Trump and Political Theology: Unmaking Truth and Democracy
I was raised in upstate New York and went to college at Hobart College in Geneva, NY. I spent a year in Australia immediately after college visiting Aboriginal communities and then decided to attend Boston University to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology. I earned a PhD in anthropology after another year of studying cultural and religious change in an Aboriginal society. I got a teaching job at an international university in Denver in 1990, where I have lived ever since. My teaching interests include cultural anthropology, anthropology of religion, secularism, and violence and culture. I live with my wife and a house full of cats. This is my first “political” book.
inspired you to author your book?
people, scholars, and otherwise, I was stunned by the election of Trump. I have
watched for four years as he has continued to act in exception to conventions
and traditions—and even laws and institutions—of the presidency. Reading Carl
Schmitt’s famous work on political theology, I was struck by his famous
definition of the “sovereign” as the person who “decides the exception,” and
the relationship between Trump as an exceptional executive and political
theology clicked for me.
did you get the inspiration for your book’s cover?
The book cover
was actually suggested by my publisher, Darren Slade of the Global Center for
Religion Research, but it accurately reflects the troubled relationships
between Trump and religion. No one, including me, would assert that Trump has a
political theology or any other political theory, and political theology as it
is envisioned by Schmitt, and by me in this book, actually has little to do
with religion. It is about power—where does power come from, what is its
ultimate source, who can wield it, and what constrains a power-wielder? Trump
has ripped away the veil of power in the American democracy, demonstrating just
how fragile it is and how vulnerable it is to a leader who has no respect for
has been the most significant influence on you personally and as a writer?
I was an avid reader of science fiction in my youth, and a novel by Colin Wilson called The Mind Parasites introduced me to a number of terms like parapsychology and psychokinesis. That kindled an interest in psychology, but college showed me that I needed to go beyond American/Western culture to understand human thought and action, which is what led me to Australia and anthropology. In college, probably my greatest influence was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and in graduate school all of us anthropologists of the 1980s were highly influenced by Clifford Geertz and Pierre Bourdieu.
were your struggles or obstacles you had to overcome to get this book written?
I don’t know
if I would say that there were struggles or obstacles in writing the book. One
friend warned me that it was dangerous and that I might get entangled in a
lawsuit! But Trump has bigger problems to worry about than me. It is always a
struggle to remain objective in such a project, but I think that I did. And
objectivity does not necessarily mean neutrality: objectivity is how you arrive
at a position, but once you arrive you are not, and do not need to be, neutral.
The benefit of writing such a book these days is the easy access to
information, from commentary to direct quotes from Trump and others.
your readers about your book.
The book is a
nonpartisan and serious but readable reflection on the past four years and what
they have taught us about American democracy and about political power in
general. Despite the fact that Trump is the first word in the title, it is not
entirely about him, and it is not just another hatchet job on his personality
or his presidency. It asks first, is Trump an exception? In some ways he is,
while in other ways he is very much a continuation—if not a climax or
apotheosis—of long-term political (especially Republican) trends. Fifty years
ago Arthur Schlesinger warned us about the growing “imperial presidency.” So
the next big question is, what can and can’t a president do? What prevents a
president from abusing power, even breaking law, or at worst suspending the
constitution and declaring martial law? We have actually heard Trump toy with
the idea of martial law and invalidating a democratic election. What
“guardrails” keep an executive within the law? And where does the law come
from, anyhow? In the past, people have answered in various ways: from God, from
nature, from the people. But populists and authoritarians have proven just how
defenseless the law is, especially if “the people” don’t approve of or care
about it. So the book compares Trump to other political theologies in America,
like Christian Reconstructionism and Christian Identity; compares him to other
right-wing populists in the world today (where Trump-style politics is surprisingly
common); explores his profligate lying as a deliberate political strategy; and
then goes beyond Trump to consider how political theology transcends Trump and
even Christianity to include ideas about myth and ritual and about
non-Christian supernatural characters like the shaman and the trickster, who
play with rules and institutions to break them in order to make something new.
is your target audience, and why?
