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.
What inspired you to author your book?
Like many 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.
Where 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 institutions.
Who 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.
What 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.
Tell 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.
Who 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 life is.
If you were going to give one reason for anyone looking at your book to read, why should they buy it?
There are 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 national one.
What 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.
What 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.
How 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.
What 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.
Tell your readers anything else you want to share.
Things have 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.
For millennia, a fundamental question of culture and law has been the relationship between religion and ruler, or more recently between church and state. Although the term “political theology” was not always known, the question remained and was answered in various ways: theocracy, the divine right of kings, the mandate of heaven, the rule of jurists, and so forth. Almost a century ago, Carl Schmitt revived political theology and reshaped it into a less theological and more political subject with his famous notions of sovereignty and the exception. Schmitt highlighted the eternal struggle between power or authority on the one hand and positive law and political institutions on the other, arguing that law can never entirely legitimize or constrain power or authority and that the real site and source of law is the moment of exception and of “the decision.”
Trump and Political Theology applies this Schmittian lens to Donald Trump, an exceptional president who seems to use his executive and decision-making power to flaunt law and truth, to cripple and discredit institutions, and to bend reality to his will. The book considers first whether Trump is an aspiring Schmittian sovereign and therefore a threat to democracy. But it goes beyond Trump and Trumpism to critique and rethink political theology in the light of contemporary, especially populist and authoritarian, politics. Finally, it compels us to critique and rethink theology itself as a tool for understanding and organizing politics and society, restoring the relevance of myth and ritual and of pre-Christian and non-Christian characters like the shaman and the trickster for modern politics and social theory.
“OMG. Wow. Here is an analysis of the Donald Trump phenomenon that goes deeper and wider than anything I've read. A must read no matter who the next president is because David Eller's discussion of 'political theology' reveals so much about the craziness and ironic coherence of American politics.”
—Mark Galli, Former Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today
“In the void left by the death of God, Eller explores how the violence of language and the power of mediatic charisma can create a new politics of myth, ritual, and emotion: from this abyss Trump emerges as a figure of exception that reveals the contradictions of liberal democracies. This is a fundamental book to understand our age.”
—Dr. Antonio Cerella, Kingston University, London, Author of Genealogies of Political Modernity
“Eller highlights the inescapable significance of political theology to late modern discourse. His work combines a rich historical survey with a penetrating analysis of religious thought in twenty-first-century America.”
—Dr. Benjamin T. Lynerd, Christopher Newport University, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science
“The Christian Bible knows naught of presidents and even less of republics and democracies; and neither republicans nor Republicans can be found within its pages. The thirteenth chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans commands us to be "subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." To understand how this relates to the apotheosis of Donald J. Trump, one needs to understand American political and religious history; the dynamics of conspiracy theories; the authoritarian character; True Believers; the identity and nature of Trump's supporters; as well as the importance of mendacity, disinformation, demagoguery, secrecy, and much, much more.
“Not only does Professor Eller supply such information as is needed to understand the Trump phenomenon, he provides an extremely enlightening discussion of "Agnotology and Agnomancy: Studying Ignorance and Conjuring Ignorance." Eller's discussion has reinforced my view that Ignorance—not Compound Interest as Albert Einstein is alleged to have quipped—is the strongest force in the universe. Because of this book, I expect that the name Jack David Eller will become the latest addition to the series Gustave Le Bon, Émile Durkheim, Erich Fromm, Eric Hoffer, and Hannah Arendt.”
—Frank R. Zindler, American Atheist Press
"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