(This blog post is a temporary departure from Schooled Haze and contemplations of AI/HCI).
Trumpism is less a political offshoot of Republicanism than it is a new religion, at least for a substantial number of Trump supporters. I keep seeing posts from various liberal friends recounting nasty infantile things that Trump has done or said as though as to say, “Well, now! That is so completely outrageous, stupid, mean-spirited, vain, or evil that surely you Trump voters will now see how you were wrong.” No. That is never going to happen. I think the “mistake” is to think that Trump is a political leader when he is actually, for many, a religious leader.
As Trump himself once famously bragged, he could shoot people in the middle of the street in broad daylight and his followers wouldn’t desert him. It doesn’t matter what he does. His value is taken as a given and everything else flows from that. You won’t convince people who are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim to change religions because you claim to have “facts” about how bad some particular religious figure is. It will simply mean they will discount your facts and their source.
Why and how could Trump become a religious figure? He seems offhand to be the complete antithesis of what most of the major religions espouse. Well, yes, but those religions I mentioned earlier arose in earlier times…much earlier. In the USA, 70% of the people claim to be Christians. But what really matters are people’s actions, not their claims. The evidence is all around us that for many people, the real religion of America is quite different from Christianity.
We have a TV culture and a popular culture and what many people really value (as measured by their actions) are things like money, greed, vanity, self-promotion, immediate gratification, superficiality, anti-intellectualism, self-righteousness, fame, and arrogance. We call people who hold high positions in a company “business leaders” regardless of whether they are or are not actual leaders. We have articles written about which colleges are “best” when the entire analysis is about the ROI of your tuition dollars. Social media are filled with “top ten” lists of ways to advance your career that take three minutes to read. We talk about someone’s “actual worth” when what we’re really talking about is their financial worth. We rank order tennis stars, golf stars, baseball stars, and basketball stars according to how much they earn. Where is the list according to their skill, elegance, mentorship, or how much they build team spirit? These things are still talked about on occasion but many people accept that the only “objective” measure of value is money.
We have transmogrified what are essentially cooperative activities like dancing, cooking, dating, and singing and made all of them into competitive contests on TV. Many of us have accepted as “normal” that all a corporation is expected to do is make the most money possible. What used to be “beyond the pale” ethically is now treated as just taking care of the bottom line. A few random examples follow. It is “normal” business practice now to send snail mail that appears from the envelope to be a check or official government business when it is, in fact, nothing but advertising. E-mail and snail mail are labelled as “In response to your query” or “As you requested” when there is no such query or request. Drinks that consist of high fructose corn syrup and water with dyes (and quite possibly FDA-grandfathered addictive ingredients) are labelled as “Natural” and “Healthy.” Did you know that “Unscented” is the name of an actual fragrance? So if you buy cat litter or fabric softener that is “unscented” thinking that you are avoiding the nasty chemicals, you are simply buying stuff that is scented with a scent called “unscented.” Recently, Wells Fargo which you don’t typically think of as a “fly by night” outfit, was caught charging customers for setting up accounts that were never asked for. Minors cannot purchase cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana. However, your ten year old can go into any grocery store and get “air fresheners.” These typically contain ingredients which include a known carcinogen, a chemical known to mess up your hormone balance, and a chemical which deadens your sense of smell. Essentially, an “air freshener” does nothing of the sort. It pollutes your air; it doesn’t “freshen” it whatsoever. Meanwhile, sports figures such as Lance Armstrong, who vigorously denied doing performance enhancing drugs apparently not only did them but threatened other athletes not to expose his drug use.
I do not want to overstate this. Most people most of the time are still honest, hard-working, and fair. The media gets paid by advertising dollars however and is therefore motivated to report only on the worst of human behavior. Very few will buy a newspaper whose headline reads, “2.5 million US Muslims worked peacefully today.” But if one goes on a shooting rampage, you can bet it will be a headline. Do you recall any headlines about Timothy McVeigh being a Christian?
