Trump's Secret? Religion

I’ve just finished correcting the first set of galleys from St. Martin’s Press for The Field of Fight, the soon-to-be-released book I had the pleasure of co-authoring with Lt. General Michael Flynn, until recently the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Publication date is July 12. Now that the mechanical labor is over, I’ll have more time to blog, and you have plenty of time to pre-order the book.


Once you’ve done that, we can talk about the Trump phenomenon. I used to lecture about political crowds, from the fascists to contemporary Western leaders. There are many different crowds, from the very disciplined Nazi crowds that awaited cues from the Fuhrer that kicked off the raised right arms and chants of “Heil Hitler,” to the equally disciplined but unenthusiastic crowds that sat through interminable Marxist-Leninist sermons from Comrade Stalin and his tedious successors. Then there were crowds whose members had a bit, or a lot, of spontaneity, who would shout at the leader and implore him to pick up a favorite theme. Mussolini crowds were like that, an ongoing give and take between the Duce and the masses.  Roosevelt crowds were also like that, as when FDR would start criticizing Republican congressmen Martin and Barton, and people in the crowd would shout “what about Fish?”  “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” the president would say, and eventually all would chant in unison: “Martin, Barton and Fish.”

JFK was sexy, but it was his brother Bobby who produced the “jumpers,” a phenomenon I haven’t seen since.  Some of his fans got so excited they couldn’t stand still, and jumped up and down when the candidate appeared.

One of the most interesting crowds was the German one that gathered for JFK’s famous “ich bin ein Berliner” speech. When he delivered the line, the Germans responded with a deep, guttural cry of approval. A very Germanic sound, let’s say…


The relationship between crowd and leader  tells us a lot about the charisma of the leader, which is reflected in the enthusiasm of the crowd, and the way that enthusiasm is—or isn’t—expressed by the crowd. The dynamic give-and-take between charismatic leader and enthusiastic crowd had its first modern incarnation in the city of Fiume (now Rijeka) on the Adriatic coast after the First World War.  The city was taken over by a ragtag army following Italy’s greatest war hero, the decadent poet-warrior Gabriele D’Annunzio. I wrote a book about the 18 months when Fiume held out against pretty much the rest of the world.  D’Annunzio’s exchanges with the crowd were clearly based on Catholic rituals, reminding us that political ritual owes a lot to religion.  That remains true today.

I think Rush is right when he tells his listeners that Trump’s popularity has little to do with political issues. Yes, immigration is an important theme, but the main thing about Trump is himself.  He excites a lot of people, there’s a sort of magic at work at his rallies, and his followers are wild about him.  He’s the only candidate who is really charismatic; nobody goes to a Hillary or Bernie rally because they expect to be thrilled and inspired.

Which leaves me with two strong convictions about this election.  First, Trump’s incoherence on issue after issue matters less than it would for the others.  His crowd wants him, not necessarily his platform.  They want the anti-pol.  His chances of success depend on his ability to retain the magic he’s shown to date.


Second, although I’m talking about an intensely emotional and in many ways irrational phenomenon, it is driven by real and very rational contempt for the current ruling class.

Yes it’s funny that a man who doesn’t much care about religion is in large part a religious leader, but it’s quite a common historical phenomenon.  And sometimes such leaders are triumphant.

(Artwork created using multiple AP and images.)



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