“I think there are two Donald Trumps.” (Palm Beach, Florida, March 11, 2016)
“I don’t think there are two Donald Trumps. I think there’s one Donald Trump.” (Palm Beach, Florida, March 11, 2016)
In a recent posting of “The Stone,” a column devoted to philosophical issues in The New York Times, Michael P. Lynch well-notes Donald Trump’s disdain for logical consistency. “He not only doesn’t fear contradiction,” says Lynch of Trump. “He embraces it.” Lynch laments the disregard of reason’s dictates and conventions, fearing that it may lead to a loss of regard for truth. Subsequently, Politico.com ran a piece by Michael Kruze and Noah Weiland that consisted of a very long list of quotations by Trump in which he directly contradicts himself on a wide variety of topics.
Indeed, those of us who hold high the ideal of truth and rational discourse, and believe in reason’s power to lead us to what’s right and true, find ourselves shaking our heads over, not only Trump’s loose grasp of reality, but the willingness of millions of people to embrace him in spite of it. As we know, demagoguery often begets idol-worship. It can hardly escape our notice in this case that Trump’s followers display a manic, indeed almost religious, devotion to him.
Consider this. Scripture (I’m thinking specifically of the Bible, but the argument can be extended to other religious traditions) isn’t consistent. It makes claims that are patently false. It contradicts itself—slapping together the Old and New Testaments as one document unavoidably led to contradiction. The very idea of the monotheistic God, if rationally parsed, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But religion isn’t rational, though some have endeavored mightily to make it so.
People say religion is a matter of faith, but that’s not quite right (or it’s misleading). Faith is supposed to be the acceptance of some belief or claim in the absence of any evidence. But believers tend to pounce on any evidence they can find to justify their beliefs; it’s only when there’s a lack of evidence, or counter-evidence, that they chalk the whole thing up to faith. Rather, religion appeals to people’s emotions and to their intuitions as to how things ought to be, and not to their rational faculties.
Take, first, emotions, particularly hope and fear. We fear death. There’s no way around the fact of our mortality, and Western religion solves the problem by telling us that we don’t really die. We also have a deep desire to belong, and religion gives us that: community, but community bought at a price, the price of ostracizing others, the non-believers. We’re told to hate them, even murder them. (If you’re incredulous, have a look at, for example, Deuteronomy 13:12-16; or John 15:6.) But at that steep cost, we have a powerful feeling of belonging. We’re part of the tribe, the chosen people.
Second, think about our intuitions. We believe with all our being that our lives have purpose and meaning, and that there must be some grand truth to the universe and our existence, and religion gives us all of this. There’s a witness to our pain and suffering; a father to protect us, to listen to us; a powerful force to intervene on our behalf if we pray hard enough.
For a certain type of American, Trump plays the same role, fulfills the same needs, as religion does for others. These are people who feel disaffected, feel that no one is listening to them, feel that there’s less and less purpose to their lives. They’re nostalgic for the days when things were good, before those people started demanding more and more and taking it away from them, the hard-working, true Americans.
So Trump comes onto the scene and he gives them a voice. He appeals not to their reason, but to their emotions and their intuitions. He makes them feel like he hears them; he makes them believe that he’s listening. He’s going to fix all their problems. He encourages their hatred of, and violence towards, the others, those people (fill in the blank: Muslims, Mexican immigrants, blacks).
And here’s the thing: because he’s appealing to their emotions and intuitions, what he says doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be consistent—in fact, it’s better if it doesn’t make sense, if it’s not consistent. Anything too carefully reasoned, too backed up with evidence, wouldn’t hit them in the gut, wouldn’t stoke the fires of their anger and frustration. Further, if he had any straightforward policy proposals worked out in detail, people could see how ridiculous they were. “Bar Muslims from entering the country!” “Deport millions of illegals!” “Build a wall on the border of Mexico!” If he offered detailed reasoning on any of these plans and how to bring them to fruition, it would be like giving precise, tangible descriptive characteristics to the divinity. “Let’s see, he’s five foot eight, has a receding hairline, and enjoys martinis.” Instead, the founders of religions had a tendency to make claims that are so vague and ambiguous as to be meaningless and/or statements that are nonsensical. “I believe it because it is absurd,” said Tertullian. The same is true of The Donald.
Besides, the more different things he says, contradictory though they may be, the more of the disaffected he can appeal to. Different Trump supporters, even though they may have wildly different ideas about what’s wrong and what’s right, can come together and say, “Man, he tells it like it is.” And they believe it!
Those who strive for clarity and consistency are open to refutation. Trump will have no truck with clarity and consistency, so he can’t be refuted. Good luck to the Democratic nominee in the upcoming Presidential debates.