by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
After four years of Trump, evangelicals are just left with slogans. It turns out that the Trump ethos – which they baptized, anointed, and ordained – is more of a brand than a person, an image more than a flesh and blood human being.
Despite the evangelical anointing, Trump, as Robert Ivie observes in “Trump’s Unwitting Prophecy,” is “no prophet, not even a false prophet. His disruptive persona and dismantlement motif, however, convey a latent prophecy, symbolically exposing an underlying sense of crisis” (713). Trump is not guided by any apparent self-evident truths, no sacred canon; he did and does not offer wise judgment in time of crisis; all his cries of “fake” and “fraud” notwithstanding, the evidence is clear that, as president, Trump did not suffer the burden of his commitments but reaped the personal rewards of his message – more fame, more notoriety, more money, and more political power.
And reaps. Since the election Trump has raised more than 250 million dollars – most of it going directly to him. Evangelicals think nothing of such a scam. They are used to it. They have already helped their celebrity preachers purchase $80 million luxury jets. This is business as usual among the prosperity clan. Donald Trump is an honorary member – the Rev. Donald Trump, prosperity gospel preacher.
His only remaining game is to hold us in breathless hesitation. Trump’s favorite ploy has been to treat the next move in his presidency as if it were the advertisement that begins with the words, “Stay tuned for scenes from next week’s episode.” When asked if he would attend the inauguration of Biden, Trump has said, “We will see. I know already, but I will let you know later.” Trump’s evangelical acolytes see him as the radical outsider who does not operate as usual, saying things no one else would have dreamed of saying, not cowed by Washington’s ways, not allowing decorum and propriety to get in his way, getting things done (even if that means blowing up the democracy).
But contrary to the dreams of the evangelical faithful, Trump is no radical. He is a con artist, venting the hyperbolic, irrational rhetoric of the fantastic, parading as politics. But Trump has proven himself unable to be a great enough actor to actually believe in the sacredness of his own mission. Lacking all conviction, other than self-survival, it turns out that Trump lacks the courage to play the man.
In short, Trump is a politician bereft of the gods. The Christian god has been tacked onto his reputation by the evangelicals, but he remains a tragic figure; as James Darsey – in his discussion of Joe McCarthy – quotes Maurice Levy , Trump “participates in the epistemological chaos [created by evangelicals] to the point of psychosis” (82). Trump worships only himself, talks only of himself. To give but one example, in the middle of a pandemic update conference Trump moved seamlessly from the death count to musing about how many people had noticed that he was number one on Facebook that day.
Trump has never really caught the evangelical fervor of his followers. His faith lacks substance. His speeches are raw chaos, carnivalesque in character, lacking in historical references or apparent knowledge of the great traditions of the presidency. He has nothing to draw upon but the resources of his own profane experience. Trump is the slogans he has devised and the image he has created.
Trump and his evangelical disciples look for all the world like the fashion description of the prophet Isaiah:
All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away (Isaiah 64:6, KJV).
And they neatly fit the dire descriptions of Jeremiah:
They “went after worthless things and have become worthless themselves”; “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:5, 13, NRSV).
Behold the cracked cisterns: Donald Trump and his evangelical worshippers.
Trump, I argue, is a sublime fantasist followed by a people particularly susceptible to the fantastic. I use the term “fantastic” as a moment of epistemological uncertainty, a moment of being suspended between whether we are hallucinating or witnessing a miracle. When we accept that the fantastic is a form of spiritual impoverishment, then we can properly understand what Trump has wrought. The evangelicals keep eating the “bread of this world” – creationism, rapture, anti-science, American nationalism, a fake golden age of America – and thus they keep starving because that is what the fantastic does. To quote Levy again, “The fantastic is a compensation that man provides for himself, at the level of imagination, for what he has lost at the level of faith” (82).
In short, the fantastic is hollow at its core. And that fits the shady world of Donald Trump, a man who wants to be known as a great builder, but who has constructed nothing. His fake world is empty, emptying, dissolving. In Trump’s dark, foreboding rhetoric he has destroyed hope while increasing hatred. His promises notwithstanding, he has never turned on the light. There is no salvation here, but only the articulation of anxiety, rage, resentment. He is just another faux evangelical screaming in the night at the invisible demons that haunt his personal emptiness.
Now, if Trump were alone in his alienation, his case would have been boring and uneventful and not even remotely dangerous – simply just an example of personal psychopathology. But behind Trump’s rhetoric are his creators, the evangelicals – a people with an anti-social motive, a people with a set of social patterns rooted in the 1950s and socially objectified as danger, ignorance, separateness. Employing Trump to the full, evangelicals have managed to increase doubt while ushering legions into the dark spaces where people are “without God and without hope.” They have provided the sound and the fury while signifying nothing.
For four years America played along at Donald Trump’s court. We waited outside. We wanted Trump to execute judgment, to provide us with a vision, to have a viable plan for the pandemic, a standard under which we could march. But as president Trump did none of these things. For a television star, an actor-of-sorts, he never provided a clear, stable dramatic structure for the nation to sing our songs, dance our dances, and reach for our better angels. Instead, he and his obsequious allies systematically subverted the rules for judgment, the media, the schools, the courts, and the legislatures. In the process, he has intensified our divisions, increased our mistrust, and led us astray from our national goodness.
Now, the play has ended, and the audience, as an audience, largely sits glued to their seats, unable to move, incredulous at the destruction. In the 1960s Will Campbell offered a prescient warning:
In a tragedy you really don’t take sides with any satisfaction. In classic tragedies, by the end of the drama, everyone is involved and may be lying dead on the stage. All are at some level innocent and guilty – none with an easy, clear, good choice.
On the stage that is America, all the dead – including all those who unnecessarily died in the pandemic — are strewn. And the empty persona of Trump, like a ghost, is preparing to slither away stage right, to lurk in the dark places of American politics and American religion for at least four more years.
Do his evangelical devotees now realize that the fantastic, the amazing, the beautiful Mr. Trump was but hyperbole, humbug, someone resembling P. T. Barnum? Do they now understand he was but a dark phantasm of their own making?
I don’t think so.
Behold the cracked cisterns: Donald Trump and his evangelical worshippers.