It has long been a truism that an ardent dedication to political ideology is a substitute for religion. The other day, in his weekly sermon at New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan presented this cliché as if it were a fresh idea. After several paragraphs of his usual hieratic huffing and puffing and highbrow name-dropping (Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, etc.), he offered the following generalization about American politics today: “We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”
This is simply idiotic. To equate Trump supporters with social-justice warriors is absurd. No Trump voter sees him as an infallible demigod. Many of them, in fact, are evangelical Christians, and they cheer Trump not because they see him as any kind of divinity but because, after having cast their ballots over the years for hypocritical politicians who professed to share their faith, they’ve learned to distinguish between the things of Caesar and the things of God. If they like Trump, it’s because they recognize in him a genuine respect for working Americans, and an understanding of their plight that neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton evinced. They see someone who made promises and has kept them. Unlike the social-justice warriors on the left, moreover, Trump fans are overwhelmingly non-violent and have a sense of humor that enables them to laugh easily at his foibles even as they stand in line for hours to hear him speak.
Evangelicals, Andrew claims, “have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal.” I have no idea what he is talking about. Or, rather, I don’t think he has any idea what he’s talking about. Andrew has lived more than half his life in America now, but he has never really understood the part of it that lies beyond the Boston-Washington corridor. He has no real sense of the lives of the people whom Hillary called the “Deplorables” and whom his beloved Obama mocked as clinging to God and guns. Andrew refers condescendingly to Trump voters’ “blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country.” Oh, go bugger yourself. When Americans talk about their country that way, they’re not being theologians but patriots. “They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ,” Andrew charges. Nonsense. When I look at the average Trump supporter, I don’t see people who have embraced Mammon – I see people who work hard at tough, thankless, and unsexy jobs but who, because of the policies of Andrew’s beloved Obama, had increasing trouble making ends meet during that administration. All they want is to get by – to be able to pay their bills and feed their families. When I see the words “embrace wealth,” I think not of ordinary Trump voters but of Malibu lefties like Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner and Madonna, who sit in their palaces by the sea supposedly weeping for illegal immigrants while sneering at poor Americans.
Andrew goes on about the Trump crowd: “They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made.” On the contrary, most of them live a lot closer to that creation than Andrew does. They love it deeply. What they have rebelled against is the ridiculous edifice of environmental regulations that the Beltway bureaucrats have imposed upon them, and that do little or nothing to help the environment while doing a great deal to destroy those decent people’s livelihoods. Trump, writes Andrew, “may be the least Christian person in America, but his persona met the religious need their own faiths had ceased to provide.” No, Andrew, it’s you and your fellow blue-state snobs who are obsessed with Trump’s “persona”; the great majority of Trump’s people weren’t drawn to him by his persona but by his message. They recognized his policy proposals as being in their own best interests, and sensed in him a man who, unlike Obama, was determined, indeed impatient, to effect real change rather than just giving speeches about change. He gave them hope, and so far, at least, he has done a remarkable job of fulfilling his promises and justifying their trust in him.
It is particularly outrageous to see Andrew, of all people, describing Trump voters as pious acolytes. For years, during the first Obama campaign and then throughout the Obama presidency, Andrew, then at the helm of his blog, was an unabashed worshiper at Obama’s altar. It was embarrassing. No matter how disappointing Obama proved to be, Andrew refused to abandon his faith. “Know hope,” Andrew wrote innumerable times at the end of posts celebrating Obama’s magnificence. His adoration of Obama was thoroughly a matter of religious-style devotion – it had no basis whatsoever in any accomplishment by the former community organizer but was a response to the man, to his soaring rhetoric, to his apparent magnetism in Andrew’s eyes, and to what he represented to Andrew as the nation’s first black president. Obama presented himself as a would-be savior, and in his speeches he talked like a pope or a prophet, and Andrew fell for the whole act hook, line, and sinker. For him to suggest now that it’s Trump’s voters who have succumbed to an unseemly reverence for their president is rich indeed.
As he often does in his New York column, Andrew moved on from Trump to other topics. At the end, he mentioned the recent film Darkest Hour, about the five days in May 1940 that ended with Winston Churchill, the newly installed prime minister, refusing any accommodation with Hitler and giving the famous “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech in which he vowed to fight the Nazis “by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.” Andrew says that the film brought him to tears, because it shows “how the people of Britain shook off the moral decadence of the foreign policy of the 1930s, how, beneath the surface, there were depths of feeling and determination that we never saw until an existential crisis hit, and an extraordinary figure seized the moment.” I foolishly thought, for a moment, that Andrew was then going to turn to Britain today, where members of UKIP and Anne Marie Waters’s For Britain and the followers of Tommy Robinson are shaking off the moral decadence of their leaders’ immigration policies and standing up against the Islamization of their country. Of course I was wrong: for Andrew, the film was a tear-jerker because
I yearn for something like that to reappear in America. The toll of Trump is so deep. In so many ways, he has come close to delegitimizing this country and the entire West, aroused the worst instincts within us, fed fear rather than confronting it, and has been rewarded for his depravity in the most depressing way by everything that is foul on the right and nothing that is noble.
I want to believe in America again, its decency and freedom, its hostility, bred in its bones, toward tyranny of any kind, its kindness and generosity. I need what someone once called the audacity of hope. I’ve witnessed this America ever since I arrived — especially its embrace of immigrants — which is why it is hard to see Trump tearing migrant children from their parents. That America is still out there, I tell myself, as the midterms demonstrated. It can build. But who, one wonders, is our Churchill? And when will he or she emerge?
There it is, amid all the familiar calumnies about Trump feeding fear and tearing children from parents: “what someone once called the audacity of hope.” Andrew is referring, of course, to Obama, whose second book carried that title. But the phrase originated with Obama’s longtime Chicago pastor and mentor, Jeremiah Wright, who hates capitalism, despises Jews, is a friend of Louis Farrakhan, has described America as having been founded on racial hatred, and characterized 9/11 as well-deserved payback for America’s transgressions. This is what Andrew’s latest anti-Trump screed is really all about – despite all of Trump’s accomplishments, he still misses the Jeremiah Wright protégé who, by the time his two terms were up, had breathed new life into America’s racial divisions, taken official mendacity about Islam to new heights, stood by while gang violence damaged major cities and while economic decay corroded the rust belt, allowed China to clean our clock, made a morally reprehensible deal with Iran, weaponized the IRS and intelligence services, used underhanded methods to try to ensure Hillary’s victory in 2016, and much else, all of it either insidious or incompetent or both.
Obama kept none of his major promises; he spent eight years posing and posturing and preaching at us from on high. I found it unbearable, condescending, and patently phony. But to Andrew, for reasons we may never fully grasp, the guy never stopped looking and sounding like a savior, a deity, and Andrew is in the market for another one so that he can “believe in America again.” That, ultimately, is where he differs most starkly from Trump’s voters, who don’t look to their government for a savior or deity; what they want is an honest and competent chief executive who makes America work for them. In Trump they have found that man. If anything, after eight years of Obama’s priestly posturing, Trump’s supporters respond to the fact that he doesn’t present himself as anything remotely resembling a godhead. He’s no-nonsense, a roll-up-the-sleeves, get-it-done guy. It’s all pretty straightforward, actually. How surprising it is that Andrew, and so many other purportedly smart people on the left, just don’t get it, and probably never will.