I am at a dinner party and I am annoyed. Nothing about this is exceptional, but still I find myself annoyed that I am annoyed. Nearing middle age, I should be in charge of my life enough not to end up in places where I will sulk. And so I am bored at my annoyance, mad at everyone’s outfits, disgusted at the cheesecake with the blueberry compote, hateful of the word compote.
It is a double-barreled dinner party—not only a party organized by a dinner, but also a dinner organized as a tribute to one of those at the table. We are supposed to be fawning and on message. We are supposed to admire the food and agree to more wine. We are not supposed to slip out early. And, given the epoch in which we find ourselves, we are supposed to be aghast about Donald Trump.
You have been in so many of these conversations that I don’t need to tell you the content for you to hum along. The conversation never starts straight. It never begins with someone saying, “Well, what about this election and this remarkably unusual Republican nominee Donald Trump?” It begins sidelong. Nobody intends to go there but they are so glad the opening is made so the phrases they’ve been practicing in their cars and in front of debates can get public hearing. But they don’t want to show eagerness, so everyone speaks in knowing punchline.
I don’t want to speak about Trump. I am concerned that our focus on him adds to the thing he needs to stay alive, namely our attention. I do not want to feed his reality—a reality defined by punchline, by non sequitur, by compulsive distraction from the subject at hand. If I get past that and assume attention is necessary, I worry that the way we talk reiterates, in every phrase and posture, why those who follow him do. He has got our goat. And when our goat is got, we talk in ways that show how he came to be by showing why he is someone who others—those not sitting at this dinner table—want.
This time Trump came up because someone mentioned Brexit. Brexit! Can you believe it? someone says. Eyes are rolled. Why are people voting against their interests? How has ignorance taken over the Anglophone world? What is happening? In reply, I do a thing that nobody likes at a party: I give an account of the punchline that isn’t a joke. I begin well enough, nodding at the outrage, and then referring to a story I heard on NPR about a British baker who claimed that after Brexit he could export more cheaply to Europe. If I’d just leave it at that, fine, but I keep going, as if I’d become a scholar of this NPR story and this Brexit-voting baker: he also said that the potential relaxation of employment laws would bring greater flexibility to adjust his labor force; he also said that the increase in customs procedures didn’t bother him; he also said that the diminishment of skilled immigrant labor could be a problem in some sectors but not his; he also said that he knew the tech companies and other newer industries would be hurt the most but that in general expected that any of these losses were nothing before the gains to be had by the decline in the exchange rate between the pound and the Euro.
In this minute, I am being the worst. The worst because I can’t stop talking, and the worst because everyone at the table is clearly getting nervous that I am a little too committed to the Brexit baker. Whose side am I on, anyway? The guest of honor speaks up: Well, he’ll be shown wrong. And the woman on my left, the one who’d spent three years in England, the one with the gumdrop pearls and moss-green cashmere layers, observes that racism drives it all. All of it. See how the baker doesn’t care about immigrant labor? Racism. And everyone at the table nods, knowingly. We know what is wrong in the world, and it is Donald Trump and his offensive forms of speech, his offending acts of racism, his offensive certitude relative to our own.
Understanding is dangerous, here. You are worried maybe now that I don’t agree. That I don’t know that Donald Trump is a world-class bigot who has insulted Mexicans and Muslims, who doesn’t do his homework or honor his debts, who thinks immigrants are leeches and women are walking pussies. You are nervous, I assume, for the same reason that room was nervous: because they comprise that portion of the electorate decidedly disgusted by Donald Trump, and to be a member of that collective you have to understand things that I seem unwilling to see. I don’t get how Brexit is about race and I don’t get, therefore, why we so easily segued at that terrible dinner party from my babbling monologue about the baker into a zippy exchange of pre-auditioned quips about Trump’s racism.
So I fell silent. I didn’t have it in me to keep going with the shallow talk of elite people avoiding comprehension in favor of the pulse of commiseration. At that table, the cohering principle of togetherness was a commitment to the senselessness, the irrationality, the uncomprehending ignorance of it all. Staying shocked at the Donald keeps us all in it, eroticized by our own disgust. What a drag it would be to cease being shocked by his ascendancy, and pursue instead an explanation of how we contributed to it, contributed to it by our very knowing: mine, theirs, ours.
To be a scholar of religion is to participate in a hermeneutics of the incomprehensible. That isn’t exactly right: what scholars of religion do is account for why groups of people consistently agree to things that other people think are incomprehensible, irrational, even senseless. Images illegible relative to contemporary notions of geometry or perspective; abstractions so abstract they twist the brain; doctrines so specific they seem impracticable; myths so fantastic they seem extraterrestrial. Through documentary engagement, linguistic specificity, historical and sociological and economic analysis—scholars of religion make those things legible as human products of human need.