I know that
scholars in politics and in theology are the most likely to recognize the
themes in the book and to take an interest. But I hope that the general public
also takes an interest to get a sophisticated but approachable, and again not
entirely partisan, insight into what is at stake in our democracy and the world
beyond with the rise of Trump-style politics. Between the Trump presidency and
the COVID pandemic, people are getting a sense of just how fragile our way of
you were going to give one reason for anyone looking at your book to read, why
should they buy it?
plenty of books about Trump out there, but most of them are clearly taking
sides, for or against. While my book is critical where it needs to be, people
must understand the threats to our democracy from characters who disrespect the
basic rules and norms and are willing to sacrifice them to personal or party
interest. Americans have a difficult choice to make: are they going to
rededicate themselves to democracy (which is hard), or are they going to drift,
as many countries do, into a lazy authoritarianism where someone else makes the
decisions for you? And they need to see that this is a global trend, not just a
do you consider your greatest success in life?
It is rather
general, but I think I have been very lucky to be able to commit myself to the
things that really interest and matter to me. I have been able to teach the
subjects I care about and write the essays and books that mean something to me.
I hope that my readers feel a little bit the same way.
one unique thing sets you apart from other writers in your genre?
That is a
relatively easy question to answer. The unique thing about my writing is the
anthropological perspective. Anthropologists have been largely missing from all
the big events of our time, and almost all of the books and commentary, not
just on Trump, come from more limited and ethnocentric perspectives.
Anthropology gives me a comparative, cross-cultural, global perspective which
insists that the way we think things are is not the way they are everywhere in
the world. In fact, the way we think things are in our own country is not
always the way they actually are. We need to get “out of our own heads” and our
own cultures to see ourselves more clearly.
do you overcome writer’s block?
I think the
most important things are (1) to take a break from writing between projects and
(2) to read as much as you can. You need time to recharge after a major
project, and reading provides plenty of fuel for new ideas and insights. For
instance, the idea for this book came to me rather suddenly as a result of
reading Schmitt and other political theology. But if writing becomes painful or
laborious, stop and do something else for a while.
one piece of advice do you have for new authors.
This is a great
time and a difficult time to be a writer. It is easier than ever to do research
and to disseminate one’s ideas (online etc.). However, book publishing is more
competitive and more constricted than ever, and it is hard to be heard over the
din. So, as I hope everyone tells them, write about what you know and care
about, get good assistance with editing and publishing, and believe in what you
do—but don’t be too hurt if the world doesn’t recognize it right away.
your readers anything else you want to share.
never been more tense in America in my lifetime. People are literally at each
other’s throats. It seems that the country is about to tear itself apart; in
fact, some people seem explicitly to want to tear it apart. As an anthropologist,
I know two things. First, people make their society and their world; it is only
through our actions—our “practices” as we like to say—that our way of life
persists. Our society is as fractious and hateful as it is because of what we
do. Second, as a result of the first, the way things are today is not how they
have to be. It is our choice what kind of society and world we will have, and
not just politically but environmentally and so on. Learning about our own
history, about the diversity of people in our society, and about other countries
gives us a fresh sense of possibilities and reminds us that we do not have to
stay in the intellectual and emotional ruts that we sometimes seem trapped in.
"Dr. Eller has articulated a line of thought that I have suspected but could not quite describe - That political theology is so much more than the gods and religions of our culture. He shows how the chaos of the Trump adventure plays strongly as a widely observed cultural phenomenon and may even be creatively destructive. Chaos is always present and can break out at any moment despite our myths and illusions of stability and control. The Trickster in many cultures illustrates this notion and helps societies express chaos, creatively. This book goes a long way to explain the attraction and function of such an anomalous leader as Trump."
—Darrel Ray, Ed.D. Author of The God Virus, Pres./Founder of Recoveringfromreligion.org