Trump as Messiah

by Ivan Light

How can they still back him? During the Trump presidency, this question arose again and again when, despite a relentless succession of failures, lies, outrages, and scandals, his voters loyally backed Trump. The question remains unanswered because, standing outside Trump’s political base, opponents who asked it could not answer it. To explain extreme political loyalty, one must dispassionately examine  political ideas for their consequences, not their truth value. When that is done, Trump emerges as a messiah, not just a politician. A messiah is a savior predicted by prophets of old. Because saviors were predicted, people know that saviors are coming. When change-makers  appear, believers compare them with the template they inherited in order to decide whether this change-maker is the predicted savior. Once recognized, a messiah has a license to exercise charismatic authority in the service of rule-defying innovation. Jesus of Nazareth was that kind of messiah. Predicted by prophets of old, Jesus broke with pharisaic Judaism to create a new religion. With some loss of emotional intensity, messiahs can be secular as well as religious. A secular messiah can emerge from any thought tradition that predicts rule-breaking supermen who rescue the people from disaster. In economic thought, entrepreneurs periodically break rules to renew and reconstruct the market economy. Entrepreneurs are economic messiahs because, predicted in advance, they command prophetic authority to enact rule-defying innovation. When a secular messiah is also a religious messiah, as is Trump, the messiah has dual constituencies and so enjoys expanded authority. Trump’s messianic authority explains the loyalty of Trump’s followers.  

From Luther to Trump
Trump’s messianic authority derived from secular and religious ideas that entered the American consciousness at different moments in history but some of which predate the American Revolution. The ideas that conferred messianic stature upon Trump arrived in four historic waves, each of which modified but did not erase the priors. Of these, the earliest and most important was the Protestant Reformation which introduced religious ideas friendly to capitalism. Martin Luther (1483-1546) developed the idea that ordinary people had a religious duty to labor in their occupation and that idleness was sinful. In John Calvin’s (1509-1564) theology, wealth became a sign of God’s favor and poverty of disfavor. On this view, business owners enjoyed God’s favor in this world and salvation in the next; the poor endured God’s chastisement in this world and damnation in the next. Enjoying God’s respect, wealthy business owners deserved the respect of all decent folk. Reformation Protestantism transitioned to British America in the seventeenth century but was firmly institutionalized only in New England outside of which churches and clergy were few. Into this religious vacuum came three religious revivals of momentous historical importance. The first “great awakening” (1740-1750) spread an emotional and pietistic Protestantism to unchurched colonists in every region, especially the South. Two subsequent awakenings  (1790-1830, 1860-1890) expanded a popular following for an evangelical Protestantism that combined personal piety and Biblical inerrancy with respect for wealth acquired in business and condemnation of the poor for their poverty. In 2018, one quarter of American adults characterized themselves as evangelical Protestants and of these, half resided in the South. Most of them voted for Trump.

From Darwin to Trump
In the late nineteenth century, Darwinian ideas greatly influenced social thought all over the world. In Europe, social Darwinism linked to nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. Hitler was a social Darwinist. In the United States, Darwinism linked to business. As is well understood, Darwin’s theory of natural selection undermined the inerrancy of the Bible, and evangelical Protestants rejected it for this reason. Ironically, social Darwinism lent scientific authority to the old-fashioned Protestant understanding of the class hierarchy as a ladder of personal merit.  The leading American Darwinist was William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) in whose memorable phrase, a “struggle for existence” pitted humanity against indifferent nature. Sumner argued that “heroic” entrepreneurs did and rightly should control the economy because business was a monetized jungle success in which had proved their optimal fitness. “In the struggle for existence,” he wrote, “money is the token of success.[1] Sumner also blamed the poor for their poverty, but his grounds were naturalistic, not religious. In Sumner’s view, nature had declared the poor unfit to survive, a judgment beyond human appeal. No Pollyanna, Sumner conceded that Gilded Age entrepreneurs cheated their way to wealth by “fraud, swindling, and financial crimes,” but he excused their immorality. Why did it matter that some millionaires were “idle or silly or vulgar” as long as they capably managed the economy? [2] The huge fortunes of the business elite represented “the legitimate wages” of economic leadership. Social Darwinism dispersed adulation of wealthy business owners and trickle-down economics to educated, secular conservatives outside the South who were ready to understand the market economy as the natural order rather than a human contrivance. Among those who received the message decades later was Donald J. Trump who explained, “The world is a vicious and brutal place… It’s a cruel world and people are ruthless.” Trump even endorsed social Darwinism by name: “A lot of life is about survival of the fittest and adaptation as Darwin pointed out.”[3]