It is therefore unsurprising that I, a scholar of religion, am invested in an account of Trump that renders his absurdity less so. It is, perhaps, my sole specific obligation: to figure out the reason in his seeming madness. To ask, too: Why does he seem mad to some, and not at all to others? The history of religions has long suggested the one does not exist without the other, that to be inside something requires someone else being outside. And, too, that making the strange familiar inevitably ought to make the familiar strange. But here I get ahead of myself.
To begin, the work of explaining Trump has already been done. The sheer tonnage of analysis on Trump outpaces any other modern presidential candidate, not merely because of his own peculiarity but also because of the seizing algorithmic enormity of the internet, where the long-form essay on Trump has become a rite of passage for anyone with a byline. Nearly every account of Trump’s success works economics into their explanation, arguing that those who favor him are those who have experienced the negative effects of globalization, and the corresponding economic anxiety and stagnant median wages of 21st-century life. Oh, yes: and those refugee flows from the Middle East, bringing with them the toxic two-step of potential terrorist cells and low-wage competition for jobs. (It is unclear which is worse: the immigrant as cheap labor or the immigrant as suicide bomber.)
The problem with this economic theory of Trumpism is that no evidence supports it. Hard numbers complicate the argument that income or education levels predict Trump support, or that working-class whites support him disproportionately. The results of 87,000 interviews conducted by Gallup showed that those who liked Trump were under no more economic distress or immigration-related anxiety than those who opposed him. Moreover, Trump supporters don’t have lower incomes or higher unemployment levels than other Americans.
The religionists are nodding. Not because we necessarily knew those statistics, but because we’ve been through this before. There is no religious movement in human history that has not been explained by outsiders to it through recourse to economics. People are always assuming that if you believe in Marian apparitions, throw yourself on a funeral pyre, pray five times a day, or speak in tongues, you do so because you’re poor and hungry for epic consequence, or because you’re poor and want to pay obeisance to omnipotent powers who could make you otherwise. Such observers think religious activities are done by the desperate to compensate through immaterial means for material lack. Many of them, using Marx weakly, often dragoon him to their case.
It just isn’t so. Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000—higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters. Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33 percent among whites or 29 percent overall. These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of Trump. We like that story, because it comforts us into believing that a liberal education begets liberal political thinking, and that a living wage could soothe the vulnerable. It’s harder to understand why the world-class physicist is also an evangelical, or why the college-educated Army officer is voting for Trump.
What the research does show is that those who support Trump do so for reasons that are not well-captured by income brackets. It presses us to think differently about what organizes mass groups of people to adhere to ideas that seem senseless to outsiders. “The charismatic leader,” wrote sociologist Max Weber, in 1919, “gains and maintains authority solely by proving his strength in life.” Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American evangelists marketed their strength through the evidence of the adversity they survived. Whereas other Christian leaders advocated theological exploration or creedal recommitment, these ministers endorsed “Lessons from the School of Experience” or the “university of rail-splitting.” “Great preachers cannot be made by technical pedagogy,” explained the famous evangelist Sam Jones’s biographer, George Stuart:
They are developed amid adverse and favorable circumstances, currents and eddies, storms and stresses of life. Scholars, debaters, exegetes, and homilists may be produced in universities and theological seminaries, but preachers who reach and save men come from the school of experience which acquaints them with the varied heart throbs generated in the toil, hardships, sacrifices and sufferings of themselves and their fellows.
I invoke the history of evangelicalism here to point out the way in which Trump is familiar to a nation forged through evangelical idiom. Pundits wring their hands over whether evangelicals will or won’t vote for him, musing snidely that if they do, they should be ashamed of themselves—after all, who could possibly claim Christ’s message and also claim Trump? But every time Trump does something mortifying, he only shows how true is his truth. Evangelicals don’t understand sin as an incapacity for leadership. Obsessing over facts, revealing anxiety, worrying about correct speech and footnotes: these, in the evangelical paradigm, are the signs of faltering faith. Certitude in the face of bedevilment is the surest mark of the saved.
In January, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported findings that a penchant for authoritarianism—not income, education, gender, age or race—predicted Trump support. The questions that MacWilliams used to discern voters’ preferences focused on child-rearing, asking whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent, obedient or self-reliant, well-behaved or considerate, and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian. It may seem contradictory at first to understand why respondents who would prefer a child to be respectful, obedient, well-behaved, and well-mannered would be likely Trump voters. None of those would be among the words one would use to describe the candidate. Yet recall that the purpose of the survey was to see what makes a voter pick Trump. And the results suggest that the voter wants someone whose authority makes others around him submit to his will. We don’t care if he’s offensive if he gets the job done. Even more to the point, his level of offensiveness is exactly what it needs to be to jostle the world out of its false niceties. His crassness is the other side of our polite pluralism.
