If the fury and frantic comportment has an equivalent in American history, it resembles the Salem Witch Trials more than a legitimate political cause, so crazed with spiritual anxiety and restlessness are the “Never Trumpers”…
Seldom a day goes by in 2017 that a mainstream media story does not appear about the increasingly frantic and feverish antics of President Donald Trump’s leftist opposition. From deranged Ivy League professors cursing law enforcement during violent protests to the hysterics of supposedly unbiased news reporters aghast that a duly elected President would challenge their liberal paradigms and expose their biases, there appears to be a significantly deeper dynamic than merely a stark difference in opinion or even a raucous political exchange. As objectionable as some of President Trump’s policies and rhetoric may be to liberal (and some conservative) sensibilities, the President Trump opposition’s fervor bears striking resemblance not to the principled discipline of the civil rights struggle or the sober determination of the women’s suffrage campaign, but to the existential angst typical of many religiously driven fanatical factions. Understanding this characterization helps one grasp the origin of this movement’s rabidity in our nation’s religious history and why President Trump elicits such a visceral reaction from many of his most prominent opponents, a deeply-seated opposition that is unlikely to subside in the near future.
While the thrust behind President Trump’s opposition may represent the intersection of many cultural and political phenomena, from radically divergent worldviews to the left’s politically expedient recourse to identity politics, what distinguishes it from other feverish and intense political arguments is its ferocity and the widespread belief that President Trump’s presidency truly (not merely rhetorically) represents an apocalyptic threat, the mere occurrence of which is an imminent hazard to people’s safety, and necessitating physical protection. Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age provides a sharp lens for tracing the origins of this fervor. Outlining the decline of mainline Protestantism and the order it gave, until recently, to the nation’s public discourse and moral code, Dr. Bottum contends that the descendants of these liberal Protestants continue to exist in what are broadly recognized as our society’s secular elites, simply without the denominational titles and formal cohesion that once defined them. Yet the morality they presuppose and espouse is directly descended, in post-Christian manifestations, from the broad precepts mainline Protestant churches once taught.
Examining the primacy that mainline Protestant churches formerly held in American civic life, Dr. Bottum claims that these sects provided the nation’s public discourse with a common ethical “vocabulary: a way we had to understand ourselves outside our political struggles and economic exchanges” (83). In doing so, this language “gave America something vital, a social unity and cultural definition” (109). This vocabulary also elevated civic dialogue, investing it with both a moral quality and an immediacy inherent in many zealous movements whose adherents believe its origins and consequences are other-worldly. Yet just as they were reaching the peak of their influence, the mainline groups ceased maintaining core Christian tenets which were gradually replaced with robust, though relativist, notions of social justice not dependent on Christ. Dr. Bottum credits theologian Walter Rauschenbusch’s early twentieth century social Gospel with focusing the Christian imperative on reforming systematic injustices imposed by long-standing societal structures and the urgent need for the believer to repent of society’s sins. For Rauschenbusch and his ilk, sin consisted of the societal level “evil[s] of bigotry, power, corrupt law, the mob, militarism, and class contempt” (66). Since God’s Kingdom was “always but coming,” these injustices were vested with a transcendent if not metaphysical quality, raising the stakes for the moral nature of both acknowledging them and, especially, supporting corresponding liberal solutions.
Today’s post-Protestant elites are identified by several distinguishing markers: They consider themselves enlightened, although Dr. Bottum uses the term “redeemed” to demonstrate their Protestant heritage as they hold ideas which demonstrate that “they have been transformed—they ‘repent of… collective social sins’—and this transformation into the elect is the class marker by which the[y] recognize one another” (130); they hold a broad moral code animated by a commitment, even if only in belief and not necessarily in action, to social reform against perceived oppression (66); and, threats to their moral code are existential, upsetting an order of justice which may lead to apocalyptic consequences, endangering the world as it ought to be. Their impetus is also thoroughly liberal Protestant in its origins as opposing societal injustices provides a spiritual reward of sorts. It is a self-esteem generated by the confidence that “repent[ing] of our collective social sins [gives] faith in the possibility and reality of a divine life in humanity… [because] the most intimate duty of the religious man… [is to] help build the coming Messianic era of mankind” (73).
