Trump and the Tyranny of Authenticity

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by Matt Sheedy

In the preface to his book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (2016), Aaron Hughes writes:

Rather than judge the Islamic bone fides of such groups as Boko Haram and ISIS, why not attempt to explain and understand such groups within the larger context of globalization, religious fundamentalism, the crisis of Islamic masculinities, and the intersection of politics and religion?

He continues:

If we did this we might say that groups like Boko Haram and ISIS are engaged in acts of legitimation based on the manipulation of a set of finite symbols that the tradition of Islam considers normative (e.g., Qur’an, Sunna). In this, they are not any different than any other social group, including those that say such versions of Islam are inauthentic …(xii)

Hughes’s reflections here provide an important reminder of why talk of authenticity in the study of religion is such a fraught endeavor, since it performs a sleight of hand by directing our attention away from the important question of how and why certain groups make use of, as Hughes puts it, “a set of finite symbols” that any tradition defines as normative toward a fight over the true meaning of these symbols, which at times resembles a boxing match or even pro-wrestling.

Having just returned from the annual American Academy of Religion conference in San Antonio (which also hosts the Bulletin-affiliated North American Association for the Study of Religion annual meeting), my head is still buzzing with ideas from the dozen or so panels that I attended. As with most conferences, much of the conversation takes place outside of scheduled panels—in hallways, cafes, restaurants, bars, etc. Not surprisingly, the recent election of Donald Trump was on many people’s minds.

In popular media, discussions about Trump’s religion during the election campaign tended to brand him as an inauthentic Christian who occasionally (and poorly) attempted to play one on TV, especially among evangelicals—hence his choice of Mike Pence for Vice President. There is, of course, much to analyze here, including the argument (persuasive in my estimation), that Trump’s Christian bone fides are less important to some evangelicals than what may be accomplished on the legislative front by Pence, who is a well-known crusader on social issues associated with the “Christian right.” For many North Americans, this kind of strategic calculation is not that hard to imagine since we understand the political and cultural rules of the game much better than we do when speaking about, say, Boko Haram or ISIS. We also know that white supremacist racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic depression, resentment of “liberal elites” and “Washington insiders,” and a host of other reasons contributed significantly to Trump’s victory, which, for those of us who acknowledge these factors, amounts to an implicit recognition that religious identity is only one of many variables here, tangled up within a mash of economic and culturalist politics in complicated ways.

Debating whether or not Trump is an authentic Christian therefore tells us little, if anything, about the intersections between religion, politics, “culture wars,” race, and class, to name but a few important variables, and clearly failed to dissuade enough so-called “values voters” to make a difference. One problem here, it would seem, is that authenticity is dependent upon the boundaries that are drawn by distinct Christian (and other) groups to decide whether or not Trump merits the label, and whether they can square an endorsement in some way with their own purported values. How they do this and why, however, is a much more interesting question.

Picking up on Hughes’ remarks, I am reminded of Sarah Ahmed’s notion of affective “conversion points” in her book The Promise of Happiness (2010), which looks at how things like emotion, sentiment, feelings of affinity or estrangement, etc., are always being redirected in new ways rather than merely reproduced. From this it follows that whatever we might say about Trump’s relationship to Christianity, the attempts by some to dissuade evangelicals from voting for him by reproducing a normative set of Christian values (begging the question, whose?) misses how he was able to skillfully redirect the sentiments of a certain population by manipulating “a set of finite symbols”—nationalist, nativist, moral, religious—in such a way that the circle could be squared somehow.

In his post from last week on the Bulletin, Tenzan Eaghll draws on a number of these affective conversion points while discussing Roland Barthes’ famous comparison between boxing and wrestling, noting how the rules of the game in boxing–“evenly matched opponents, controlled rules, and fairly judged decisions”–are not those of wrestling–“emotion, dazzling lights, and sharp contrasts to shock the audience.” Whereas Trump’s opponents during the campaign were boxing, he was wrestling. Eaghll continues:

Trump began his campaign with a clear message, “make America great again,” and he constantly drew stark, comic-like contrasts between himself and his opponents to construct his vision of America. For his supporters, this was a matter of calling a spade a spade and making evil intelligible, and for his detractors it was simplistic at best and neo-fascist at worst, but from the perspective of strategy it was all part of the spectacle.

For instance, in the primaries, when Trump was up against Jeb Bush and the latter challenged him on policy and character, Trump simply ridiculed him and called him “low energy,” upending the GOP frontrunner in the process. Or in the general election, when Hillary dominated him with facts and figures during the debates, he just repeatedly lied and said “wrong” into the microphone. All the pundits were aghast at these techniques and usually gave the debates to Hillary, but Trump was the one who grabbed the headlines, for good or ill.

Bringing together Eaghll and Hughes’s observations, it seems quite clear (to us North Americans of a particular political sensibility, that is), that certain evangelicals’ (and others) disaffection with conventional politics is conditioned by the various mediums through which it is presented (e.g., within communities, in places of worship, on-line and on TV); that education and popular culture perpetuate racialized, misogynistic, homophobic, and class-based sentiments; and, perhaps most importantly from a religious studies perspective, that religious identities are caught up within these processes, shaped through and not apart from the many conversion points that collide in both familiar and novel ways.

This of course holds too for groups like Boko Haram and ISIS that Hughes points to in his recent book, who are easier to cast as pure evil (or, say, the product of things like Western imperialism and nothing more) rather than figure out how they are able to redirect Islamic symbols and persuade some people of their legitimacy, while always colliding with their own local-global crisis–Trumps’s and Pence’s of a different stripe.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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