John Minchillo / AP

Trump: A Product of the Times

Stiven Peter comments
| Politics

After months of ridicule from the media, boycotts from multibillion dollar companies, and denigration from politicians across the aisle, Trump has become the Republican nominee and is currently leading against political elite Hillary Clinton. One could say that his rise is due to his authenticity, his willingness to insult anyone he wants, his brash stance against the establishment, and his promise to return America to its glorious past. While all of these observations are valid, I believe that they fail to fully account for the Trump phenomena. A trend as extreme and unprecedented as Trump requires not only his unorthodox persona, but also the unprecedented trends in anti-elitism and populism that preceded him. In other words, Trump is the product of an era and is in large part a reaction to the current political climate. He serves as a synecdoche for an entire political class.

What could’ve caused his rise? Allow me to suggest that Trump is a result of the cultural liberalization of society (which began in the 60’s) and a reaction against technocratism and multiculturalism (ideas also eschewed during the same era.) The complex interaction of these two trends lead people to proclaim Trump both a true conservative and a Democrat at the same time.

 A Product of the Therapeutic Mindset

The fact that 76% of white so called Evangelicals support Trump forces us to consider Trump’s religious beliefs and his theological views. Trump himself cites Norman Vincente Peale as a formative influence on his beliefs. Peale is known for his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which argues for belief in oneself and material success through pseudo-spiritual positive thinking. Peale remarked of Trump that he is, “kindly and courteous in certain business negotiations and has a profound streak of honest humility.” Peale’s theological views restructure the Christian faith into a self-centered therapeutic tool used for material gain. This butchering of the faith is still prevalent in the U.S. today and is commonly known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). This faith affirms that God exists but is not concerned with the Earth unless he is prayed to and a problem needs to be solved. The central goal of life is happiness and self-love, and in the end all good people will go to Heaven. This faith is fundamentally therapeutic as its main goal is to help the person succeed or have comfort. Under this view, it makes sense that Trump wouldn’t ask God for forgiveness: He would be admitting weakness and dependency if he did so.  The weak man of faith is replaced by the strong man who can succeed on his thoughts and personal connection to the deity.

Trump’s inability to recognize his own weakness makes him more likely to insult and ridicule without restraint. From mocking a reporter with a disabled hand to demeaning a contestant by speculating about her performance in a pornographic film, Trump’s MTD faith is consistently lived out. Evangelical support only confirms the prevalence of this individualized, therapeutic thought system and Trump stands as the greatest follower of its beliefs. In the end, he is concerned with material success and power. His faith leads to a hyper-consumerism that values wealth above character.

A Reaction Against the Therapeutic Mindset

A tenet of the MTD mindset is that people should be free to express themselves, actualize their potential, and attain success. The result of the primacy of the will to power is a relativization of all objective standards and values. Beliefs in the objective truth of the Christian faith among other faiths, the greatness America among other nations, and the glory of distinct gender roles inherently oppresses minorities because such beliefs limit their will to power. To undermine such beliefs, academics would adopt an epistemic relativism: everything you know is conditioned by your environment so any particular claim to truth you make is just that, a claim that may be valid for you but not for me. This extreme relativism is only broken when one claims objective truth.

The cultural effects of this relativization has been profound. Western Civilization is seen as one culture among many and no better than the rest. Gender roles are seen are cultural structures that are used to oppress women. Race is seen as a social construct that is used to divide people and perpetuate power structures. In their analysis, relativists adopt a Marxist thread of thought, in which society is separated into dualisms such as Male/Female, White/Black,  Christian/Muslim, in which the former is superior to the latter. Society is seen as the former perpetuating its control over the latter, and it is the job of good relativists to undermine their power through cultural revolution. This cultural revolution occurred in the U.S. during the 1960’s and we are still living with its results to this day.

One of the results is that white working men feel disdained, ignored, ridiculed, and left out of the political discussion. The Marxist thread paints them as oppressive, ignorant, and bigoted. For the poor whites, political parties have utterly failed to address their concerns. While Democrats consider poor whites as ignorant and denigrate them for voting against the handouts they need, Republicans fail to address the cultural crisis of poor white American culture: rampant drug abuse, high suicide rates, and the structural breakdown of the family.

Enter Trump, whose policies and personality speak to a ignored working class. He actively annoys political elites, ridicules mainstream media, and tells it like it is. Trump’s rhetoric is unconventional to the political world, but in the sphere of civilian life, it is normal. You've probably met another 70 year old who speaks in the same manner of Trump. He rebels against political correctness, making hum the bane of social justice warriors and liberal elites. In this sense, he is the MTD mindset turning in on itself. If one should be free to express himself against cultural norms and live authentically, then Trump is free to express disdain for political correctness and multiculturalism. In fact, his popularity comes from that disdain. PC and multiculturalism have largely ignored or ridiculed the common white man, and Trump speaks against those ideaolgies; hence his campaign is marked by populism and anti-intellectualism. Even Trump celebrates his demographic by proudly proclaiming that he “loves the poorly educated.”

As a Remnant of the age of Conformity

Moreover, commoners relate to his apocalyptic tone and diagnosis of America’s ills. I point to his brilliant convention speech, in which he said:

"Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000. Our manufacturing trade deficit has reached an all-time high – nearly $800 billion in a single year. The budget is no better. President Obama has doubled our national debt to more than $19 trillion, and growing. Yet, what do we have to show for it? Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World condition, and forty-three million Americans are on food stamps."

Trump is dark, proclaiming a crippled and retiring America in need of restoration. His promise is a glorious return to the past when America was on the right track.

"Our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect…I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice."

Trump seeks to restore the conformity of the 1950’s. After the war, American culture was consolidated and united against the Communist threat. In fact, multiculturalism can be seen as a reaction against the conformity of the the 50’s. The same culture of national pride was also present during the Reagan Revolution, which is idealized by Conservatives as an American golden age. All this is to say that his rhetoric paints a world that his constituents eagerly remember and long for. Plagued with nostalgia and attacked by relativists, Trump promises to be the voice of the common man. He will say the things that they cannot, but wish they could. He will be their voice when they feel bullied by the media, corporate businesses, and Washington. As he said:

"I make this promise: we will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again."

Paradox in Trump’s Thought

The combination of Trump’s egoism and nationalism may seem paradoxical, but I venture that they are two sides of the same coin. The MTD mindset causes cultural breakdown and encourages individualism, which places the individual above local community structures like the family, the church, or local government. The result is that the power of these local institutions is absorbed by the Federal government, and that becomes the one thing to which we are all united. Trump thus strays from classical American Conservatism by promising to use his executive power to restore America. This is why Trump is sometimes labeled as a Democrat and a Republican. Like a Republican, he stresses American Exceptionalism, and like a Democrat, he believes in the power of the government to fix the ails of America. Thus, Trump isn’t a new political force, but the ugly bastard child of the movements that preceded him. He is proud of his numerous sexual endeavors but is staunchly pro-family. He has made millions off of foreign trade deals but desires a trade war. He is the narcissistic individual and the nationalist. He isn't extreme, he is the logical outworking of destructive cultural trends. He is culture turning in on itself: Anti-Culture.


Stiven Peter

Stiven Peter is a student who has a passion for culture, theology, and philosophy. His favorite authors are Herman Bavinck and Carl Henry.