Guest post by Rev. Jeff Black
MAYBE, like me, you’ve been pondering the attraction between Trump and Trumpsters. I’ve wondered: What is it about this man that attracts such a fervent response? Why are people so deliriously happy to attend his incoherent rallies? What is it he offers them? Lots of them seem like good, regular people. What don’t I get?
Then I had an insight.
It came to me recently, as I watched coverage of Trump’s rally in Sanford, Florida. They’re enthralled by the apparently unstoppable triumphs of his will.
Let’s explore that a little.
In 1934, Leni Riefenstahl produced her first brilliant propaganda film, a documentary called The Victory of Faith. The faith wasn’t Lutheranism. There was a new faith in town: Hitlerism. Her film chronicled Hitler’s creation in 1925 of the Sturmabteilung, or SA. Hitler, not content with the limits of the SA, then went on to create the Schutzstaffel, or SS.
So in 1935, Riefenstahl produced her second documentary, even greater in its artistry and technique: The Triumph of the Will. It chronicled and glorified Hitler’s greatest early achievement—the rally of 700,000 Germans in Nuremberg to produce, from the ashes of Germany’s democracy, the SS, and with it, the Nazi state.
At first, Hitler appealed to folks who were stoked with resentments and looking for somewhere to fit in. But by the mid-30s, huge crowds of regular, decent citizens were streaming into his movement. The whole point of Fascism is that lots of nice conforming neighbors and family members join in.
A young Rene Girard witnessed all that, and for 80 years he pondered the dynamic that produced this mass delusion. He called it a “Mimetic Contagion”—imitation disease.
[Too briefly: what Girard tried to teach us is that we learn by imitation, that imitation begins when we see someone who has something we desire, and we imitate him or her with the intent of having our life be like theirs. Think of fan clubs, a relatively benign experience of mimetic power.]
What happens, though, when a toxic human being (almost always a deeply wounded male), models something we secretly desire, something—like, say, greed—we’ve been told is wrong but still we feel it? What happens when that leader insinuates to us that he and those who follow him can get away with saying and doing offensive things? That is the version of freedom that Trump models and offers: selective lawlessness. Remember the Access Hollywood tape? “If you’re a star, they let you do anything . . . grab ‘em by the p***y?” Don’t want to wear a mask? Who says you have to?
You’d think that anarchy would result. But no. Anarchy is extremely rare. What happens is autocracy: the triumph of one man’s will over a nation.
What is it that Trump has that people desire? First, his willpower. They believe the myth that Trump has willed himself from being a humble millionaire to a billionaire, willed himself from there to celebrity, willed himself to the Presidency. And now he has willed himself up from a deathbed—all in defiance of convention, of the constraints of decency.
The recruiting, I imagine, sounds like this: “Come to the rally and meet a man who gets away with everything the snobs tell us we can’t do, a man who’s really rich and is a big star, who isn’t afraid of anyone, who can say anything, who dominates people we can’t stand and who really gets folks like us.”
And they know that in some way he, their champion, needs them. As long as his crowds adore him, he will beam at them, confide in them, beckon them on to his winning platform for a thrilling and forbidden prize.
What he models and promises is amorality—life freed from moral constraints. His life is powered by the one thing he revels in: money, boundless money, money vacuumed in by overwhelming greed. Who hasn’t daydreamed of winning the lottery? “He’s so authentic!” they say—meaning: “He says out loud what we’ve been secretly thinking.”
He lies, he steals, he cheats, he betrays his business partners, his wives, his employees, his country—whomever he wants. And he gets away with it. People still adore him, they want his approval. Look! He seems unstoppable!!! His will triumphs. Yet . . .
Two hundred eighteen thousand killed so far this year. A political party in ruins. History’s greatest nation shamed before the world. A once-loving Evangelical church turned into a spiritual brothel.
Maybe this will be the final example of where greed takes us. Maybe our recovery from this contagion will occur in time for a chastened America to address and help resolve the actually terrifying ecocide that threatens all the known life in the universe.
Vote him into the oblivion he richly deserves, and join with those who will lead us to sustainable health. Listen to the young, listen to the elderly, listen to those who have been shut out, and listen to those who have the courage to face our actual crisis.
It is not the triumph of the will that we need.
What we need is the triumph of love for one another.
Jeff is a retired Pastor (43 years of pastoral leadership) and a Certified Spiritual Director. He and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 53 years, and have two children and three teenage grandchildren. They enjoy living in the Adirondack mountains in Upstate NY.