Given our bent here at BTRTN, you may have guessed that Steve’s college major was political science or history. It was actually religion. He knows one when he sees one.
The ouster of Liz Cheney from her leadership position in the Republican Party left many slack-jawed. Just when we thought that we could no longer be stunned by the actions of the far right, we watched House Republicans oust one of their most consistent, staunch, and powerful leaders for refusing to pledge fealty to the party’s grand deceit.
In truth, the only real news here was that the Republican Party managed to execute this particular slimy, despicable, craven, and hypocritical act without the overt participation of Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, Ron DeSantis, or Greg Abbott. The cancer has metastasized to every local, state, and federal level of Republican governance. Is the cancer operable? Liz Cheney just discovered that the cancer thinks she is the cancer.
The fact that we continue to be stunned by the behavior and actions of Republicans, however, has a lot more to do with us than with them. We continue to believe that a major political party’s objective is to articulate a comprehensive vision of policies to be embraced by a majority of voters.
Try telling that to the Republican Party, which literally decided that they did not have a “party platform” of such policies in the last election, and have spent the last six months attempting to undo the majority’s will and disenfranchise enough voters to sway the next election.
If the Republicans were actually successful in “articulating policies” that were “embraced by the majority,” they would not have lost the White House, the Senate, and the House. Is “articulating policy” to be “embraced by the majority” even what the Republican Party is trying to do?
Perhaps we are mistaken to view the Republican Party as a political organization. In fact, its actions appear more predictable and even more rational if we view the Republican Party as an organized religion.
Sure, I know many people throw the word “cult” around when describing Trump and the Republicans, and there is certainly a great deal of cult-like behavior. But “cult” does not come close to capturing the danger that the Republican religious organization represents to our democracy. The word “cult” conjures images of Jonestown, Branch Davidians, Manson… tiny, secretive groups at the outer fringes of society that engage in extreme behaviors, are paranoid of outsiders, and don’t even dream of accumulating the critical mass necessary to have a widespread impact.
Calling the Republicans a cult is an insult to their ambitions. This party is figuring out how to do cult at scale. They are out to make Sun Myung Moon look like a one-wedding-a-week officiant from Teaneck.
No, if you want to get appropriately worried, the far more accurate archetype for the Republican Party is modern organized religion… huge, highly organized, largely centrally-run institutions that have immense societal power and drive behaviors based on articles of faith, as defined by scripture but conveyed to the masses in an interpreted fashion by an empowered class of evangelists. And now, with today’s sermon, the right reverend Tucker Carlson!
Ever since it fell under the spell of Donald Trump, the Republican Party has begun to function far more like a religious organization than a political organization. At the top of the org chart there may indeed be a cult of personality, but this is a cult that has taken control of a vast infrastructure for organization and communication. In the Republican church, the hierarchy of leadership is determined by the boss, not the rank and file, not the flock, not the governed. This vast Republican church has millions of followers whose loyalty is sealed by faith rather than fact or objective reality. Perhaps it is through this filter that we can begin to truly understand just how threatening the Church of Trump is to our democracy.
Let me be absolutely crystal clear on one point before I begin. This essay is not about the extremely private nature of individual worship and deeply personal nature of spiritual belief. Today we are discussing how certain philosophical constructs function within the belief systems of large religious organizations, and how these constructs of organized religion now seem to actually be shaping behavior in the Republican Party.
There are three concepts at play in the Republican Party today that are more associated with religious organizations than secular entities: the infallibility of the leader, the notion of miracles, and the concept of excommunication. Let’s discuss each.
The first rung to understanding why Trump’s Republican Party functions like a religious organization is the manner in which Trump’s pronouncements carry the weight of papal ex cathedra speech. When the Catholic Pope declares that he is speaking ex cathedra, it is as if he is taking on the voice of God. To speak ex cathedra is to be infallible.
The notion of Papal infallibility is, face it, the ultimate Trump card. It is essentially an order to the faithful that what the church leader says is, by definition, true. Science and math may come up with one answer, but if a human being is imbued with the power of infallible speech, believers are likely to go with the guy who holds the key to their eternal salvation. Truth is, by definition, what the leader of the church says.
