Trump the Pagan Icon

There are a lot of articles popping up trying to analyze the hatred of Trump as well as his appeal. I’d like to have a go. It would be easy to start with a litany of concretes — we’ve had two years of scandals, incidents, media kerfuffles, times when Trump’s been a dick to his opponents and vice versa. But i’d like to go deeper, to the root of what makes Trump different and why we’re now on a cultural collision course.

The moment that I think clarifies the nature of the man came very early on. He belittled McCain’s war heroism with an offhand “I like people who weren’t captured.” This said it all to me, good and bad.

Trump is not a Christian, but a pagan in the greco-roman warrior-culture tradition.

The Christian hero is a martyr, the pagan hero is the victorious winner. Everything about Trump can be summarized by the pagan greco-roman virtues. A pagan brags, revels in wine and hot chicks, has an iffy relationship with the truth, gilds his home with gold, brooks no slights to his power and fame. A pagan is touchy about his reputation, and wants to seem grand in the eyes of other men. A christian is taught humilty, chastity, service, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom.

This is what explains how intensely Trump runs against the grain of the nation, while also being a welcome change to some. America has always straddled the Christian and Pagan cultures. Our churches preach the gospel, but our public buildings are full of tributes to the pagan figures. Our capital is full of pagan Greek and roman grandeur, columns and pillars and obelisks, even as we bow on Sunday morning and declare our unworthiness in the eyes of God. We preach faith at home, but practice reason in the office. We applaud irreverent entertainers, but prefer our leaders to stick to the language of the pulpit.

Trump does not talk like any of our past political figures. Obama and Bush and Clinton were steeped in the rhetorical style of the church, its cadences and rituals. Trump states the bottom line. Past presidents couch their programs in christian rhetoric–service to the poor, community, sacrifice, nation-building in service to the global good, etc. Trump promises to make the country great and rich.
So the response one will have to Trump is essentially philosophical. Biden says dumb stuff but he’s still ‘one of us’. Reid or Pelosi or McConnell might be just as vicious to their enemies, but they still give lip service to the accepted Judeo-Christian ethical code. Their enemies are proclaimed to be enemies of that code: “selfish and greedy and uncaring.” Trump’s enemies are called “unsuccessful losers”. So, to the degree that a person demands an altruistic justification for public policy, they will find Trump a revolting gaudy braggart. To the degree that a person prefers a pagan culture of deeds and wealth, they will find Trump to be a breath of fresh air, like leaving a gloomy church to go to the casino.

So, with this in mind, what are the perils and possibilities of a Trump presidency? Well, he will suck at the Christian parts and excel at the pagan stuff. He will be uninspiring and tone deaf giving consolation after tragedies, but will rattle swords and shields in the faces of our enemies. He will not preside over a charitable administration, but will fight to bring dollars home. He will have no patience for entitlements, but will never damn wealth, even ill-begotten. The biggest danger is that he will rouse a Christian nation to guilt and shame, ensuring that the next president is a true theocrat. The biggest opportunity is that Trump the pagan actually cares about the things he wants to accomplish, because the achieving of deeds is the pagan goal–to join a pantheon of heroes. He wants to be the Greatest President Ever, and thinks that he will win the country over with his deeds. But in our Christian culture the man who lives by that philosophy is a selfish fool, and over time Trump will get more and more frustrated that his successes bring him even more hatred. He won’t understand why he’s hated, and will keep thinking that ‘winning’ should bring him respect. But winning in a Christian culture is the sign of the selfish monster, so i’d expect the hatred to intensify as the country chooses its moral code over any new prosperity, with Trump on one side and the Christian right and communitarian left united on the other, worldwide. No matter what material benefits Trump achieves, he will never show humility and it will be ugly, because the entire culture will feel compelled to force him to his knees one way or another.

  3 comments for “Trump the Pagan Icon

  1. Jan 20, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    The contrast between pagan and Christian morality is the subject of Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morality. On one side you have the ‘masters’ who view morality as a way to get what they want (power, wealth, fame etc.) and on the other hand you have the ‘slaves’ for whom morality is a way of rationalising their miserable existence.

    For a very long time the nation state (certainly since the great depression) has been about bringing results to people very quickly. They say that a week is a long time in politics, but 4 years (in the USA) is really not much time to see through any large scale meaningful changes. Politicians who do not deliver more wealth or more power fairly quickly are reliably chewed up and spat out.

    Perhaps Mr Trump, more so than any other president will be inclined to deliver grand gestures to placate the American people, most of whom don’t really like him that much.

    Large swathes of the American public may have communitarian values but in the end they are not who really matters. The institutions that make up the US state (Federal reserve, military, government departments etc.) are very large and very powerful. These are the people who Trump will struggle to deal with the most. ‘The Donald’ will have no choice but to try and appease them.

    Given the new president’s propensity for political theatre I think he is going to get along with them just fine (eventually).

  2. Paul Marks
    Jan 20, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    I prefer restrained people like old Roman Republicans (who were pre Christian actually) Cato the Younger and so on.

    I also did not care for the speech I heard a few hours ago – no mention of liberty, or rolling back government, or the Bill of Rights.

    Still we must judge President Trump or what he does – not on his style.

    As for the American military – it is actually very individualistic (the Scots-Irish tradition). But it is true that it does not like empty boasters – only people who have actually shed blood (including their own).

    Among the Romans the way of shutting up a boaster was to say “show your scars” – if a man could show scars, fair enough he could carry boasting. If he had no scars of battle to show – it was time for him to shut up.

  3. Ken Ferguson
    Jan 24, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    Trump’s achievement in becoming US president is quite remarkable. I didn’t like all of the characters who made it to Galt’s Gulch but they all inspired respect.

    He would have got there.

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