For those who have experienced the hushed and vaguely sacramental quality of the occasion, the drawing back of the veil to stand before the priestly-machines mediating the will of citizens before the sovereign, it is perhaps not too difficult to imagine the democratic activity of voting as a modern form of confession. When the results from last November’s election disclosed that 81% of self-identified Evangelicals had confessed their affirmation of Donald Trump, a figure who for many the mark of any Imitatio Christi is either illegible or altogether absent, it set off a speculative storm about the possible significance of this astonishing statistic. To be sure, much has already been written on this, and of the ways in which the twin figures of the Capitalist and (late populist-pietistic) Evangelical continue to resonate and find purchase within the American theo-political consciousness, especially regarding motifs of debt and power; but there are perhaps additional parallels and connective points along this nexus worth exploring that might also help to articulate and shift towards a more viable mode of resistance.
When 19th century Protestants responded to what they perceived as the corrosive effects of naturalism and other (classically) liberal forms of thought, it was Evangelicalism’s enthusiastic appropriation of the ‘fundamentals’, arguably more than any other contemporary Christian expression, which has significantly contributed to its long-standing and exasperating epistemological problem. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it is this very lack of epistemic concern that might lead one already attuned to accept fideism as a viable form of knowledge to now entertain an endless stream of ‘alternate facts’ regularly put before the public. In this way we can better understand how the failure to decode information within the appropriate register can lead one to acceptance of all manner of absurd assertions such as Six-Day Creationism as well as the now infamous Bowling Green Massacre, to give just one example. While it is tempting to dismiss such absurdities on purely ‘factual’ grounds, insofar as this dismissive strategy is one that operates within a ‘modern’ paradigm, it is one both ill-adapted and inadequate and for counteracting the blatantly false assertions of the current post-truth regime. Ironically, it is the very failure of Evangelicals to apprehend its founding texts apart from a delimited and fetishized interpretative grid that can provide those committed to opposing Trumpism with a valuable lesson; it must be understood and engaged on its own terms and according to its own logic, a logic that is radically postmodern; but in what sense?
While it’s almost certain that Trump isn’t reading Nietzsche, it would come as only a mild surprise were we to hear him proclaim, “there are no facts, only interpretations”, a trope neatly summarizing the idea that we have no access to irrefutable facts because, as Mark C. Taylor explains, ‘they are filtered through a matrix already including the norms and criteria by which facts themselves are established.’ Surely no philosopher, Trump still appears as something of an intuitive genius, exhibiting a firm grasp on perspectivism and simulacra; it is narrative that provides the creative and imaginative force by which Trump expresses his will to power. Manufacturing narrative is, of course, precisely the strategy by which corporate media has been manufacturing consent for decades, so it should come as no surprise that Trump never misses an opportunity to disparage the media since they are his fiercest competition in this regard. Concerned, however, neither with facts nor normative forms of political discourse, as Judd Legum points out, ‘Trump’s aim is to elicit maximum intensity in each moment which is naturally all the more effective while tapping into and directing the anxieties and dispossessions of (particularly white) Americans against well-defined opponents.’ The late philosopher Roland Barthes aptly describes this idea in his writings on professional wrestling. (As it happens, Trump’s involvement in professional wrestling is well documented, and he was inducted into the wrestling hall of fame in 2013.) “[Wrestling] is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.” Hence, for Trump truth arises out of an inner intensity that provides the locus for his causa sui project; one which requires continuous fabulation. Orwell’s observation, “From the totalitarian point of view, history is something to be created rather than learned”, can help us understand how the consistent production of ‘alt-facts’ marks a discursive strategy to create alternate histories; and, since under postmodernism historical discourse can be understood as predominantly imaginative and rhetorical, the slogan Make America Great Again both neatly summarizes this project and marks yet another important parallel between Trumpism and Evangelicalism: Messianism.
