A very Trumpy Christmas

by Rob Tiller

We like Christmas, but didn’t do much celebrating this year.  For decorations, Sally put up some colored lights on our balcony rails, and that was it.  The other balconies we could see were even less festive.  Maybe we weren’t the only ones having a hard time getting in the holiday spirit.

The news of the day is mostly about continuing disease and death from covid-19, and the continuing grotesqueries of Trump.  He’s handing out presidential pardons right and left, some to his personal henchmen, some to criminal friends of friends, and some to mass murderers.  While continuing to insist that he actually won the election, he’s explored the possibility of declaring martial law and using the military to get a vote with a different outcome.    Another hare-brained-but scary-Trump idea is to get Congress to reject the electoral college results.  

Talk about a war on Christmas!  That would be the ultimate anti-gift:  Grumpy Trump and his Capitol Trumpettes Steal Democracy!

I don’t view that as likely.  Still, it’s depressing that something like 70% of Republican voters say they believe that Biden stole the election, and very few are speaking out against Trump’s reckless talk of a coup.  After having several years to observe Trump’s dishonesty, incompetence, and brutality, they love him as much as ever, and maybe more.  Most evangelical Christian voters are particularly firm in their commitment to this flagrantly un-Christian president.  About 80% of them voted for him.  

Many find this puzzling.  As an atheist and former evangelical, I’ve given this puzzle some thought, and have a theory that may help explain it.  For those with no religious background or one unrelated to evangelical Christianity (EC), I’ll share my own in-a-nutshell version of EC’s fundamental tenets.  

First, in heaven there is an all powerful, all knowing, entity named God, who is in charge of everything.  He listens to millions of prayers asking for things, which he ignores, and observes lots of earthly disasters (like hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, spreading cancers, and little children on bikes getting run over), which he also ignores.  

God’s favorite non-work activity is being worshipped, and he gets quite grouchy if the worship is not to his liking.  In God’s view, all humans are sinners who deserve to be tormented in hell for all eternity, but he is prepared to give them full pardons and save them if (1) they confess to being sinners and (2) their worship of him is up to his standards.

I’m leaving out a lot of details, like the baby Jesus, the wise men, water turning into wine, and so on, but this is only a slight parodizing of evangelical ontology as it was taught to me.  It’s not hard to see how EC adherents find it easy to relate to Trump.  

Like God, Trump is big and has powerful weapons.  He’s authoritarian, but we need a strong leader.  He’s moody, and the best way to keep him happy is to keep telling him how great he is.  If you get on his enemies list, you may lose business, go to jail, or worse.  But if you manage to not do anything he doesn’t like and make him really happy, he may give you a pardon.  

So if you were someone who thought, God is a good fellow, someone who understands me and cares for my personal welfare and wants to torture and kill my enemies, you could easily think the same of Trump.  Their personalities and interests are surprisingly similar.  

But that’s not all.  Although being saved (that is, accepting Jesus as your personal savior, along with adopting the EC ontology already discussed), seems undemanding, in fact it requires developing a subtle, far-from-natural skill in mental gymnastics.

Being saved requires the unfortunate sinner to do a twisting back flip over the area of everyday thinking and land in a spot where the usual rules for processing reality do not apply.  In this landing area, there is no need for evidence, and indeed, curiosity and questioning are unwelcome. 

Of course the EC doctrine doesn’t make sense.  It’s not supposed to.  Accepting the absence of facts and logic is part of how believers define faith, and how they prove they have it.

I used to view EC thinking as simple, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually not so easy.  Somehow the EC believer develops two kinds of brains that think in opposite ways.  There’s an EC brain, where things that otherwise make no sense are enthusiastically endorsed, and a non-EC brain, which covers holding down a 9-to-5 job, safely operating a vehicle, paying the bills, cooking, taking care of kids, and everything else in day-to-day reality other than EC rituals, including Republican politics.  

The EC brain professes an extreme level of certainty as to EC beliefs.  At the same time, that brain is very anxious, constantly on high alert for threats from enemies, and easily alarmed.   There is a strong and clear distinction between good and evil, with evil defined as anything not aligned with EC.  Enemies are evil, and evil must never be tolerated.

In ordinary times, the EC brain does not seem like such a big deal.  People, including non-religious people, believe all kinds of odd things, and they still generally function and get along together.  EC thinking doesn’t normally bother me, and I wouldn’t have thought it worth discussing here, if it were not for one problem. 

Trumpism has shown that groups that become expert in suspending rational thought are hazardous in certain situations, such as our current one.  The EC brain is fully primed to believe Trumpian statements that contradict facts or physical reality.  That brain is also much more likely to push the panic button when told that ordinary political opponents are evil enemies seeking destruction of our way of life. 

For example, EC mental gymnastics allow the believer to screen out and ignore all evidence that the presidential election was fair and valid, and all evidence that the president-elect is not a dangerous communist.  Our traditional reality-based correctives don’t work, once the believer accepts (as Trump maintains) that mainstream media is the enemy of the people and full of lies, and that only right-wing sources that support Trump are reliable.  

The EC believer can easily follow Trump’s lead and recategorize peaceful Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality to read that police are under attack by dangerous Black radicals who want to destroy our cities and then invade the white suburbs. On the other hand, after developing a fact-free-but-anxiety-filled operating system, the believer can more easily buy into anti-liberal conspiracy theories, like birtherism or QAnon.  

Of course, some EC believers are extremely intelligent and gifted, and some manage to stay in much closer touch to reality.  In their non-EC brains, some of these have good ideas and projects, including supporting equality for minorities, fighting climate change, and refusing to acquiesce in a Trump coup.  These believers will not be viewing the pandemic as a hoax or signing on for QAnon, and they might even support health care for all. 

I’m not so sure about that last thought.  In fact, it may be I’m off track on the EC thought process, which I once shared, but haven’t for many years.  But it certainly looks like Trump figured out how to make the most of the authoritarianism, reality-denialism, and anxiety that are part of EC culture, and Trumpism seems hard to explain without the support of EC.  

I am not proposing anything against EC, other than to challenge its ideas.  I’m strongly in favor of religious tolerance, both on principle and for reasons of self preservation. But I see no reason why EC shouldn’t be called to account and asked to explain its Trumpism.  As things stand now, a lot of EC believers seem ready to support the next Trump, and our poor system may not be able to survive another one.