The Last Trump?

Editor's note. This is the first in a series of essays on the Trump phenomenon—or "Trumpism," if such a thing can be defined—and what it reveals about the relationship between religion and politics in America today

By Roger Griffin|September 8, 2016

Editor's note. This is the first in a series of essays on the Trump phenomenon—or "Trumpism," if such a thing can be defined—and what it reveals about the relationship between religion and politics in America today. Look for further installments leading up to the U.S. presidential election.

Griffin illustration.jpg"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."

1 Corinthians 15:52-53

To English eyes the run-in to the U.S. presidential election sometimes suggests that the Olympic Organizing Committee has been commissioned to run politics. I hope some remarks from a historian from across the Pond and three thousand miles outside the Washington Bubble will add more light than heat.

Trump and Christianity

Throughout history state power and state violence against the vulnerable have formed an unholy alliance with religion, perverting creeds which (if the sacred texts are read selectively in a compassionate spirit) may even encourage respect for nature and compassion for all human beings. The Aztecs; the ancient Egyptians, Jews, and Romans; the Crusaders and Conquistadors of Christianity; the countries fighting in the First World War, whether Christian or Islamic and whatever alliance they were part of, all believed they had, as Bob Dylan once put it, "God on their side." The horrors of Japanese Imperialism were enacted by a regime legitimized by Shinto, a nature religion. Hitler invoked God repeatedly and has convinced at least one scholar he was a true Catholic. The Sinhalese extermination of the Tamil Tigers was justified by Buddhism. Islam has been invoked by all the most brutal tyrants of the Middle East. Religious sectarianism and interfaith wars have probably cost millions of lives throughout history.

So when we learn that James Dobson, founder of the group Focus on the Family, claimed Donald Trump recently accepted "a relationship with Christ," adding, "I know the person who led him to Christ," jaws should not drop. Both George Bush and Tony Blair, who almost double-handedly are responsible for the collapse into anarchy of Iraq and the consequent rise of ISIS, both claimed a special relationship with (an allegedly Christian) God. Christian supporters of Trump should perhaps be urged to re-read some of the key passages of the New Testament in which Jesus reveals his Gospel of compassion for different ethnicities and the socially deprived, and the tolerance of violence directed against oneself. The sword he brought divided Christians from Jews in terms of salvation, not Americans from the rest of the world militarily.

Trump and fascism

Despite the frequent stigmatizing of Trump by his critics as a "fascist," it would be refreshing if more journalists used political categories with greater nicety. Trump is a populist, or to be exact, a radical right-wing populist. He owes his power to voicing in hardly sophisticated rhetoric widespread prejudices and simplistic diagnoses to complex problems which, if translated into practice, would prove counterproductive, discriminatory, and inhuman in many areas, both domestically and on the international stage. The flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky in pre-Putin Russia was a right-wing populist who said he wanted to charge foreigners in Russia a fee if they could not speak Russian, make vodka dirt cheap, and force all of Europe’s homosexuals to live in Holland. Putin is another, far more dangerous form of populist with geopolitical ambitions, while Berlusconi was a more lightweight, comic, less puritanical version; whatever their considerable weaknesses neither can be accused of fascism.

To be fascists they would, like Mussolini and Hitler, have to set about seizing power democratically so as to be able to dismantle or pervert the institutions of liberal democracy entirely. Trump, whatever his faults, has given no sign that he intends the destruction of the U.S. constitutional system and its replacement by a totalitarian "new order" with himself as its charismatic leader for (in his case a short) perpetuity. Nor did other so-called "fascists" such as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, George Bush, or Barack Obama, which similarly disqualifies them from the description. I grant that "Trump Is a Radical Right-Wing Populist" has less of a (populist) ring as a headline than "Trump Is a Fascist," and lends itself to less funny cartoons, but that is what he is. He wants America to be great again, but not to be reborn in a totalitarian new order, let alone force its citizens to be subjected to a coercive state monopoly of power, which for one thing would stop billionaires like him from enjoying the fruits of their ill-gotten gains or running for president.

Trump and fanaticism

Still, Trump embodies and encourages a process that underlies a considerable percentage of the suffering that has been inflicted by a minority of depraved human beings on fellow human beings down through the centuries: Manichaeanization. The Trumpian world is split into good and bad, black and white (or in his case White and anything non-White, or White without an American accent). Like a grotesque parody of Dante’s Inferno, Trump’s Hell has many places reserved for a host of those who are beyond redemption as potential American citizens. Manichaeanization combined with unchecked political or religious power leads to inhumanity, because those "in darkness" are demonized and dehumanized to a point where their suffering and death is regarded as moral and compassion for them is hence legitimately suspended.

All anti-state and state terrorists apply a Manichaeanized ideology to reduce the irreducibly complex realities of the world to a simple dualistic narrative. At this point the new-born "visionary" sees him- or herself (curiously) as entrusted with a mission to represent, or even fight for, Good. A close study of the atrocities of Nazism, the massacre of Breivik, or the horrors (not at all "medieval") of ISIS will reveal different groups of human enemies to be demonized and persecuted, but the same dualism, fundamentalism, and fanaticism at work. "Fanatic," from the Latin for a temple (thus a "profanity" is something outside the temple) implies that the Manichaean has a religious sense of fervor about the Truth, and in extremis will regard violence and inhumanity committed against alleged enemies of the Truth (or the culture/nation that is its guardian) as a sacred duty. But because Trump is operating in a rationally constructed, liberal constitution, there are countervailing powers that would restrain him from undertaking the most extreme actions. Once his hysteria and incompetence revealed themselves as a bad basis for a successful U.S. presidency he would in any case soon be removed democratically and peacefully, like Thatcher or Berlusconi, without being shot like Mussolini, committing suicide like Hitler, or being lynched like Saddam Hussein.

A bottom line

So what are genuine American humanists—Christian, Muslim, or secular—to do as the great political Superbowl approaches? Perhaps they should bear in mind that the crises of the present world system demand forms of non-fanatical activism which refuse to demonize or dehumanize anyone, even Mr. Trump. He is not the first simple-minded demagogue to appear on the political stage of a major nation. Nor will he be the last. Trump is no more (politically) immortal than his predecessors, and it is for those who can live with the complexity and tragedies of the world without being seduced by simplistic diagnoses and solutions to make sure they outlive him.


- Anthony, Michael. "Exclusive Interview with Dr. James Dobson - Did Donald Trump Recently Accept Christ? June 24, 2016.

- Kagan, Robert. "This is how fascism comes to America." The Washington Post. May 18, 2016.

- Matthews, Dylan. "I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here's what they said." Vox. May 19, 2016.

- Shekhovtsov, Anton. "Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR." Foreign Policy Journal. November 7, 2011.

Image: Blowing the Trumpet at the Feast of the New Moon | Source: Holman Bible (1890)

Author, Roger Griffin, is Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's foremost experts on the socio-historical and ideological dynamics of fascism, as well as the relationship of various forms of political or religious fanaticism, and in particular contemporary terrorism, to modernity. His publications include The Nature of Fascism (Pinter, 1991), Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave, 2007), and Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning (Palgrave, 2012).

Sightings is edited by Brett Colassaco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Click here to subscribe to Sightings.