Every Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
I know Donald Trump’s campaign will deflate at some point, like a balloon descending back down to earth (a fancy balloon, made of the very best materials — the best!). And while part of me can’t wait for this to happen, so that the Republican primary race can seem less like a bizarre dream and more like a universally recognized reality, another part of me is a little sad, contemplating the end of the Trump campaign. I know Donald Trump can’t be president. I don’t want Donald Trump to be president. And yet. The sideshow quality of his campaign offers a big hunk of juicy nostalgia, and not just to xenophobic, open-carry patriots, but to those of us who are the more run-of-the-mill patriots, the ones whose wildest display of nationalism is getting a little weepy watching the 4th of July parade.Nostalgia for the good old days of Christian hegemony in America becomes interchangeable with a longing for the good old days when a man could pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
Trump runs his campaign like an old-fashioned political pro. I mean really old-fashioned, as in mid-19th century. I half-expect to see advance men showing up in my town waving handbills and promises of free booze to any property-owning white man above the age of 18 who swears on the family Bible to Vote Trump! Triumph with Trump!
Before the era of radio and television, not to mention the internet, politicians had to paint their platform pretty broadly. Nuance wasn’t exactly appreciated when you had 15 minutes from the back of a train to shout to a bunch of farmers leaning on hay rakes the reasons that voting for you would make their lives better. Trump harkens back to those days of simplistic politicking. Want more money? Vote Trump! Want fewer people in America clogging up the lines at the DMV? Vote Trump! Want to boss Russia around again? Vote Trump! Want America to take steel and make things with it? Vote Trump!
Trump has it all covered: taxes, jobs, housing, general freedom and broad opportunity. He speaks in terms of us and them, which is always welcome. A smart listener, while he is not exactly sure who them is, knows that it is much better to be us. “I’m on the side of us!” a good American shouts. And speaking of us, the best characteristic of Trump is that he knows us. Bazillionaire that he is, he really knows us.
He knows that there exists in the heart of hearts of most Americans, tucked away in space so dank and dark we forget it’s even there, a shiny little mechanism known as the Money Meter. By their net worth ye shall know them, the Money Meter whispers from its dark corner. We see Trump, with his spun cotton candy hair and his orange, oompa loompa face, we see him in all his lemon-sucking-lips ridiculousness and just before relegating him to the dustbin of our minds, we stop. The Money Meter starts whirring and provides just enough of a pause for another thought. Mr. Trump — he’s just so rich! He must be doing something right!
The Lord, tucked up there in heaven, is smiling down on Mr. Trump, showering him with lots of dough and a series of beautiful wives and gorgeous children and skyscrapers bearing his name. Through bankruptcy filings — Chapters 11 and 13 and what have you, various restructurings and reorganizations, with Mr. Trump’s creditors waiting outside his gold-plated front gates, hats in hand hoping for a repayment of even a few cents on the dollar on all the loans he has been given — lo, even through all of this Trump prevails, driving between his shiny gates in one of his gigantic cars, plucked from a fleet of vehicles, all the way up to the platform of the latest Republican Debate. What is this, if not divine favor? Let’s give the man a listen, his material success alone demands a hearing.
For months now, journalists and leading evangelicals have speculated on Trump’s appeal for conservative Christians, offering reasons for evangelical support that are all variations of the idea that Trump tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect. But I think Trump’s appeal for churchgoing evangelicals is much simpler: Christians like him because he’s rich. He’s rich and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him being rich, which gives him a sort of outsider status, the Unsinkable Molly Brown of politics. In this way he’s the consummate American. For American Christians, the folklore of capitalism — all those rags-to-riches stories everyone loves so much — somehow echoes the biblical account of redemption at the cross. A man who was nothing became something, success in business and the sinner’s prayer conferring significance on earth and in heaven. Nostalgia for the good old days of Christian hegemony in America becomes interchangeable with a longing for the good old days when a man could pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
We live in the material world, as the poet says, and the appeal of a man who has mastered the material is understandable, even for believers, who can easily conflate the gospel of prosperity with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It seems like a cosmic inevitability that a man who presides over several business enterprises, a sprawling family, a coterie of homes, a fleet of cars, and a yacht or two should also be given the chance to run an entire country.
But while the primacy of material success may be an American tradition, it’s not a truly Christian one. The Christian is not a native of this country, no matter how beloved, or any other. Nostalgia for an imagined past cannot substitute for the lived reality of the present: this world is not our home, we’re just a-passin’ through. And because Christians believe this, we, more than anyone, should understand the role of the material world in the scheme of things; we should see the ephemeral nature of earthly prosperity. Words like freedom and opportunity — words that have come to mean conquering one’s bank account more than anything else in America — come to mean something else altogether. But it’s easier said than done, and sometimes being an American primed to see someone’s value in terms of his assets takes precedent over seeing that someone in any other terms.
The irony for American Christians is that we don’t need Trump, or any other politician, to make America great again. Trump’s vision for material opportunity — the plan to literally build a wall so that there is less for them and more for us — is a vision which pales beside the opportunity that already exists in this country. Americans already have the crucial component for greatness: the ability to gather freely to worship God. This is opportunity in the fullest sense of the word. We worship freely, expansively, in gatherings of two or three and in megachurches across the land. We go to church whenever and wherever we want to find repentance and grace — which even Trump admits is “terrific” — freely available. There’s nothing greater, and more American, than that.