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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Populism Of Donald Trump - Martin Luther And Born-Again Christianity, But Never Fascism

Pope Francis is the latest world figure to warn against the dangers of populism.  Too much democracy, he implied, was bad, citing the popular frenzy that helped Hitler to power.  Brown shirts, torch-lit parades, demagoguery, and hyper-nationalism are not things of the past but only temporarily closeted. 



Liberal-style democracy – mediated by parliaments, congresses, and and Upper and Lower Houses of government – is tenuous, fragile, and increasingly threatened.  Too much power to the people – too much voice, too much say, and too many demands – can only result in an arrogation and abuse of power, the dismantling of countervailing institutions, autocracy, and dictatorship.

Alexander Hamilton shared these sentiments and argued hard and long with Thomas Jefferson, a determined populist, to deny absolutely popular rule.  Hamilton preferred a government which, while responsive to the people, ruled on the basis of educated deliberation.  In other words, a civilized filter through which gross popular demands would be screened.


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efferson on the other hand believed in the absolute will of the people.  He was the nation’s first and ultimate big data crowdsourcer.  The collective voice of tens of millions of Americans has more validity and more insight than any handful of elite executors of government.

In the end Hamilton and Jefferson compromised and the Senate is the unhappy result.  Unhappy because it is neither a House of Lords, representing tradition, patrimony, and national values; nor a more rational, deliberative, and reflective body.  The Senate of the United States Congress is as venal, self-interested, and arrogantly dismissive of the will of the people as the House of Representatives. The Senate differs from the lower house only in terms of electoral tenure.

The United States is already a demi-populist state.  Members of Congress by Constitutional mandate are elected every two years.  In other words, they run for election as soon as they take their seats and decorate their offices.  There is little difference between campaigning and governing, and the rallies, barbecues, diner breakfasts, and schoolyard picnics are permanent.  And there is little difference between populism’s demand for jobs, lower taxes, and civil recognition and the self-interested, electoral responsiveness of a ‘representative’ Congress  -beholden both to its electorate and to the special interests which have funded it.

The American populism of Donald Trump,  however, is a very different thing altogether.  It is a radical populism which denies the legitimacy of Congressional mediators, disparages the biased interpretations of the media, refuses to accept the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Supreme Court, and which insists on a direct and immediate communication and relationship with the Chief Executive.



This rejection of mediating powers is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church.  Where does the Bible mandate, Luther said, the intermediation of a priestly caste? The Catholic Church has arrogated to itself power that Jesus Christ never intended.  The Church in naming itself arbiter of redemption has distorted His words, and deprived millions of faithful believers of a personal relationship with Him.

Luther was perhaps the most important populist of the last 5oo years.  He rejected institutional mediation and instituted a new system based on grace, personal salvation, and divine redemption.
The Catholic Church objected to the propositions of this upstart, and fought to retain its moral and religious authority.  Even recent Popes like John Paul II have railed against fundamentalist populism, saying that without a foundation in the rational theology of Early Church theologians and without sanctuary within the traditional institution of the Catholic Church, aspiring believers would inevitably be led down blind alleys.

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Radical Trumpian populism is no different from Protestant fundamentalism.  Charismatic and Pentecostal churches all preach salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  While pastors can facilitate this intimacy, its success is entirely a personal matter. 

The preacher/pastor is responsible for animating the congregation, invoking the loving, redeeming, and forgiving nature of Jesus Christ; but warning against sin, apostasy, and waywardness.  More importantly, he positions himself as the facilitator of divine relationships.  Although salvation may be a personal, individual matter, only the enlightened vicars of Christ can show the way.

Donald Trump has been so successful because he has cast himself as an evangelical preacher.  No one cares about fact, reference, and bibliography because he is the spiritual leader of a political movement.  He is the one who will understand and translate the will of the people into governance.
Therefore the hysterical concerns of the progressive Left echoed by the Pope are wrong and irrelevant.  To correlate or even associate the policies and appointments of Donald Trump with those of Hitler is ignorant and naïve.

The better analogy, correlation, or comparison is with Jimmy Swaggart, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell, evangelical preachers who understood and represented religious populism.



Christianity, after all, was perhaps the greatest populist movement in history.  Jesus and his disciples preached redemption and salvation as personal possibilities.  They rejected Judaism and The Law, dismissed Aristotle and Plano as elite intellectuals , and placed the responsibility of  spiritual evolution squarely on the individual.  There would be no more Pharisees, Sadducees, temples or institutional covenants.  Men would know Jesus through their own inspiration.

Radical American populism is of the same tradition – a fundamentalist, evangelical desire for redemption and salvation far from the venal, and disinherited forces of secularism.  Donald Trump is the secular Evangelist-in-Chief.

Comparisons with National Socialism or Russian Communism are misguided if not  ignorant.  There is no reason t0 assume that Trumpian populism based on classically religious and American historical precedent should be fascist or autocratic.

To make such comparisons is to dismiss the legitimate grievances of f the American middle class who finally have found a voice.  They have watched while ‘progressive’ movements for more diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ have impinged on their own religious beliefs and rights.  They have stood by while their core values of family, the sanctity and dignity of human life, and the Biblical endorsement of heterosexual relationships have been eroded or dismissed.   Their demands for and equal voice, and their endorsement of a President who espouses the same values is not a call for authoritarianism, nor is it reminiscent of National Socialism.

Donald Trump and radical American populism is a native, fundamentalist, honest, and loudly expressive movement.  It is indigenous, borne of American politics, demography, and politics, and indicative of American middle class  frustrations, marginalization, and dismissive neglect.  Comparisons to any distorted, hyper-nationalistic, xenophobic movements of the past are misguided if not ignorant.

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