Conservative Christians voted en masse for Trump in 2016 and for the next few years remained diehard fans of his, but only as a means to an end; above all, they wanted to avenge themselves against secular liberal culture in the United States, to teach those liberals that God still rules in spite of any appearance to the contrary.
These supporters of President Trump are neither conservative nor Christian, but that’s another story. More to the point, Trump isn’t really a president.
Thus, what we’ve actually learned from the evangelicals’ political pet project — which might be called “Trolling with Trump” — is what it’s like to be leaderless. Ironically, these fake Christians have done us all the service of showcasing why we should be atheists.
Presumably, evangelicals had meant under Trump, rather, to reestablish godly morality, meaning the bigotry, xenophobia, toxic masculinity, and anti-intellectualism that are equivalent to what I call “Americanism,” that is, to the worst stereotype non-Americans have of Americans, which “conservative” Americans insist on vindicating. For no defensible reason, evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists identify those vulgar prejudices with the essence of Jesus and the New Testament.
The Ruse of Vessel Theology
Sensing some discrepancy between their support for both meek-and-mild Jesus and the monstrous Trump, so-called conservative Christians appealed to vessel theology: God uses non-Christians and evildoers to achieve his purposes, the prime example being God’s use of the devil’s rebellion as an opportunity to redeem Creation.
Another biblical example is Cyrus the Great, the ancient Persian king who conquered Babylon and freed the exiled Jews. Isaiah 45:1 praises Cyrus as a messiah and conservative Christians view Trump as allegedly just such an empty vessel that can do God’s bidding in spite of his barbaric preoccupations. This kind of helpful servant is comparable to what Russians call a “useful idiot” as opposed to a knowing, rational agent. So Trump would be the Christian’s useful idiot — and you thought Christians were supposed to be the opposite of cynical!
Of course, Cyrus the Great was no one’s useful idiot. He was consistently tolerant not just towards Judaism but towards all the religions practiced in his empire, and his tolerance was therefore principled, whether on Zoroastrian or more political grounds. But no one should expect an adequate grasp of historical realities from Christian propagandists who scour the wreckage of their theology for excuses to support an authoritarian monstrosity like Trump.
In any case, all you have to do to see through this theological ploy is to read further along in Isaiah’s ode to Cyrus: ‘How terrible it will be for anyone who argues with their Maker! They are like a broken piece of pottery lying on the ground. Does clay say to a potter, “What are you making?” Does a pot say, “The potter doesn’t have any skill”?’ (45:9).
You see, the idea that God can use those who don’t worship him as his vessels implies not just that God’s plan is knowable but that it’s laudable. In particular, God was supposed to have used non-Jews to benefit Jews, even if only to teach Jews a lesson, as in the case of the Israelites whom Moses freed from Egypt and who had to wander the desert for forty years before finding the Promised Land.
Likewise, God would be using Trump, the evident non-Christian, to aid American Christianity.
But the underlying logic even in Isaiah, which emerges more fully in the Book of Job, is that God can do whatever he likes and he’s not obliged to seek our approval or even our understanding. This is the foolproof move of proclaiming that God works in mysterious ways, in case the vessel goes rogue or the alleged divine plan appears to backfire. The broken pottery would have no business gainsaying the potter. Of course, the obvious rejoinder to Isaiah is that if there’s broken pottery lying on the ground, we’re evidently not dealing with a flawless potter.
So we can skip the ruse and ignore the conservative Christian’s sales tactic of reassuring everyone that she worships a benevolent, just God despite what could be gleaned from her repugnant, egregiously anti-Jesus political culture. Dig a little deeper and you find the loopholes in the biblical small print.
President Trump: A Fitting Symbol of the Evangelical’s Absent God
In reality, therefore, the Trump era was meant to be a reintroduction to the fake Christian’s nightmare which casts God as an insane asshole. God loves us and died for us on the cross, begins the nightmare, but he also hates us because we can’t stop sinning and he’s ready to torture us all forever in hell. God made us free but wants us to live like slaves to his commandments. He requires that we accept the Christian creed, but packages that creed in the dubious propaganda of the New Testament which critical historians have spent the last two centuries dismantling.
Who else could serve as an empty vessel for the horrors of a rogue, mad, monstrous deity but a full-blown malignant narcissist like Trump? So why not give Trump the ultimate power of commanding the executive branch of the American government to illustrate how God can tyrannize his people? Wouldn’t Americans run screaming back to right-wing “Christianity” out of fear of being on God’s/Trump’s bad side?
Alternatively, the evangelicals might have expected that by overplaying their hand and afflicting the country with the paradox of a non-presidential presidency, they could incite a backlash against their reckless trollery and their pseudospirituality. But these are the sanctimonious folks who fell for rank Americanism and saw Jesus’s name written all over that jingoism, consumerism, and bigotry, so who said they could think straight?