In an American consciousness largely stripped of any robust historical sense, Make America Great Again communicates its own totality of meaning through a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In four short words embroidered on a red hat, it echoes the logocentricsm of Christianity, retracing the entire arch of the familiar Christian drama: An original state of wholeness and plenitude is lost initiating a period of exile. This loss, however, sets the stage for a dramatic redemptive project to be carried out by a messianic figure that will usher in a new regime and a ‘return’ to a state of wholeness. We need not linger on the idea that beginning (Alpha) and end (Omega) of the story provide the critical points of closure, are definitively mythological, and that this mythic quality provides the structure necessary for widespread fantasmic engagement. What is of greater interest is how in this recasting of the story, Trump replaces Jesus as the messianic figure, riding a donkey into Washington, the shouts of an expectant people anticipating the cleansing of temples, the draining of swamps. We also need not be concerned that the very structure of messianism precludes the possibility that the messiah actually arrive. The more prudent question is, what sort of messiah might Trump be? Let us transport our to-be messiah to an earlier point in the story, in the desert to face temptation. In a land under occupation (by liberal, LGBTQ, and all manner of brown-skinned infidels), it is the second temptation in the Lukean account – the power to rule and overrule, the seductive power-of-Force masquerading as the power-of-God – that proves too difficult to resist. Under the spell cast by a pernicious nationalism, the hunger for political power convinces our orange friend to accept the offer of enthronement under the terms set before him. From here, our journey towards the climax of the story is fraught with peril. Let us allow Carl Schmitt to perhaps provide a clue as to the direction this new messiah might be leading us with the provocative reminder that, “every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal, but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.”
We arrive, finally, at the place of skulls to stand in the shadow of the instrument by which redemption is thought to be executed. It is here where the crux of the matter is laid bare before us. Amidst the sounds of wailing and cheering, the stench of sweat and excrement filling our nostrils, do we dare open our eyes to take in the scene? And what will we witness? Will our eyes open to scan a darkened horizon? Will we hear the renting of the temple curtain, the trembling in the depths, the cry of forsakenness upon the cross? Or, will they open upon a brilliant sun rising upon God’s chosen people? Will we hear the holy of holies slammed shut, experiencing the blessings of a God that crucifies others in its endless quest for redemption? Let us not feign ignorance; rather than confront one’s own otherness, rather than embrace the constitutive absence already present in being, here is yet another messiah refusing to bear a cross, but certainly willing to construct them for others.
One is tempted here to detour into Girardian territory, or perhaps say something about a cultic reenactment of primordial Babylonian combat myth, or the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo which must first hollow out the subjectivity of the other, positing a feminine void into which a phallocentric logos ‘fills’ creation; but by simply continuing with Schmitt’s insight that democracies are, at least in part, formed by those it excludes, this can help clarify how the ‘exclusivity of Christ’ as proclaimed by Evangelicals is often deployed to legitimate the violent exclusion of one’s enemies to outer darkness. That is to say, exclusivity, that which is present, and presently included within the radius of identity, is premised on that which is excluded or absent. Divine power is thus conceived as the force to suppress, subdue, exclude, or if necessary, annihilate enemies. Following this logic, it becomes clear how the entire sacred ordering of the cosmos is predicated on the creation of enemies, against which one’s identity is more firmly secured. William Connolly, writing on what he has called the ‘Evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’, offers this articulation: “Today resentment against cultural diversity, economic egalitarianism, and the future whirl together in the same resonance machine. That is why its participants identify similar targets of hatred and marginalization, such as gay marriage, women who seek equal status in work, family and business; secularists, atheists, devotees of Islamic faith, and African American residents of the inner city who do not appreciate the abstract beauty of cowboy capitalism.”
While the ground common to the relationship we have been exploring certainly provides far more of interest to be excavated, particularly how the pursuit of salvation and the pursuit of wealth are mutually underwritten by specific Protestant understandings of sin, debt, guilt, and forgiveness, the point here of course is not endless exposition; we must eventually return to the promise made early on of offering something of value to those thinking resistance.
