Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The First Church of Jesus H. Trump

If you follow Blue Facebook, the consensus is clear: President Trump’s first solo press conference last week was catastrophic. His attacks on the assembled press, attempts to silence dissent, rambling responses, and lack of coherent message basically invited mockery from the coterie of hack comedy writers and amateur psychologists cluttering one side of politics. So you may have felt surprised when conservative bomb-thrower Ann Coulter posted this gem on Twitter:
Yes, Ann Coulter, a woman whose views are so extreme that the National Review fired her, had a transporting moment of religious ecstasy while watching the President’s performance. Though Trump’s first solo outing was so bad that even Fox News’ Chris Wallace turned on the President, Ann Coulter is practically shouting “Habemus Papam!” on today’s most-quoted social media platform. So I realized: of course she did. He’s clearly a religious figure.

More important, the performance Trump’s opponents derided wasn’t word salad. Repetitions of words like “tremendous” and “great,” present progressive verbs like “are becoming,” and simple explosions of phrases like “not good” when pressed on Russian spy ships inside American territorial waters, suggest a desire, not to inform Americans, but to get us shouting in unison. If Donald Trump is a religious leader, he’s using familiarly liturgical language.

Liturgy is the shared repetition, usually in unison, of religious language amid large groups and congregations. Frequently, even powerful religions like Christianity and Islam are riven by dissension about theological concerns; but they’re unified by the experience of repeating community language like the Lord’s Prayer or the daily prayers of Salah. In many ways, liturgy, far more than faith, is what keeps religions and their believers unified across time.

This isn’t incidental to the religious experience. Sociologist Émile Durkheim notes that religions which maintain strict liturgy have much lower incidence of apostasy than religions soft on liturgy. Many evangelical Christian groups in America and Europe have eschewed liturgy as mere mindless repetition, and are now seeing membership flake off at unprecedented rates. Strictly liturgical traditions like Catholicism or Lutheranism, by contrast, are stable or even slightly growing.

Donald Trump’s very simple repetition of emotive adjectives like “tremendous,” “great,” and “really” have the practical purpose of keeping his own famously brief attention span anchored on admittedly tedious activities like press conferences. But when he repeats key phrases like “Believe me,” “We’re going to win,” and “Political Correctness,” these terms aren’t for him. He, or whoever writes his Teleprompter speeches, wants audiences at home to repeat these terms.

In case anyone forgets these two have a history: Ann Coulter is a longtime Trump evangelist

Just as Christian congregants recite “We Believe” while speaking the Apostles’ Creed in worship, Trump’s assertions of himself as believable join True Believers together in a shared experience. The verbal reminder creates mental pathways when asked to explain their beliefs to outsiders. Christians have a clear creed of the Father, Son, and Spirit they can recite in under two minutes. Trump supporters have their leader’s pithy, often funny catch phrases.

This extends to creating a group identity. When Christians repeat “We Believe,” they implicitly state they don’t believe the opposite. What the Apostles’ Creed says implicitly, Donald Trump says explicitly. His use of paired descriptors advances this claim, as when he contrasts “winning” with “losers,” how “smart” he is with whomever he dubs “moron,” declaring himself “strong” while calling his opponents “lightweight,” and most blatantly, his pairing “we” with “they.”

Creating this shared experience gives believers a group identity, which they can deploy against challenges. Assailed by pluralism and secularism, Christians retain their religious identity because they have confidence, not only in God, but in other Christians. Likewise, Trump supporters, feeling embattled by America’s changing economic and demographic constituency, are nevertheless emboldened in their beliefs because they aren’t going forward alone.

Beyond doubt, this can create problems. Anti-science Christians, abortion clinic bombers, and the Westboro Baptist Church are obvious examples of people so emboldened by identity that they become destructive. Perhaps this arises from a purely oppositional religious position. But purely oppositional politics is no better, if preserving “white working class” identity means keeping minorities, homosexuals, and immigrants down. Any identity can become toxic under stress.

Bruno Latour writes that religious language (almost) never attempts to convey information. “What [divine injunctions] transfer is not information content, but a new container,” he writes, meaning religious language doesn’t inform but transform the hearer. While Trump’s opponents “fact-check” his claims, believing they primarily contain factual propositions, True Believers internalize the form, becoming new together. Facts don’t matter when confronting liturgy. In total, only what we’re becoming, now, together, matters.

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