From Schumpeter to Trump
Sumner’s idealization of “heroic” business tycoons influenced subsequent economic thinkers. In the early twentieth century, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) introduced the concept of “creative destruction” that put entrepreneurs at the epicenter of the capitalist innovation cycle. Schumpeter proposed that capitalism had periodically to destroy what existed in order to replace it with something newer and better. Doing just that, entrepreneurs predictably strode forth to rejuvenate capitalist progress. Initially, Schumpeter depicted entrepreneurs as biological “supermen” endowed with inherited genius, will, and physical energy well above ordinary levels, an extreme statement that he later modified. After all, the central task of entrepreneurs was only to push forward economic innovation, overcoming opposition, and demolishing existing structures. This philosophy is paraphrased by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as “move fast and break things.” Writing entrepreneurs into economic theory in this way, Schumpeter predicted their periodic recurrence, identified their benign long-term consequences, legitimated their rule-breaking, and inscribed that understanding into economic science, which then diffused it to publics unaffected by evangelical Protestantism or social Darwinism. Doing all that, Schumpeter cast rule-breaking entrepreneurs as secular messiahs.

From Batman to Trump
The public does not read economics, but economics gets into comics. The most famous entrepreneur in American society is Batman, a comic-strip superhero invented in 1939. Batman comics and films combined, amplified, and transmitted entrepreneurship imagery derived from prior historical sources. The fictional Batman also resembles the real Donald Trump to a startling extent.  Like Donald Trump, Bruce Wayne (Batman) is a billionaire entrepreneur who inherited and runs a vast family business. Like Donald Trump, Bruce Wayne built a glamorous reputation as a spend-thrift playboy who conspicuously appears in the company of beautiful women. Ordinary people admire Wayne’s glamorous lifestyle as in reality they admired Trump’s. Like Donald Trump, Bruce Wayne became a celebrity in Gotham City as a result of his conspicuous consumption of luxury.  Like Trump, Wayne boasts a genius-level intelligence, high energy, athleticism, and trained ferocity. With the exception of athleticism, all these are traits Trump claims for himself. Trump did not invent Batman; Batman invented Trump.
In the Sumner/Schumpeter vision, entrepreneurs are economic saviors, but in Gotham City the playboy entrepreneur promoted public safety as well as public prosperity. The playboy entrepreneur secretly risks his life to  protect citizens from criminals whose insane depravity threatens civilization just as, it must be observed, believers credit president Trump with defending against the Q-Anon conspiracy. Because of his genius, athleticism, technology, energy, and ferocity, characteristics derived from Schumpeter and Sumner, Batman defeats criminals against whom police were helpless. True, his methods violate laws, but they work so Gotham residents excuse them. Admiring Wayne’s luxurious lifestyle, Gotham City residents are unaware that Wayne protects them at his own expense, but Batman fans learn that playboy entrepreneurs protect them from depravity. In this way, the movies and comic strips primed Batman fans to understand entrepreneur Donald Trump’s soteriological mission and legitimate his rule-breaking. Predicting the playboy savior, Batman made a messiah out of candidate Trump. Sensing the advantage of identification with Batman, Trump’s political campaigns consciously encouraged the candidate’s identification with the caped crusader.