Initially, resistance seems the most appropriate term to describe the overall mood, logic, and vector of today’s American left, but an unexamined appropriation of the term risks suffusing its politics with a fundamentally negative and counter-productive ethos. Because a movement operating under the banner of resistance only becomes identifiable in the negative language of opposition, the logic of resistance is drawn into a binary system wherein resisting subjects are already caught in the gravitational orbit of the Other’s desire. As John Yoder points out, “the Zealot is the reflection of the tyrant whom he replaces by mean of the tool of the tyrant”. Resistance is thus transmuted into ressentiment, preventing the left from addressing its shortcomings and further reinforcing a perceived elitism that undermines the possibility of building the kinds of fusion coalitions that will be necessary going forward. Whether the left can successfully discover new ways of organizing, or move beyond identifying as merely a protest movement remains to be seen, but it is also dependent on its ability to both imagine and articulate a radically affirmative vision for what comes next. What particular forms this might take remains unclear, but the linkages between Evangelicalism and Capitalism previously explored might provide clues by which one can begin to faintly sketch a mode of resistance that avoids similar pitfalls. Rather than resistance, perhaps a more effective movement would be one that first thinks insistence.
On one hand, insofar as it insists on holding the question of identity open, insistence forecloses against any strategy that seeks exclusion of others as means for securing identity. On the other, instead of seeking absorption into currently existing hierarchies and regimes of power, it insists upon an affirmation of differences, recognizing difference as the very source of power to imagine and create new possibilities for existence. A politic insisting on difference thus understands antagonisms generated by the sum of social relations as grounding the self-revolutionizing process democracy names, and it is this understanding which opens the door to more robust and radical participatory politics with the potential to contest and reformulate identities, systems, and norms in all areas of social life.
If insistence cracks open this door, it must open to discover a demos no longer busy scanning the horizon for the arrival of powerful figures offering salvation. Because messianism assumes that victory is made possible by the appearance of warrior figures fighting on our behalf, it offers a release from the burden of having to do the difficult work of effectively negotiating our own conflicts and antagonisms. Messianism thus coincides with a belief in the miraculous, with a desire to make possible that which is seemingly impossible given one’s lack of power. Hence, miracles are a strategy of transcendence. The desire to transcend or move beyond one’s presently unfavorable reality – a desire for the impossible that amounts to hope for the future – is surely a noble enough thing. But of course it is uncertain whether this hoped-for future will ever arrive; it certainly cannot be said to currently exist. It is however, the very hope that insists upon the reimagining and re-creation of the present which obligates insisting subjects to more meaningful democratic participation. As such, insistence is implicated within a politics of immanence.
If it is true, as some are saying, that Trumpism is not anomalous, but symptomatic of our entrance into a post-truth milieu wherein there are no pure, self-grounding absolutes, an era in which we can no longer place the same epistemological confidence in scientific and religious schemas as in the past; if Nietzsche was correct and we have indeed entered into a world in which “objective” claims to “truth” are already enclosed within their own narrative loops and we can no longer appeal to authoritarian absolutisms to support our values, what then might provide a basis for meaningful political activity today? This post-truth reality is so frightening, that for many it is experienced as nothing less than existential terror, and we should not wonder too long that this experience coincides with a post-9/11 ‘age of terror’. There is much to be said on this point, however if we understand the experience of terror to be today’s defining mood, perhaps there is a silver lining to be discovered within this dark horizon, something which may provide a basis for the kind of radical democracy towards which insistence is directed.
But, as we have seen, this basis or ground must paradoxically be a non-ground without appeal to mind-independent ontologies. Hence, it must be existential in character and yet at the same time universal. Myopic atonement theories placed aside, it is Christianity which has always insisted, in some form or another, on locating the potential for redemption with the cross-event, the site of maximal antagonism, contradiction, and suffering. Contra to terror which insists on security, suffering insists on instantiations of justice; it calls out to those who insist on its establishment. Of course one can find creative ways of thinking justice in terms of narratives aimed toward justification. However, authentic justice requires an attentiveness to suffering; it begins with the blood which cries out from the ground. “Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?”, Patrick Henry asks us. A good question. If these times call for lines to be drawn in the sand, we must insist these lines be cruciform so as to mark the site of our crossing into new worlds.