For those who were watching closely, the Republican Party formally institutionalized the notion of Trumpal Infallibility when it decided to not adopt a party platform for their 2020 nominating convention. This was essentially a concession that (1) it was impossible to provide a coherent, rationalized presentation of the hodgepodge of political beliefs that Trump espoused, (2) it was equally impossible to square whatever those beliefs were with what the party traditionally stood for, (3) it was profoundly risky to articulate a policy when it was known that Trump could change his mind at any moment, and (4) the Republican Party already knew by then that it had become whatever Trump felt like saying into a microphone that moment. Anyone want to ingest some Lysol? Trump doesn’t even need to dilute the poison with Kool-Aid.
In essence, the Republican Party was acknowledging that it had officially become whatever had just come out of Donald Trump’s mouth in the past minute, and that it was all subject to change in the next minute. The Republican Party abandoned its entire philosophical canon to avoid looking inconsistent when Donald Trump trashed NATO, sent the national debt skyrocketing, gutted our intelligence establishment, and coddled white supremacists.
However, of far greater consequence than the inconsistency of Trump’s rants was that what routinely came out of Donald Trump’s mouth was inaccurate, misleading, or downright lying. Throughout his term in the White House, Trump was emboldened to speak ever greater lies, because he was never called out by his own party leaders. He came to understand that he spoke ex cathedra. What he said was true, because he said it, and no one dared argue with it.
He tested his power with bigger and bigger lies. He learned that the bigger the lie he told, the more powerful he became. When a huge lie is uncontested, it aggrandizes the power of the liar.
Ex cathedra speech is an article of faith. Science, fact, reality – none of it even enters the equation. It is moot. And that is pretty much how Trump’s die-hard base viewed things. What Trump says is the truth.
Which brings us to a second structural element associated with religion institutions: scriptural recording of miraculous events that can only be explained by divine intervention, and which therefore validate the faith of believers.
Western religion is rife with examples of miracles, which, taken collectively, lend credence to a notion of divine endorsement. God has granted thus-and-such miracle, so we can believe that there is a God, and that God favors our religion. When people believe that small amounts of food miraculously lasted for days and fed many mouths, the religious institution associated with this miracle is imbued with unearthly power. The existence of miracles gives certainty that faith is justified.
Sure, start by simply calling Trump’s election in 2016 a miracle. Trump stunned the party traditionalists to win the nomination, and then defied all the odds to win the general election.
But it was in the election of 2020 that Trump overtly manipulated his power of speaking ex cathedra to his faithful flock to create the monumental miracle of his church. He absolutely, categorically, and unflinchingly refused to accept that he lost the election. He promised his faithful that hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots had denied him his rightful second term. He stirred his faithful into a holy crusade to undo the wrong. On January 6, his flock took to arms in Washington to try to prevent Joe Biden from becoming President. The followers believed that the miracle would come to pass.
The followers remain certain that Trump will rise anew.
Beware, Democrats, of disdaining and dismissing the deceit of the “Big Lie.” Be very careful when trying to use rational argument to tell a believer that their miracle is a fraud. Miracles are not the stuff of what can or cannot be proven, they are the articles of faith that bind believers to their church.
We err when we say, “Of course the Republicans all know that it is a lie, that they all know that the votes were counted accurately, that they know Trump lost.” Perhaps the cynical hypocrites in Congress feel that way, but do not assume for a moment that cynicism powers the belief of the rank and file Republicans. We may be wiser to view the 2020 election as a galvanizing moment in which a zealous belief in Trump was dramatically strengthened among the most loyal. It is the essential miracle, a foundational element of a new religion.
Which brings us to a third element of organized religion: excommunication, and the exile of Liz Cheney.
If the Republicans were actually a political party, they would embrace Liz Cheney as a reliable winner in her district and a steadfast conservative in her voting record.