Given Dr. Bottum’s framework, examples of the anti-President Trump movement’s angst abound, instances which are similar to Rauschenbusch’s “righteous anger [that] constantly threatens to boil up… a fury that the world remains in sin” (55). For example, in the wake of the President’s election, many of his opponents ascribed morally wicked motivations to his voters, attributing their support not to a fundamental difference of opinion but rather to a parade of horrible attributes and malicious intentions—they were racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and bigots. They were not good-willed adversaries or even harmlessly ignorant rivals. Instead, they were individuals of questionable character, even “irredeemable,” as their failed candidate contended. Indeed, these indictments were beyond mere rhetoric given that these serious accusations were consistently repeated as indisputable facts. Given the continual attempts to expose, ruin, demonize, and punish dissenters, if this fury and frantic comportment has an equivalent in American history, it resembles the Salem Witch Trials more than a legitimate political cause, so crazed with spiritual anxiety and restlessness is this segment of President Trump’s opponents.
Consider, also, the various professions of faith that post-Protestant culture demanded before and after last year’s Presidential election from notable public figures. Those in highly visible professions were required to denounce, on their public platforms, candidate President Trump. For example, those in the entertainment industry, who arguably embody the glamorous segment of our society’s cultural elite given their fame and the ubiquity of the post-Protestant ethic in their ranks, were subject to intense pressure to reject President Trump and advocate against his election, to make something akin to a profession of faith. President Trump’s supporters felt compelled to hide their beliefs for fear of losing their livelihood. Those who refused to say anything were subject to an inquisition, with ardent speculation that they may be clandestine President Trump supporters and, by implication, share in his supporters’ malevolent motivations. If they were insufficiently passionate in their opposition, they were browbeaten into an apology.
This angst is not limited to famous people, but is widely dispersed among subscribers to post-Protestant morality, the broader coalition of the so-called elites. Witness the instance, which the mainstream Time magazine reports with sympathy, of seventy-five-year-old Michael Garland who “died peacefully” after his being told, falsely, that President Trump had been impeached. That such words allowed him to take “his final, gentle breath” with the assurance that “his Earthly work [was] concluded” is a textbook example of Dr. Bottum’s thesis. Indeed, it betrays a deeply-rooted belief that President Trump represents a threat to the liberal order of justice, such that news of his impeachment gave Garland such profound serenity and closure about his life at his final moment, a fact important enough to include in his obituary. With such moral weight placed on President Trump’s victory, perhaps it should not be a surprise that Hillary Clinton’s liberal Protestant pastor referred to her loss as a Good Friday and as significant as Christ’s crucifixion. Nor should it astonish anyone that Mrs. Clinton is considering spending her golden years as a Protestant minister, preaching against societal injustice and in favor of statist solutions while infusing her liberal message with no less than the importance and authority of the Gospel.
Of course, it should also be acknowledged that the President routinely makes remarks that are incendiary to his critics and delivers them with cutting precision. Exploiting an opponent’s vulnerabilities understandably invites hostility. Yet, the outrage and frenzy the President elicits is an insidious rage, provoked by even the mere questioning of the post-Protestant presuppositions about society and the person. President Trump incites such a fierce resistance in large part because he refuses to assent to the Post-Protestant metaphysical beliefs about the Kingdom which is “always but coming” and the “collective social sins” (66) which need to be acknowledged and remedied. In doing so, he calls into doubt the underpinnings of this liberal post-Protestant worldview, a paradigm so deeply held that having it questioned and defied induces a profound spiritual unease. It is an anxiety that gives rise in many cases to spite, hatred, and loss of perspective, phenomena experienced in abundance since President Trump began his campaign. The President, of course, does more than refuse to yield or withhold his apology; he scorns the unity that the liberal consensus believes their ideas provide, or at least ought to provide, society. Perhaps more disconcerting for these Never-Trump pursuits is that the President’s electoral victories and their inability to keep him from flouting their moral code and prescribed etiquette indicate that a large segment of the nation rejects their stances, sufficient enough to unsettle the moorings of their beliefs. This reality undercuts their foundational spiritual reward: the self-esteem and confidence that they are redeemed and sufficiently enlightened to recognize society’s fundamental injustices. It is no wonder, then, that they recoil so strongly from the very essence of President Trump’s movement, for its prevalence and success undermines their ontological purpose.
Certainly, President Trump has many ardent yet measured opponents who are not prone to anxiety-driven absurdities and violence. And, sadly, many individuals with ideologies closer to the President are also prone to fanaticism. However, their motivations are distinct, and they do not constitute a prevailing elite with the influence to assert their order on society. That so many of the President’s opponents are animated by robust spiritual and even existential concerns in addition to an ardor that often accompanies religious fanaticism, adds a dimension to understanding why they so routinely manifest vitriolic insults that question opponents’ integrity whilst moving quickly to silence these dissenters with blind fury. It also highlights that these current cultural conflicts may, in fact, be part of a larger religious and spiritually-motivated culture war and, as such, it will not be easily or quickly resolved.
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