Later on in the evening of the dinner party, I wonder what I ought to have done differently. I think of an essay by my colleague, Noreen Khawaja, “Religious Truth and Secular Scandal: Kierkegaard’s Pathology of Offense.” Khawaja uses the Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis to launch an exploration of the value of offense described in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. After a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a dozen cartoons under the headline “The Face of Muhammad,” hundreds of thousands of people protested the cartoons, leaving nearly 250 dead and 800 wounded. The prohibition against illustrating the Prophet Mohammed began as an attempt to ward off idol worship, which was widespread in Islam’s Arabian birthplace. A central tenet of Islam is that Mohammed was a man, not God, and that portraying him could lead to revering him in lieu of Allah. The editor of the Danish paper would eventually apologize, saying that the cartoons had “indisputably offended many Muslims,” but that they “were not intended to be offensive.”
Khawaja asks that we pause over this editor’s phrasing—a phrasing so familiar it might pass us by. She asks us to think about what it can mean not to intend offense. Using the writings of a Kierkegaard, Khawaja demonstrates that the editor is showing a failure of understanding in this moment. As Khawaja says, cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad cannot be absolved of creating the possibility of offending. They offend precepts central to Islam. Certain practices of apparently secular freedom or reason are, by the very definition of their secularity, offensive. Kierkegaard asks us to understand offense not as a sign that something wrong has happened, but as an indication the truth is beginning to be identified. In our effort to avoid the hurt that offense produces, we may also avoid the foundational claims exposed in its production. “The point is simple but astonishing,” Khawja writes. “Being a Christian means not to reject the world but to employ the world—indeed, actually to need the world—as that toward which one’s conduct may be understood as offensive.” Kierkegaard says that being Christian is itself a posture of offense toward the world. Although the word “Christian” is especially important to Kierkegaard in that sentence, Khawaja’s demonstrates the extent to which secularism represents another idiom of the same form.
In her recent excellent account of Trump supporters in West Virginia, Larissa MacFarquhar goes further, saying that when Trump’s enemies criticize him for his gaffes, this pushes his followers to him. As one of her informants says, “When [voters] see that the media elite is driven out of their mind at the success of Donald Trump it makes them want to root for him. It’s like giving the middle finger to the rest of the country.” The offense of the media elite at Trump shows that their secularism has specific rules of engagement, and Trump is in violation of them. Yet they also need his offensive behavior in order to demonstrate their reason: to show again what they know relative to what he doesn’t.
As MacFarquhar shows, this is a dangerous dynamic. Every time some secular authority tries to top Trump’s authority with their forms of corrective reason, they offend again those who perceive this practice of secularism as a form of condescension. And Kierkegaard would say: our only mistake is not recognizing the offense of secular neutrality. Observing that Trump voters might be less educated than Clinton voters may seem to many to be a simple sociological observation. But for Trump voters, this is akin to telling a Biblical literalist that the text called the Bible is an amalgamation of a vast number of texts assembled by human editors and written by human authors. Facticity is its own offense in the realm of magical thinking. (It is, also, a kind of magical thinking all its own.) Khawaja, through Kierkegaard, tries to press us to see offense as productive. That it should be the beginning of reckoning and recognition, not a reason for further distance and recircling of the tribal wagons.
Scholars of religion often try to combat prejudice by showing how universal are the principles shared among the religions of the world. But this act of flattening comparison does nothing to assess or address the fact that belonging to a religion—belonging to a collectivity—is a radical act of distinction. Religions sanction conspiracy. If we are to use religion not only as a subject for diagnosis, but also as a tool of relation, we need to imagine a concept of encounter that is less phobic of offense. Less certain of the safety of difference. More interested in the tough work, the impossible wrestling with alien concepts until we make them legibly human, again.
Hurtling down the highway, muttering about the dinner party, I realize that the worst crime of the night wasn’t the verbalized self-satisfaction of my companions; it wasn’t the unchecked assumptions about Trump voters or Trump or Brexit. It was my offended distance, my self-soothing internal monologue, telling me that I was beyond their nonsense and unreason. It was my smug certitude that I was on the side of the angels simply because I had the better facts. I wish I could go back and do it again. To listen and reply. To try, in whatever stumbling way, to understand why their understanding seemed to me so far-flung from my craven own.