What evangelicals didn’t count on was the shocking magnitude of Trump’s incompetence. There are authoritarians who make for terrifying dictators because they have at least the first idea of what they’re doing. They’re real-life bullies and sadists and cold-blooded killers, so when they acquire ultimate power, they create a dystopian state of affairs that has at least the benefits of being coherent and predicable.
Trump only played villains on TV. Even in business he relied on his father’s gifts of tax-free piles of cash, and failed more often than he succeeded. By the time he finally ran for president and won, having capitalized on the rigged American political system that’s tilted towards the red states and the Republicans, he was elderly, run ragged by his decades of untreated mental disorders, and was incapable of putting together two sensible words in public.
As a consequence, despite the myriad debasements perpetrated by the Trump show on mainstream news, Americans’ daily lives were largely unaffected by anything President Trump said or did. His cabinet and lower levels of government ignored his nonstarter declarations on Twitter and his more egregious blunders, so the ship of state ran itself. The US isn’t a monarchy, which means its political power is widely dispersed.
Trump was still good for distractions, entertainment, and ratings, but not for the act of governing anything. In other words, Trump is still primarily a reality TV star. True, he’s legally and actually the president, but his political function is to serve as a mascot for the most hotheaded Republican constituents, not to lead the free world or to solve big problems by running the government.
George W. Bush’s ceding of foreign policy to Cheney and to the neoconservatives had already further explored those waters that Reagan tested in his second term, when he showed signs of his Alzheimer’s. So Trump’s anti-presidency is no accident, but the outcome of well-established Republican incoherence.
Plutocracy and Culture War: the Animating Forces of American Politics
As evidence of God’s handiwork, evangelicals will point to the many conservative federal judges appointed under Trump and McConnell, including 51 out of 179 circuit court judges and the pair of judges that may have realigned the Supreme Court. Trump didn’t have to be a professional or responsible leader to pick names from lists drawn up by conservative think tanks.
This is indeed an accomplishment of the Trump regime or more precisely of the united Republican Party that’s controlled the executive branch and at least the Senate in Trump’s first term.
But there’s hardly any miracle afoot here. Americans have been culturally divided for many years, going back to the Civil War. The internal conflicts resurged in the ’60s counterculture and resulted in the present-day tribal gridlock. Why should the whole of a country that’s so divided be permanently governed only by one side’s liberal values?
Americanized Christians, meaning the vulgar, regressive, “deplorable” ones (to borrow Hillary Clinton’s description) have had to suffer under a progressive regime of political correctness for some decades now. After stewing in resentment, thanks to odious talk radio and Fox News, the stars aligned in 2016 for these fake Christians. As an obvious consequence, progressive values may no longer govern non-economic legal matters at the federal level. (The courts have been “neoliberal” or plutocratic on economic issues.)
Specifically, the civil rights of women and minorities, including African-Americans and the LGBT community may be coming to an end. Only when the liberal quarter of the country that matter, politically speaking — since half of Americans don’t vote — only when they languish in turn under decades of pseudo-Christian theocracy might those decadent liberal professionals coalesce around a crushing progressive agenda to reestablish the country as a humanist beacon to the world.
Of course there would eventually be an American right-wing backlash against abortion, the welfare state, environmental protections, gay rights, and voting rights. Half of voting Americans — meaning a quarter of the country — hate those things, because those policies directly or indirectly conflict with their savage mockery of a Christian belief system.
Leaderless and Godless
My point is that God is quite absent from those cultural and political struggles in the United States. In particular, the Christian deity known as Jesus Christ is absent from the character and policy platform of Americanized, conservative Christianity.
Beyond that truism, God is shown to be more widely absent from the universe by the vacuity of the idol selected by these fervent anti-Christians for president in 2016. The evangelicals dreamed Trump would destroy the liberal establishment and the deep state, ushering in the chaos that would provide a suitable backdrop for another round of Christian apocalyptic preaching.
Instead, by imposing a truly empty vessel on the country, evangelicals showed that if God is comparable to Trump, “God” may as well be a name for just a set of impersonal, natural forces. Trump the vessel is filled not by any divine spirit but by a battery of personality and cognitive disorders. As a consequence, Americans have been functionally without a president throughout Trump’s first term in office. Likewise, the universe has been functionally without supernatural leadership throughout its billions of years of evolution, as shown by the scientific understanding of how things work.
If Americans can realize that chaos has reigned under Trump only in the reality TV show that’s been playing on the mainstream news, but that the country itself is still governed by its primary divisions between the plutocrats and the duped masses and between the Republicans, Democrats and nonvoters, maybe humanity can learn to live without our religious fictions. Maybe we should thank evangelicals for the irony of their empty vessel, for demonstrating, through Trump, the impersonality of their God and the desolation of their message.