Trump as Messiah
John Maynard Keynes once wrote that “madmen in authority distill their frenzy” from the writings of long-dead “scribblers.” This is also true of comic strips. Batman condenses, embodies, and disperses messages of Protestantism, Darwinism, and economics that, retaining their separate niches, had already diffused into American popular culture by 1939, seven years before Donald Trump was born.  When candidacies confirm the arrival of messiahs, people hear a savior’s voice. Importantly because of prophetic folklore, wealthy entrepreneurs acquired the basic qualification to secure the Republican Party’s nomination for president. In the twenty-first century, all Republican candidates for president have been wealthy entrepreneurs. During the presidential debates in 2020, three entrepreneurs were also Democratic finalists (Bloomberg, Steyer, Yang) and two  were billionaires. None were janitors even though there are many more janitors than billionaires. Unlike janitors, who carry a cultural freight of meritocratic failure, billionaires stride before the public as super-successful products of the competitive marketplace. Thanks to Batman and those long-dead scribblers, the American public knows in advance that entrepreneurs possess high intelligence, energy, drive, ambition, a killer instinct and benign concern for social wellbeing. Moreover, because predicted by scribblers, the public knows that billionaire entrepreneurs can save them by the exercise of charismatic authority in the service of rule-defying innovation.
Was Trump a sacred or secular messiah? He was both. In 2017, the Pew Research Foundation asked a sample to agree or disagree to this statement: “God chose Trump to become president because God approves of Trump’s policies.” Fifty-three percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed as did 32 percent of Republicans,  but only 18 percent of white Catholics did so. Of course, policies make a difference too, and evangelical Protestants approved of Trump’s policies but so did conservative Catholics who did not endow Trump with divine authority. If we ask how fervently a political base supports a politician, we ask about loyalty. Mere politicians obtain bounded approval that evaporates in the face of malperformance; secular messiahs obtain loyalty that stretches; and religious messiahs obtain fanatical adherence. Understanding Trump as a heaven-sent messiah, Trump’s evangelical supporters backed his rule-breaking innovation as God’s plan in action. Most Republican voters are not evangelical Protestants. Among all Republicans only one-third understood Trump as a religious messiah, but among the remainder, many understood him as a secular messiah foretold by economists of old. Batman fans understood Trump as a benevolent, swamp-draining superhero. It is fair to conclude that Trump’s base consisted mostly of loyalists of whom about half considered him a sacred messiah and others a secular messiah. This was not accidental. As a result of the cultural history of the United States, Trump acquired a political base primed to understand him as a messiah, not just a politician. Trump inherited this base and did not create it. The culture of the United States offered it as a free gift to his candidacy, and he made the most of it.

Endnotes:
[1] Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1944), 58.
[2] William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinism (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963 [1885]), 150-157.
[3] Donald J. Trump with Meredith McIver, Think Like a Champion: An Informal Education in Business and Life (Philadelphia: Vanguard, 2009), 23.
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* Ivan Light is professor emeritus of sociology at UCLA. This essay builds upon ideas developed more fully in Entrepreneurs and Capitalism Since Luther: Rediscovering the Moral Economy (Lexington, 2020) by Ivan Light and Leo-Paul Dana. Email: light@soc.ucla.edu.

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1 Response to Trump as Messiah

  1. Citizen Rat says:

    I have some issues with this article. The author is leaning very heavily on Richard Hofstadter’s interpretation of “Social Darwinism” which has multiple critics. You can identify Sumner legitimately as a proponent of laissez faire, but you cannot identify him as a proponent of Imperialism. It’s not really accurate to call him a Darwinian, you might as well call him a Social Lamarckian or a Social Spencerian. It would make more sense to just drop the term “Social Darwinist” altogether and call it “Social Evolutionism”, a view that included both apologists for Capitalism and critics of Capitalism. I think it is a mistake to think that Trump remotely thinks in Darwinian terms, save in the crudest and erroneous popular sense that Darwin is often misused. Regardless, Darwin and anything having to do with evolution is entirely rejected by Trump’s base. There is an interesting link to Schumpeter but I think that is not a good analogy. Schumpeter’s entrepeneur is genuinely creative and Schumpeter is also writing about social processes. There is a Darwinian aspect to Schumpeter as he does employe selection analogies, to a point. But what Schumpeter was wriing about was the dynamic process of technological and organizational innnovation.

    If I were to attempt an explanation for Trump (which I have done partially in a recent post) I would look to Veblen’s emphasis on the ways in which pre-scientific and a animistic thinking triumphs over practical and instrumental reasoning. In this sense, there are others who are probably equally as relevant as Veblen.

    The link back to evangelicalism is interesting but there I think you have to look at the role of pre-millenial theology amongst evangelicals and how that fits into the whole Q conspiracy. That’s where I think the prophecy fulfillment comes in with the image of Trump as Cyrus or David. The link to Batman, maybe, I’d have to give that some more thought.

    Taken as a whole, I don’t think this piece sustains its thesis in that I don’t see any causal relationship between these aspects (except for evangelicalism) and the coming of Trump. Therefore, I don’t think this “explains” Trump.

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