Trump Gambles on America’s Narcissism

The United States is, without question, the most religious country in the so-called developed world. If the pollsters are to be believed, around 68% of the adult population believe in God, with 48% of this group also recently expressing a belief in angels (who, as we all know, look down most benignly on Americans). But while these statistics may make many a secular American (this one included) roll his or her eyes, the fact remains: the United States did begin its early life as a colonial theocracy, founded by Puritans with a decided Hobbesian view of human nature. As such, it is not at all surprising that the American psyche has always been imbued with an uber-moralistic world-view, not to mention a messianic belief in the certainty of its national project, En route to the wilderness that was the New World the future Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, told his seasick, exhausted band of Puritan co-religionists: “We shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Biblical scholars will note that Winthrop borrowed this phrase from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (as reported in Mathew 5:14): “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” But if you want to find the roots of that still au courant hyper-nationalistic vision of America as God’s Preferred Terrain, look no further than Winthrop’s utterance miles off the coast of what was to become New England. The evangelical impulse to do good according to the American playbook latterly evolved into such brilliant triumphs as The Marshall Plan (which essentially rebuilt Western Europe after World War II) and such catastrophes as Vietnam and the Central American follies during the Reaganite 1980s. And there’s also no doubt that, to win The White House, a candidate today must (at the very least) proclaim a certain rapport with the Almighty. With such a sizable proportion of the Americanvox populus calling themselves believers, a candidate who came out as an unapologetic atheist would quickly find him/herself cripplingly disabled. Even an agnostic would be regarded with immense suspicion; someone who is, on matters spiritual, not declaring proper intent.

All of this is a reflection of the ongoing cultural wars between a secular and a highly Christian America. But if there is one unifying faith that runs through the national body politic it is money. As Lewis Lapham — the distinguished former editor of Harper’s Magazine (one of America’s most intellectual journals) — once noted: money in America is ‘the civil religion’. Money is such a dominant force in our mentality because we are such a profoundly mercantile construct (“The business of America is business,” to borrow a line from a conservative president of the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge), not to mention a culture predicated on Social Darwinism. Given that the US has little in the way of a social safety net — to the point where a sizeable portion of the country still dismiss Obamacare (our weak version of a national health care system) as socialism — it’s not at all surprising that those who have made it big are so venerated. After all, American capitalism likes to play up its gladiatorial, ‘survival of the fittest’ credentials. To have become wealthy in the United States is perceived to be a higher form of sagacity. To have achieved fame at the same time as fortune is even more ennobling in the eyes of the hoi polloi — as celebrity is an offshoot of the civil religion that is money. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century in his still relevant 1899 treatise, ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’, the great American social and economic theorist/critic, Thorstein Veblen, absolutely grasped this, noting: “The possession of wealth confers honor; it is an invidious distinction.”

In an era where the American plutocracy has become such a dominant force, where monopolization goes unchecked, where ‘the big short’ craziness of the banks nearly flipped us into a 1929 depression in 2008, and where Wall Street still plays by its own unchecked rules, there is also a school of thought within the culture that the person who shouts the loudest gets the most attention. Fold into the recipe for grandiose success the potent lure of lucre and renown, and you begin to see why Donald John Trump — businessman, entrepreneur, property developer, author, television personality, and general all-purpose loud mouth — is suddenly the unstoppable Republican candidate in the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Indeed, in a year in which the run up to the biggest prize in American politics has been marked by more than a touch of psychosis, fear peddling and playing to the lowest common denominator, it is not at all surprising that, in a field of Republican candidates noteworthy for their bellicosity, Donald Trump has emerged as the absolute front runner. He is the Big Bucks guy with the loudest voice of them all.

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  • Mark Stuart Ekdahl

    I couldn’t concur more, although I tend to be more critical of Obama and Clinton. Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers is a great read. You will never think of a wall map the same again. By the way, I was recently blocked on your fb page. It was not my intention to offend anyone. Scout’s honor. Have a great day.

  • Mark Stuart Ekdahl

    America has lost any redeeming sense of piety. It’s all about the self. Sad.