What Trump's "Lies" Have to Do with (Political) Religion

Author
Brett Colasacco

April 19, 2018

Reviewers of former FBI director James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (Flatiron, 2018) have fixed on the second of the three terms in the book’s subtitle. In one widely disseminated quote, Comey compares the flagrant dishonesty of President Donald J. Trump and his subordinates to behavior he witnessed earlier in his career, when he prosecuted the Mob: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”

This paints a fascinating picture, one that accords with a dispassionate appraisal of the president’s public statements. Critic Michiko Kakutani, in her praiseful New York Times review of Comey’s book, notes the Washington Post’s calculation that Trump “has made an average of six false or misleading claims a day.”

But what the president-as-crime-boss analogy risks obscuring is the reality that, for some time now, Trump has not simply been the head of an (increasingly criminally suspect) organization; he is, more importantly, a political phenomenon. His power derives from his base, uniquely carved out of the old Republican constituencies, which has, despite some hiccups, held together in the main—to the consternation of many—and with which he continues to commune through the occasional rally and, of course, almost daily on Twitter.

The president’s well-documented pattern of telling falsehoods has to be evaluated in political terms—that is, in relation to a political community. Seen in this light, Trump’s “lies,” I believe, have a lot to do with political religion.

Regular readers of Sightings will recall that on November 3, 2016, I published my initial assessment of the Trump phenomenon—the last in a series of reflections we ran leading up to the U.S. presidential election. In that short essay (“After Trump”) I rather took for granted that Trump was going to lose, but argued for the long-term significance of “Trumpism” nevertheless. Specifically, I claimed that what Trump had achieved was to show that a particular form of politics could, in fact, succeed here on a national scale, which had previously seemed unimaginable—a form that resonated with what a growing body of work within the field of comparative fascist studies would describe as the “sacralization of politics.”

In the immediate aftermath of the election—shocked as I was by the results—I felt compelled to revise and expand that essay into a full-length research article, titled “Before Trump: On Comparing Fascism and Trumpism,” which appears in the current issue of JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism (see Resources below). I had observed far too many intelligent and otherwise informed people use the f-word (“fascism”) in reference to Trump without recourse to any of the scholarly literature on fascism itself. So I set out to establish the historical and theoretical foundations upon which any serious, sophisticated, and sustained comparison of fascism and Trumpism would, to my mind, need to be forged.

Like the Sightings piece that spawned it, “Before Trump” converses closely with the thought of Eric Voegelin, one of the first scholars to analyze and interpret fascism as a political religion. Originally published in Germany in 1938, Voegelin’s book Die politischen Religionen remains one of the most useful and insightful treatments of the sacralization of politics—perhaps in part because its author could draw upon his own personal experience of the National Socialist party and regime.

Voegelin wrote that the political religions (Italian Fascism and German National Socialism) were similar to the traditional religion out of which they had emerged (i.e., Christianity) insofar as each posited an order of creation according to which all of the objects of experience crystallized into an onto-theological hierarchy in relation to some realissimum or “ultimate reality.” But whereas an “other-worldly” religion like Christianity located the realissimum outside, or in the ground of the world, the fascist political religions were radically “inner-worldly,” locating their ultimate realities inside the world. Fascisms identified the realissimum with their own integral community, whose members entered into a mystical union via the office of a charismatic priestly figure or Führer.

From the sacralization of the political community as realissimum it follows that the interests of the community—and facilitation of its mystical union—are immune to external moral/ethical standards or principles of truth-verification. As Voegelin wrote: “The adherence to inner-worldly religiosity is so strong that its revelations do not break apart under the attack of scientific criticism; the concept of truth is transformed instead.” What arises is an “organic truth” on the basis of which “only that is true which promotes the existence of the organically closed, inner-worldly national community.” In other words, truth and falsity are functions of the degree to which a given proposition does or does not affirm the cohesion of the political religion, including the sacredness of the Führer’s office. Moreover, any utterance that demonstrates a willful disrespect for external, supposedly objective moral/ethical standards and principles of truth-verification can be received as an act of faith in the inner-worldly community, a sign, or sacrament, of mystical union.

As I suggest in “Before Trump,” Voegelin’s concept of organic truth may explain a characteristic feature of Trumpism: not just that Trump “lies,” but that Trump’s “lies” seem to strengthen his connection to his base.

A potential failing of my article, as an eminent scholar of Italian Fascism recently pointed out to me, is that nowhere in it do I define what “Trumpism” is. Indeed, the article deliberately leaves open whether Trumpism can be defined at all. Thus it is framed as a prolegomenon to a comparative study of fascism and Trumpism, as opposed to a comprehensive treatment in and of itself. The bulk of the article consists of a novel synthesis of the relevant scholarship on fascism, my closing remarks offered as directions for future research, not definite conclusions.

Written entirely in November 2016, the article also undoubtedly bears the marks of its time of composition. Back then it did appear, however briefly, that there might actually be some momentum behind the project of developing a partially coherent ideological apparatus surrounding Trumpism, chiefly through the pseudonymous writings of Michael Anton—who on April 8 resigned from his position as a senior national security official in the Trump administration—and, more aspirationally, in the then-ascendant “alt-right.” That movement, of course, quickly descended into a grotesque, self-parodic neo-Nazism, abandoning any pretense it might have had of being a political force of any real consequence; by most accounts its core has all but collapsed following the tragic events last summer in Charlottesville.

Still, the Trump phenomenon continues to warrant careful study. My article represents a preliminary step toward situating Trumpism within its wider historical and theoretical contexts. It is an effort to which I hope others will contribute—even if the Special Counsel investigation, precipitated by Trump’s dismissal of Comey on May 9, 2017, should bring this presidency to an end. With each passing day, the president seems more and more committed to his own self-interest over against the public interest which coalesced, quasi-miraculously, around him. But understanding the dynamics of the organic truth of Trumpism, as well as other aspects of the Trump phenomenon, could help to prepare us for what political religions may yet be conceivable on American soil, especially in hands more capable, and capacious, than Trump’s.

Resources

- Colasacco, Brett. “Before Trump: On Comparing Fascism and Trumpism.” JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 2018): 27-53. [Ed. Note: Those with access can download this article from JSTOR or Project MUSE. Others should email sightings@uchicago.edu to request a PDF.]

- Kakutani, Michiko. “James Comey Has a Story to Tell. It’s Very Persuasive.” The New York Times. April 12, 2018.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (cc)


Author, Brett Colasacco, is a graduating PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is editor of Sightings.

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See all articles by Brett Colasacco