augustine to the present day. Human wickedness is baked into the Christian religion in the way that class struggle is baked into Marxism, so that to point out Mr. Trump’s shortcomings is only to affirm a central tenet of evangelicalism, that God can and does work through even the most thoroughly fallen.

But why Mr Trump, when the field is crowded with flawed candidates? Perhaps a better line of inquiry is to consider what evangelical Christianity is, not as a religion, but as a political system.

When the plainly superstitious details of religion are removed, for example virgin births and ascensions to heaven etc, what remains is a set of propositions about the world and of our place within it. The propositions are as follows. The universe is a work of omniscience, governed by universal and immutable law. To go up against the law is to offend the Almighty and to invite His wrath. There is no court of appeal. God has put down His laws in writing from the beginning of time, and it is a work of supreme arrogance even to question. The only recourse of man is to follow the law and to conform to the natural order, which is to say God’s word. Do as you may, eventually everything is going to collapse in a conflagration of evil, a fate most of us deserve. The effect of St Paul’s teachings was to sublate the Jewish law into a doctrine of divine grace, but without altering the universal and fixed nature of God’s will. In the universe of Christianity, everything is presided by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Father whose wrath or love is ineluctable as well as non-negotiable. One’s only options in this life are to accept the offer of divine grace on the terms advanced or to suffer eternally.

It takes little mental effort to translate this notion of an all-powerful, all-seeing, law-and-grace-issuing Father into a political system, and that system is best described as totalitarian. Say what you will of monotheism: it is not a democratic system or a working out of an evolutionary process. The only role of the demos in evangelicalism is to follow the law and to affirm over and again the glory of the Dear Leader. Evangelical Christianity as a political system is less about the negotiation of consensus and compromise, of inching laboriously toward the good if imperfect society, than it is about sorting the world into good and evil so that the final battle might get underway. The human heart is wicked in an irredeemable way, and thus unreliable as a moral guide. From this it follows that human solutions to human problems are also unreliable, so that the chief political task is to ensure that the good prevail upon the wicked by imposing upon them the strictures of law. What Christianity proposes is an authoritarian and not a pluralistic, liberal view of society.

I am not suggesting that all Christians or even most of them are totalitarian in outlook. What I am suggesting is that evangelicalism and authoritarianism are fellow-travellers. Should authoritarianism one day overtake the United States, we should expect evangelicals to reconcile themselves to it easily, provided it is an authoritarianism of the “Travail, Famille, Patrie” variety. The only thing Donald Trump had to do to win over evangelicals was to make pleasant noises about the importance of faith while advancing a law-and-order agenda that broadly repudiated the liberal belief in a society made better through the work of human social engineering. The President’s hyper-masculine persona could only be reassuring to someone who has cast her lot with a Father Who Art in Heaven, especially a law-giving Father obsessed with a tribalist program of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Trump’s grievance and resentment based cultural war of us-against-them ought to be familiar to the most casual student of monotheism, whether the subject is Twentieth-Century Ireland or present-day Islam.

A moment ago I alluded to “the work of human social engineering.” This phrase can be understood in more than one way. It can apply to the current materialist effort to deconstruct human sexuality and gender, the idea that male and female are nothing more than oppressive constructs. But the phrase also comprises the Enlightenment notion that human societies are malleable and not forever determined by divine precept. The term for this point-of-view, that our lot may be improved through the application of human reason, is liberalism. The ideology of liberalism emerged at about the time the United States of America was established, and against it stood the authoritarian principle—the Great Chain of Being, the divine sanctioning of the monarch and aristocracy, and so forth. To be a liberal is to believe in progress driven by human intelligence and reason and effort.

At bottom liberalism and monotheism are incompatible, although it is possible to hold both in one’s mind and to claim an allegiance to both simultaneously. Many of the monotheistic schisms are in fact over this exact question, and they take many forms. Jewish anti-Zionism repudiates the man-made state of Israel on the grounds that only the Messiah may establish the Kingdom. Likewise within Islam there is a disagreement over whether the Caliphate should be established now or only with the return of the hidden Imam. In any case the City of God will be by definition a theocracy, where votes are not cast and there are no protests or courts of appeal.

Even if I am wrong about everything I have written above, it is objectively the case that President Trump is the most perfect specimen of an evangelical President. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower can not touch him for popularity. In an era when politicians are as a rule held in contempt, Mr. Trump consistently polls around 80% favourable among evangelical Christians—a useful fact, for it shows us what the ideal evangelical candidate looks like. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, but of course this is not true. Vengeance is President Trump’s, and as a matter of proxy it is now also the province of evangelicals. For what must feel like the first time, they have something approximating real political power. They are set about the work of repudiating liberalism and re-establishing the law, if necessary at the expense of conventional politics itself.