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Despite a mountain of indictments and relentless media assaults, Donald Trump remains wildly popular with a large portion of the American people. Despite his history of sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, and exaggeration, despite his evident fickleness, recklessness, narcissism, and vulgarity, millions of Christians will vote for him if he’s on the ballot in November. Self-identified evangelicals who aren’t active churchgoers are his strongest supporters, but there’s plenty of enthusiasm among committed Christians and Jews, too. 

Some have explained this phenomenon by charging that evangelicals have adopted a religion of power, exchanging Messiah Jesus for Messiah Donald, the “savior” of America. No doubt there’s slippage and rationalization among Christian Trumpists, but that can’t be the whole story. Nor is it a matter of dispassionate political calculation, as if Trump were marginally better than the other bad options. Christian support for Trump isn’t grudging but fervent, often gleeful. It won’t do to dismiss these millions as deluded hypocrites or hordes seething with anger. Most are old-fashioned Americans, good, churchgoing neighbors with jobs, children, and hopes for the future. Only a sociologist could suspect them of harboring authoritarian tendencies. 

I don’t share the enthusiasm for Trump, but friends and millions of fellow citizens do, and I want to understand what they see there. I’ve found René Girard’s theory of sacrificial crisis and scapegoating helpful in grasping the political rationality at work in the pro-Trump ardor. As a friend likes to say, it’s all in Girard.

According to Girard, human desires are “mimetic.” We desire things because others desire them. We want to Keep Up With the Joneses and Be Like Mike. Problem is, many things can’t be shared. If two men desire the same woman, they cannot both have her (at least, not in epochs of sexual sanity). They become rivals, forming a classic love triangle. With all scarce resources, when desire doubles itself, it inclines toward violence.

A society reaches a “sacrificial crisis” when everyone is locked in mimetic rivalry with everyone else over everything. Society dissolves into a “war of all against all.” At that point, ancient cultures had a ready solution: Bring forth a scapegoat who is marked by some distinctive physical feature (lame, blind, black). Heap up all the accumulated hostilities and hatreds on him, so society can be reconciled around a common object of hatred. After the scapegoat is expelled or killed, peace reigns, until the next crisis. Scapegoats can be corporate—Jews, Trotskyites, Christians in the Roman Empire. 

All ancient scapegoats bow to the mob and acknowledge their guilt. Yes, Oedipus says, I am the cause of the Theban plague. Expel me, and thou shalt be saved. The self-confessed scapegoat ironically becomes the savior of society, because his removal restores peace. Society regards the scapegoat with a strange blend of repulsion and adoration.

According to Girard, Christianity undoes this “scapegoat mechanism” by insisting on the innocence of the scapegoat. Jesus is not guilty and never pretends to be. Neither do his disciples or the early Christian martyrs. They insist their killers are the guilty ones. When the scapegoat doesn’t cooperate in his own execution, the whole system grinds to a halt or implodes, and a new ordering of society becomes possible.

American society is at a critical moment. It’s not exactly a war of all against all, but a war of faction against faction against faction against faction. And, just as the script prescribes, one faction trots out an orange-haired scapegoat, President Donald Trump. For many of our elites, Trump is a mortal threat to democracy, the chief source of disorder, the mobilizer of the deplorables. Remove him, and peace will flow like a river. One man must be destroyed to save the polity.

Problem is, Trump isn’t acting like a scapegoat. Whatever his personal religious convictions, in this drama he’s acting the part of an early church martyr: “I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s a witch hunt.” Trump has been cast as the scapegoat, but, much to the delight of many Americans, he stands up to the mob and refuses to play along. He’s the anti-scapegoat.

This, I think, helps explain Trump’s psychology and his complex role in American life. As the anti-scapegoat, he refuses to admit guilt (even when he is guilty) or defeat (even when he is defeated). He deflects responsibility; nothing is ever his fault. His refusal to be scapegoated keeps America in a state of heightened anxiety. If he bowed, if he confessed to inflating the value of his properties or stoking up an insurrection, everyone could breathe a sigh of relief and move on. As long as he doesn’t play the scapegoat, the country remains fractured. That puts us in a very dangerous place, with no clear way to rediscover the unum among the pluribus

Girard also reveals the rationality that leads many Christians to support Trump: As long as he plays the anti-scapegoat, as long as America remains contentious, Trump’s enemies don’t win. Many Christians and conservatives believe his enemies are also their enemies, which means that Trump’s intransigence keeps their enemies from winning too. That’s not wrong. The elites who despise Trump disdain “benighted” Americans who “cling” to their guns and religion. The people who want to destroy Trump want to re-program the millions whose restless discontent he's done so much to unleash. 

As a Canadian friend wistfully observed, a polarized society is vastly preferable to one where Christians meekly acquiesce to the triumph of evil. Christians support Trump the anti-scapegoat, for better or for worse, because he embodies a refusal to acquiesce.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by William Holman Hunt licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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