Instead, Cheney was very publicly shamed and savagely ousted, punished by her own party for what Democrats view as the courage to tell the truth, and Republicans could have chosen to simply view as a difference of opinion on the election results.
But there was a reason that Republicans could not view Cheney’s view to be a mere difference of opinion. You see, Liz Cheney did not simply question the election results. Cheney has challenged the foundational miracle of the religion.
She disagreed on a matter in which Trump was speaking ex cathedra, a matter of faith, in which Trump alone is allowed to declare what is truth. An example needed to be set. That made Liz Cheney a heretic. That meant she had to be excommunicated.
Indeed, Donald Trump has institutionalized excommunication in the modern Republican Party through the doctrine of centrally organized primarying. Once upon a time, “primarying” was largely a local phenomenon. A local politician would see an opportunity to run against an incumbent by taking an aggressive position of being further to the right and more ideologically pure. Now, “primarying” is a centralized operational tool: Trump keeps legislators in line by threatening to fund a primary challenge to those who fail to be sufficiently loyal to him personally. A primary challenge is no longer about how far right a candidate stands on the political spectrum. It is about how loyal that candidate is to Trump. It has become a crucial tool of the Church of Trump.
The irony of it all is that there actually is a very real element of representative democracy in the Catholic Church: the College of Cardinals elects the pope. (Think of it as the original Electoral College, except the one in Rome isn’t skewed to make Iowa more important than California). The College of Cardinals meets, debates, and holds a series of votes until one Cardinal receives two thirds of the votes, the requirement for election as the new Pope. (Imagine if they tried using that system in the radically polarized United States. Jesus Christ himself would have a hard time getting elected Pope).
But in its own quaint way, the College of Cardinals does serve as a model for the Electoral College in the United States, with the theoretical underpinning that the selection of the Pope -- and the President – should not be left to the uninformed masses. Each matter is to be entrusted only to persons with the proper knowledge, experience, and judgment. The theory was if you locked the most trusted party elders in a room and told them they could not leave until two thirds agreed on a candidate, you’d get the best answer.
That, in essence, is how Liz Cheney views her role: strong, established party elders have a responsibility to do the right thing… first, for country, and then for party.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party is now behaving more like a church, and – certainly insofar as it goes to electing leaders – the Catholic Church is behaving more like a democracy than the Republican Party.
Democrats, be warned.
Be careful telling someone of faith that the story about loaves and fishes is not true, that it was “just a metaphor,” and that it is simply a “powerful religious symbol meant to represent a broader truth.”
A percentage of the faithful may nod and take your point, but a large group won’t see it that way. They believe that miracles go to the essence of their faith. To believe that the miracle is simply a metaphor is to drain it of its power as a justification of faith.
Democrats, you are up against far more than “the Big Lie.”
The problem is that for Donald Trump’s base, the supposed “Big Lie” is actually the “Miraculous Truth.” You can try to tell them that it is all just so much Trump BS, but they will not hear your words. No amount of rational explanation, fact, data, or argument means a thing when it is up against the belief in the miraculous.
More and more, it appears that the only thing that can save the Republican Party from Trump is the revelation that Trump himself is a hoax. Perhaps Trump’s grip will someday weaken in a manner similar to a televangelist preacher who is revealed to be buying helicopters with the offering plate, sleeping with married congregants, and dissing true believers on leaked private recordings. Who knows? But don’t hold your breath: Trump has pretty much already committed all of the above, and the belief of the faithful is unshaken.
We know this much: Liz Cheney’s telling the truth has absolutely no impact on Trump’s base, and only serves to discredit her in the eyes of the faithful. Such is the punishment for the heretic who refuses to believe the essential miracle.
And Kevin McCarthy, kneeling and kissing the ring? He has proven he is worthy of the craven hypocrisy and cowardice and joined the inner circle of Cruz, Graham, Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Green and Matt Gaetz that has now become the central identifying mark of the Republican brand.
Time to rethink whether Democrats are competing with a political party.
Time to start thinking about how to compete with a religious organization.
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