The work of explaining Donald Trump would seem nearly done. The sheer tonnage of analysis on him outpaces any other modern presidential candidate, not merely because of his own peculiarity but also because of the algorithmic enormity of the internet, where the long form essay on Trump has become a rite of passage for anyone with a byline. Despite the vastness of this critical record, many of the accounts of Trump’s ascendance can be summarized in one word: economics. Yet the numbers complicate the argument that income or education levels predict Trump support or that working-class whites support him disproportionately. The results of 87,000 interviews conducted by Gallup reveal that those who like Trump are under no greater economic distress or immigration-related anxiety than those who oppose him. Trump supporters do not have lower incomes or higher unemployment levels than other Americans.
Religionists will be familiar with this dissonance. If you believe in Marian apparitions, throw yourself on a funeral pyre, pray five times a day, or speak in tongues, you supposedly do so because you are poor and hungry for epic consequence. Yet, it just isn’t so. There are rich Muslims and poor Muslims; rich Pentecostals and poor Pentecostals. And as we know, there are wealthy Trump supporters and poor Trump supporters. Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000—higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters. Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33 percent among whites or 29 percent overall.
These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing the story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of Trump. We like that story because it’s one that comforts us into believing that a liberal education begets liberal political thinking, and that a living wage could soothe the vulnerable. It’s nicer to believe that someone trusts in something irrational because they lack food or shelter or health insurance. It’s harder to understand why the world-class physicist is also an evangelical or a college-educated Army officer is voting for Trump.
Why those who support Trump do so can be captured by perspectives on income, not income itself; by perspectives on race and immigration, not by racial identity; by a sense that everybody else is wrong for the job, even if he is not quite right for it. Consider: 63 percent of Trump voters favor revoking birthright citizenship (compared to the 51 percent in the overall Republican National Committee (GOP) electorate). Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters claim that President Barack Obama is a Muslim—twelve points higher than the overall GOP figure.
These perspectival shards press us to think about what organizes groups to adhere to ideas that seem senseless to those outside the group; to observe, as well, the fear of those groups. They press us to think, among other things, about religion. Sociologists have observed that there is no better way to strengthen a collectivity than to galvanize its relationship to those outside of it. In his essay on the point, The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer pursued what seems obvious: that hatred “is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.” As he writes: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” Why would people choose to embrace hate? Hoffer puts it starkly: Hate gives new freedom. If you’ve allied your individuality to a powerful whole, you experience “new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.” The process of becoming unified frees individuals from “the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment.” Racism and bigotry consolidate hate into a single lurking cartoon figure: the angry black woman, the pedophile homosexual, the Muslim terrorist.
“They” (group members) stereotype and vilify each other. At the same time, “we” (analysts) do not readily admit our own general fear of collectivity—how we are uncomfortable in the face of those who have bonded together in common cause to do something. In addition, Hoffer’s analysis does not take into account the mimicry among groups, as well as those who study them.
Antisemitism is one of Trump’s many racially charged idioms. Recently, Kati Curts has analyzed anti-Semitic representations in automobile magnate Henry Ford’s print media, finding that these representations were central to Ford’s response to what he perceived as Jewish dominance of industry, finance, and media. Ford did not just prosecute this aim in writing scurrilous things about the “international Jew.” Embedded within his entire system of mass production was a series of assignments about which were the right bodies to make the machines that would manifest our national greatness. These international Jews were “men without countries,” inventors and manipulators of the money system of the world, who used their power to promote war—because “no matter who lost, they stood to win.”
At an October rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said: “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.” Although Trump denies this comment was a dog whistle to those familiar with The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion (1903), his followers did not miss the message. A report from the Anti-Defamation League asserts that one of the legacies of the Trump presidential campaign is the revival of antisemitism in American political discourse. It found about 2.6 million tweets containing clear markers of anti-Semitic content, which combined for a total reach of 10 billion impressions—all in connection to Trump statements during the campaign.
What Curts’s work recalls is that antisemitism in the United States has dwelled less on framing Jews as the killers of Christ than Jews as those who are better at organizing themselves in vast frontiers of new material possibility. In America, then, antisemitism is in part legitimized through strategic cooptation of Jewish authority. We see this in the attention to Ivanka Trump’s conversion and her “power-broker” Orthodox spouse, in Trump’s donations to Jewish philanthropic organizations, and in the number of Jews on his staff. As Jay Goldberg, who worked for Trump from 1990 to 2005, notes in an interview with Michael Wilner for the Jerusalem Post: “He surrounds himself oddly enough with Jewish personnel, both then and now . . . I can’t think of one Christian person on his senior staff . . . It’s amazing to me. It’s almost prejudice in favor of Jewish people.” The historian of antisemitism corrects Wilner with an old saying: a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews. What is it to love or to hate members of a group in their group identity? What is contagious—not just about group thinking in general but about the circulation of ideas between groups apparently at odds?
In January, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported findings that showed that it is a penchant for authoritarianism—not income, education, gender, age, or race—that predicts Trump support. The questions posed by MacWilliams focused on childrearing, asking those polled whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant. Respondents who picked the first option were more likely to vote for Trump. This is the oddity a student of religion is well-placed to observe: that Trump, who himself is proudly disobedient, should call forth supporters who value just the opposite. The Trump voter wants someone whose authority makes others around him behave themselves. Here it is not mimicry between groups but a kind of countermodeling.
The history of divine power has no small record of reflection on the role of obedience to disorderly powers. To take just one example, Stephen Davis has written about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a text that purports to recount aspects of Jesus’s childhood. In it, the boy Jesus not only performs miracles while at play, but also is wholly unmannerly, getting enmeshed in a series of interpersonal conflicts and eventually cursing to death those who rub him the wrong way. When another child upbraids the young Jesus for mischievous behavior, Jesus turns to the boy and curses him: “May your fruit be rootless and may your shoot be dried up like a young branch charred by a violent wind!” Jesus’s words have an instantaneous effect. “Immediately,” we are told in the infancy gospel, “that child dried up.” Davis suggests that early readers might have seen these scenes as depictions that echoed their own experiences fighting with opponents, in this case, though, amplified by someone with access to divine power.
It will be helpful to continue to think about the cursing power of this kind of public engagement—one in which the leader is victorious not because he is right, but because his words hit the right ritual beats for a sporting culture hungry to see the domineering forms of authority in their lives laid to waste. Trump is you in a video game where you get to shoot your lady boss, punch your Latino co-worker, and leave a feces dump in the unemployment office you end up in after doing so. Power is a discourse, and Trump wields it like the boss of bosses, like the infant Jesus, like you if you get to be unhinged from the rules of engagement. In the wake of Trump’s candidacy, we could do better in examining accounts of this unhinged authority—however fantastical, however absurd—to understand the story of his ascent rather than to obsess about supporters’ self-delusion. We might also reflect on the strange circulation of strange ideas. If the history of religions teaches us anything, it is that a dose of absurdity does nothing to diminish the potency of a call to power. If anything, it is the missing ingredient, the yeast of effervescence.