by Will Cohen
A recurrent refrain in Donald Trump’s 2011 book Time to Get Tough is that America is being laughed at–by China, OPEC, Russia, Iran. Compared to their leaders ours are weak and stupid. Trump describes Barack Obama’s approach on geopolitical and economic issues as “embarrassing”. Obama is said to “grovel,” “kiss the feet” of foreign leaders and dignitaries, “kowtow” and engage in “pretty-please” diplomacy with our enemies. Vladimir Putin, by contrast, is someone “of whom I often speak highly for his intelligence and no-nonsense way”.
If America is to be a winner we have to elect a winner to lead it. “Every day in business I see America getting ripped off and abused. We have become a laughingstock, the world’s whipping boy, blamed for everything, credited for nothing, given no respect.” We need a president “who knows how to get tough with China . . . and how to keep them from screwing us at every turn.”
For his supporters, Trump’s primary victories thus far demonstrate that he knows how to come out on top. If his rivals were as tough and smart, they would be beating him. They, like Hillary back in the 2008 primary against Obama, are in process of getting “schlonged.” Here as elsewhere, Trump’s choice of words is no mistake; it reflects with utter precision a core theme and method of his campaign, recently characterized by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal as a special species of “political pornography”. The expert bullying and pleasure with which Trump insults his opponents as losers involves a kind of sadomasochistic degradation that is the flip side of his idea of America’s being continually routed and humiliated–by those “screwing” and “whipping” and “abusing” and “laughing” at us-–that runs through his 2011 book as a kind of obsession.
The most vivid and expressive array of scriptural texts concerning humiliation are the “servant songs” in the Book of Isaiah in which an unidentified figure is said to be “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations” (Is. 49:7), says of himself “I gave my back to the smiters, and . . . hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Is. 50:6), and is described as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3). From the latter verse comes the title of a whole medieval tradition of icons of Christ “the man of sorrows,” derived from the Eastern Christian “Extreme Humility” icon of the late Byzantine period. In these passages and the icons that interpret them through early Christians’ identification of Jesus as Isaiah’s servant (Mt. 12:17-20; Acts 8:32-35), the servant’s acceptance of humiliation is redemptive. God exalts this abased and abused one above all others. The servant’s messianic, world-saving power, God reveals, lies in his meek refusal to strike back and return evil for evil.
It has been a relief to see several prominent evangelical Christians, including best-selling author Max Lucado and the editors of the popular Evangelical website, the Christian Post, take a strong public stand against Trump for the aggression and degradation fueling his campaign. These are not self-proclaimed pacifists: they would likely agree with such post-war “Christian realists” as Reinhold Niebuhr (a favorite theologian of Obama’s) that while personal relations may be built on Christian love, large-scale governance and international relations may require the hard-nosed deterrence of realpolitik.
But in Trump bellicosity and bluster are the perverse heart of the matter. The racism, misogyny, and fascist sympathy in his rhetoric have been accompanied by virtual incitements to violence against protesters at rallies–“I would like to punch him in the face,” “maybe he should have been roughed up a little,” and at the Louisville rally last week, “Get them out of here!”, about peaceful black dissenters being shoved toward the exit by some of the white supremacists Trump had been cagily slow in disavowing. On Twitter, Trump methodically disgraces critics, and swarms of his followers pile on with unbridled hate speech like roving bands of thugs summoned by a kingpin’s whistle to finish off the weak.
It is no wonder that the wide spectrum of political and religious leaders denouncing Trump should include prominent spokespersons from the Religious Right. But many conservative Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, still support Trump. Why?
Two factors may be suggested. One is that although Jesus said one cannot worship both God and Mammon, American conservative Christianity has long conflated fervent religious commitment and the transcendent importance of an unfettered free market. The Tea Party, with its heavy emphasis on the latter, counts many evangelicals among its adherents. The most conspicuous trait of the Tea Party has been its refusal to back down, even if it means shutting down government. Trump manages to sound their same defiant note of toughness and inflexibility–while offering more promise of actually getting something done.
A second factor is that evangelicals and their allies have been increasingly on the losing end of the culture wars. They experience themselves as having been trampled by the cultural Left, which has done its own share of shaming of orthodox Christianity. Trump may never have taken part in their battle, himself (unless on the other side!), but all his rhetoric about winning again after so much humiliation strikes a deep psychological chord.
“We lose at everything we do,” Trump said at the Louisville rally. “We’re an embarrassment.” He then exhorted and assured the crowd, “You’re going to vote on Saturday, we are going to go in and we are going to start winning so much.”
Winning for Trump is inextricable from humiliating. To make America great again means to humiliate nations and people who have been allegedly humiliating us. We’re going to build the wall, and Mexico will pay for it–this line at Trump rallies always gets the same uproarious explosion of whoops and cheers that his insults of his political opponents get. We’ll make others pay. We’ll get them on their knees. We’ll stop kissing their feet and bowing down. And if there’s any protest, we’ll rough them up. This approach is already showing itself in Trump’s America to apply both to enemies without and critics within. Nobody, and surely no Christian, however much a “realist,” can support such a campaign without a deep betrayal of goodness and truth.
Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.