October 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
The Trump movement is a quasi-religious apocalyptic-style cult.
The biblical apocalyptic movements and moments—and their historical successors—have arisen when a marginalized religious community sees the condition of the world as corrupt in all areas of collective life and believe that this corruption is beyond their ability to correct through normal human action. Only God can fix the problem and the evil is so pervasive and comprehensive that only divine violence in the destruction of the whole world and its subsequent remaking can bring righteousness and peace. This only God can effect, usually through the agency of some messiah anointed by the spirit for the role. And the righteous remnant has an enemy, which the messiah will vanquish. And the story is so cosmic and consequential that its drama seduces people who dream of playing a vital role on its stage when otherwise they would know themselves as insignificant players.
This is the situation of the apocalypses in the Bible. The story of Noah was written during the Babylonian captivity and describes how a remnant of the faithful would be saved by an ark—the vessel that holds the Law—when Yahweh cleanses the world. The second half of the book of Daniel was written during the struggle against the violent suppression of traditional Hebrew faith during the Seleucid occupation of Judea in the 2nd century BCE. The Book of Revelation was perhaps started during the First Jewish War and then finished during the persecutions of Diocletian.
Trump’s followers, which includes a large contingent of evangelical Christians who already have apocalypticism in their religious DNA, see our government as a swamp and our society as having left them behind. They view themselves as a faithful remnant who will triumph in the end. Their worldview is quasi-religious in its temperament and ideology, in its stubborn denial of reality, of common sense, and of the legitimacy of their evil opponents. They have their messiah, who actually declares himself as the Chosen One. And they have their enemies—the coastal elites, immigrants, and, as ever, the Jews and the blacks.
They believe that the corruption in American society, and especially its government, is so complete that only destroying that world, the mechanisms and institutions of the state, can put things right. It is so evil that even heinous and violent crimes, liking separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, are necessary means to an end. Human efforts toward reform, like voting and other democratic processes and institutions, are not up to the job, are even part of the problem, so they too can be destroyed or perverted in service to their vision of ultimate vindication. Most dangerously, many believe that the final judgment and remaking of the world must of necessity be violent in its processes; therefore violence as a tool is acceptable, even laudable.
Apocalyptic movements, both biblical and subsequent, are always right in their analysis of the problem and always wrong about the timing. God’s judgment never arrives on time. In fact, it never really arrives at all. Historically, this has never bothered its adherents much. Usually, they move the time back to some later date. Often, they redefine the nature of the judgment and renewal, so that they can say it actually has occurred, just not in the way they expected. Sometimes, in their denial and their despair and desperation, they go down in self-destructive flames when their failure is certain. A handful wake up in time and escape the cult; the rest never give up, though their movement may dwindle to insignificance.
If Trump loses the election, the cult will not give up. Some will believe in their violence as a necessary and effective last chance. Thus I believe that the weeks after the election will be hard; but their initial violence will burn itself out, as it always has done in the past. But the remnant will remain and they will rewrite the prophecy. They will move back the clock. They will deny the reality of their loss while decrying the suffering they claim to endure. They will continue to blame their enemies. They will redefine the endgame. They will bide their time. They will find a new messiah, dismissing Trump as obviously flawed as God’s agent, even though they had overlooked his flaws when they believed in him in the first place.
You cannot “defeat” these people or their movement. Counter-violence will only confirm their worldview. Legislation and other state action will only confirm their worldview, though it will be necessary, anyway. Only love can transform their fear, and sense of hopelessness. And that means changing their circumstances and addressing the corruption they rightly condemn. It means making changes in all areas of social life—political, economic, social—that will draw them into the fold and undo their marginalized remnant status.
As a sidebar here, it’s worth noting that civil unrest and the anger and despair of some in the African American community shares some of these elements, only they have no messiah and so they have less hope. And they’ve been marginalized forever, so the anger and despair run deep. Making the comprehensive social changes needed to address structural racism will further enrage the racist core of the Trump cult. Therefore, it will be very important to address the white alienation of the Trump base at the same time, to avoid some of the violence they will consider. At the heart, though, both efforts are about justice and renewal, so that offers some hope.
However, the cultural transformations these efforts require are very hard to achieve. Redesigning the global economy, the dynamics of democracy, the caste system and structural racism of our society, our education system, healthcare system, policing system, and our social services, all at once, in the face of, first, a global pandemic, and in the medium-to-long term, in the face of diminishing resources, global warming, mass migration, and the proliferation of weapons both terrible and conventional—we are in for a dark period, I fear. This apocalyptic moment is likely to become an apocalyptic age. Apocalyptic movements will be more and more common as demonic storms and wildfires ravage our communities; messiahs will proliferate.
Yet, times like this provide unusual opportunity. The ancient Israelites were in fact returned to their homeland, though the redemption was incomplete and came with a cost. The Maccabees won their revolt and threw the Seleucids out, though the system they set up was itself corrupt and they were conquered again a century later by the Romans. The Christians survived Diocletian only to betray Jesus’ gospel by establishing an imperial church. The apocalyptic dream is never fully defeated and never fully realized. We lurch forward, fall back, lurch forward again.
While we must not lose sight of the goal, we must also remain faithful to the process, to the calling. We are called to love, and to nonviolent social change; we are called to Spirit-led ministry. Our Quaker faith encourages us to practice a listening spirituality, to attend to the small signals, the still small voices, that will call us to action. As individuals, and even as communities, we can’t change everything, we can’t address every wrong. And we cannot be sure of success. We can only be faithful to our callings and leave the rest to God.