Trump's Holiness Rises as His Corruption is Revealed, in the Best Authoritarian Tradition
Ruth Ben-Ghiat sheds light on the unsettling rise of Donald Trump's "holiness" amidst corruption revelations, exploring the manipulation of faith and parallels with authoritarian leaders throughout history.
Published:January 18, 2024
Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
How could anyone believe former president Donald Trump's claim that he, of all people, was chosen by God to lead America? It's a logical question to ask of a man whose voluminous and multi-faceted criminal behavior is hard to keep up with. Many criminals specialize: think of white-collar criminals dedicated to insider trading or Ponzi schemes. Not Trump. His charges, indictments, convictions, and settlements for fraud, serial sexual assault and rape, election interference, retention of national defense information, falsifying business records, inciting insurrection and more span the personal, business, and political realms.
Add in Trump's total lack of empathy and his use-and-discard attitude toward humanity (his request that Iowans caucus even if ill, adding "even if you vote and pass away, it's worth it," is just the most recent example) and Trump might not seem the most obvious individual to be anointed in this fashion.
That's why political enablers with connections to faith communities have long been tasked with proclaiming his sanctity, especially when his corruption is in the news. The more Trump’s crimes come to light, and justice moves to hold him accountable, the more he must be elevated as a being who is in some fashion not bound by the laws of ordinary men.
“I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become President,” said former White House Press Secretary and noted Christian Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Jan. 2019, as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election came to a close. In 2023, in reward for her good works, Sanders was in turn called to fill the role of Arkansas governor, with Trump's benediction.
For those familiar with authoritarian history, it is no wonder that the talking point of Trump's holiness has become prominent as more of his malfeasance and illegal behavior has been made public. Nor is it surprising that Trump would share a depiction of himself as Jesus-adjacent during his Oct. 2023 civil fraud trial. The image implies that Jesus is with him on his righteous path and that, even in court, Trump thinks holy thoughts.
And how typical that Trump declared that he would govern as God's direct emissary just when the news hit that he received millions from at least 20 foreign governments while he was president, including over $5 million from entities linked to the Communist regime of China.
The sudden rise of an obscure backbench politician to the pinnacle of American congressional power also makes sense within this logic. Trump had been indicted a few months prior, and some of his co-defendants were turning against him. God only knew what else might be revealed. Enter Mike Johnson, with his impeccable credentials as a religious zealot and his great potential as a faithful servant of Trump's wishes.
Johnson's lack of political experience for the delicate job of House Speaker mattered far less than his guardianship of the interests of far-right Christians and his assistance in maintaining the illusion of Trump's purity and infallibility. The former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who sometimes let the truth slip out of him, had failed repeatedly at this task (starting with his infamous 2016 musing to then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that Trump might be on Vladimir Putin's payroll).
McCarthy had sinned grievously in expressing doubt in June 2023 that Trump was the strongest GOP candidate for president: a central pillar of personality cults is the idea that the cult leader is the only man who can lead the nation to glory. Guided by divine destiny to become a world-historical protagonist (dictators Mobutu Sese Seko and Muammar Gaddafi, both kleptocrats, carried the titles of "Guide" to recognize this status), he is thus uniquely qualified for office. In fact, without him, the nation would collapse into anarchy.
The notion of the strongman as both savior and victim —the leader as a man of the people and a man above all other men— surrounds depraved and corrupt individuals with an aura of holiness. "I am the Jesus Christ of Italian politics," Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi liked to say as he navigated dozens of corruption trials and over twenty indictments with the help of his "right-hand man" Marcello Dell'Utri, a Senator from his party and his link to both the Mafia and Opus Dei.
Appearing as a figure tinged with the divine assists the reception of strongman propaganda campaigns, since any legal troubles must have been manufactured by godless Communist prosecutors, judges, and journalists.
This alternate universe of blind belief, and the use of religious rhetoric for political purposes, is how we arrive at a majority of Republicans polled at Iowa's caucus believing that Trump will be fit for the presidency even if he is convicted of a crime. Those crimes are invented by his enemies, and the legal process that produced the conviction tainted: it is all a machination meant to stop Trump from fulfilling his destiny and returning to the office to wage spiritual warfare and ultimately deliver divine justice for America.
Both Trump and Berlusconi built formidable personality cults within functioning democracies that blend sacred and secular images and notions of power. Berlusconi owned private television networks and television advertising agencies while he was Prime Minister, giving him a control of the information environment unheard of since the days of Il Duce. So saturated was Italy with Berlusconi's image that a woman interviewed in the early 2000s by Italian psychologists studying dementia could no longer recognize her family’s faces but knew those of three public figures: Berlusconi, Jesus Christ and the Pope.
History is full of lessons about the dangers of deifying strongmen who, counter to the precepts of all religions, exploit and plunder those they govern and care only about accumulating personal glory, money, and power. As Allied bombs rained on the territory of the Third Reich in 1944, one German had this to say about the outcome of his dictator's designs for the greatness of his country. ”The Führer was sent to us from God, though not in order to save Germany, but to ruin it.”
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