Donald Trump, American Hero

Cross-posted from Asia Times

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The protagonists of American popular culture are outsiders with scant patience for authority. The Western heroes invented by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and portrayed by William S. Hart or John Wayne, and their urban cousins -- the private detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler -- play loose with the law and play dirty with the opposition, but they have an inviolable inner code. They don’t betray their friends and they don’t exploit the weak. They don’t aspire to entry into the elites, and they don’t apologize for their vulgarity. They come in comic form, for example Huckleberry Finn, or nastily serious, like William Munny in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, or a bit of both in Hammett’s wise-cracking angel of vengeance, the Continental Op.

Religious or not, the entire dramatis personae of American fiction descends from the Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the original of which every product of the American literary imagination is a reworking. Americans are pilgrims. We have no settled culture, no inheritance of customs handed down over generations, no ancient vineyards or ancient recipes, no monuments from the deep past and no long memory. We invented ourselves as a nation out of the Protestant imagination, and we must journey towards a goal that we never will reach. The goal -- salvation -- always awaits just beyond the horizon. Our fiction lacks endings. Our national novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ends perforce the way it began, with Huck running away from home: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

There is nothing un-Christian in the fact that American pilgrims are rogues -- rough men at best, killers and conmen at worst -- for the English Puritans who imagined the United States as a “Hebrew Republic” believed that humanity was hopelessly depraved, and that only an act of special grace from God could save them from damnation. Trump is a Christian, to be sure, of a characteristically American variety: as the political scientist Joshua Mitchell observed, he was for decades a follower of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, whose bestselling version of the prosperity gospel in The Power of Positive Thinking made him rich. Whether and in what way Trump is a Christian, though, is far less important than the fact that he is instantly recognizable as the protagonist in a Christian drama: the lone avenger who stands up to the depraved powers of the world and calls them out for combat.