Our elections and politicians are bought and paid for largely by a few multi-billionaires. A long term campaign to encourage people not to trust “intellectuals”, scientists, educators, and journalists has left people believing in fake news and social media instead. In some cases, even such blatantly obvious absurdities as “January 2017 Friday the 13th! — There will not be another Friday the 13th for 666 years!” are posted and reposted on Facebook. “Mars will never be closer to the earth!” (This with a picture that shows Mars the apparent size of the Moon). The only reason for such things is basically to serve as click bait. “Copy and Share if you are against the senseless killing of helpless kittens.”
That is the background against which we need to understand Trump and Trumpists. It doesn’t matter to Trumpists that he made more money by stiffing people. It doesn’t matter that he bragged about being able to grab women by their private parts. In fact, these are seen as plusses. He embodies the values and behaviors that symbolize a new “religion.” The problem with Christianity as a religion is that it (at least in many versions) champions the downtrodden, teaches humility, asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, warns us not to judge lest we be judged, encourages us do to unto others as we would have them do unto us. That’s okay for a couple hours on Sunday. But it really doesn’t jibe with perceived success in the modern business world. Actually, you certainly could run a business and be successful that way. But being merely successful isn’t enough. If you want to be sure to be a billionaire despite having only mediocre talent, then the path of lying, cheating, and stiffing people seems more promising. The tension between what the Bible says is good and what society actually rewards is too much for many people to bear. As a result, some churches, ministers, and practitioners focus on little slivers of decontextualized Christianity such as homophobia or a prohibition about birth control. Some even promulgate the idea that if you are rich in worldly goods, it is proof that God is smiling on you. And these tactics kind of work a little bit. But it doesn’t work nearly so well for some people as embracing a new religion that celebrates the same values as our “civil” society.
How does this perspective on Trumpism help? First, it helps us understand that Trump supporters will not be shocked if he fills cabinet posts with second rate people who appear to be joining government to line their own pockets. This is expected behavior by adherents to the new religion. Trumpists may well discount evidence of this as being fabricated by liberal media or they simply think it is evidence they are “hard-headed business people” who will make government “more efficient and effective” like private enterprise. Well, I have interacted with government agencies. And, I have worked in some of the best companies in America. You know what? They are both “inefficient.” How is your Montgomery Ward stock doing these days? How about Enron? Borders? Companies go out of business all the time. They have no magic formula that makes them efficient and effective. The idea that government is “inefficient” and private enterprise is “efficient” is just nonsense invented by people who want to send more of your dollars to private enterprises in which they have a vested interest.
Second, seeing Trumpism as a religion explains the passionate fire of many Trump supporters. It also explains how they can rationalize hate crimes in their own minds. As the religious leader of Trumpism, Trump has given permission and even encouraged violence in his name.
Third, Trumpism as a new religion explains the shallowness of thought that pervades it. Most major religions have centuries of debate and discussion about how to interpret various passages in sacred writings etc. During many parts of the history of these religions, many of the smartest most thoughtful people ended up studying — even devoting their life — to these older religions. There hasn’t been time for that yet with Trumpism. Whatever Trump tweets is the on-going gospel to the Trumpists. Trumpists themselves do not typically call it a religion. They may think their extremism is patriotism. Others may think it is simply practical. In any case, the shallowness and sloganism of Trumpists is seen as a feature, not a bug.
Fourth, understanding that our society is so ripe for Trumpism suggests that simply voting out Trump or even having him impeached, while it might prevent or delay atomic war or dictatorship, is not the complete answer. Our entire society needs to become more patient, less greedy, more cooperative, less competitive in matters that don’t require competition, more accepting and less self-righteous. We need to celebrate the people of substance and ability in every field from bricklaying and carpentry to science and teaching. We need to stop celebrating people simply because they are in the news or have inherited a lot of wealth. Trump and Trumpism are symptoms of something much more pervasive. Trump may be the cancerous tumor in the body politic, but our immune system is badly compromised or that tumor would never have grown so fat and ugly. We must also understand that our body politic still contains many healthy cells! Don’t despair! Instead, repair! Be one of those healthy cells. Survive and thrive. Civilization hasn’t fallen yet. During 2017, we can collectively perform a Billion Acts of Compassion and Kindness. #BACK2017.