Trump’s instigation of an attack on the US Capitol made 1/6, Epiphany, especially apocalyptic this year
This year on Epiphany, the US had a moment that was even more apocalyptic than I was expecting. Apocalyptic doesn’t mean “the end of space-time”. It refers to concealed things becoming clear. Hidden things unveiled.
The events of Epiphany this year revealed the fruit of a particular pattern of power-building that has been with humans throughout recorded history. This pattern involves slander, mafia-style loyalty tests, harsh punishments and recriminations, the pleasures of solidarity (even if only imagined) with the powerful and rich, the hatred of enemies, and the avoidance of truth-seeking reconciliation practices. What does this pattern create? It conjures an unwarranted degree of loyalty towards an individual (as in this case) or a movement.
Why is unwarranted loyalty so important to these kinds of movements? Let’s take a very concrete example. Imagine that Pence had passed this one last loyalty test to Trump and helped stymie Congress’s formal finalization of the election, just as he has passed so many other loyalty tests along the way. He might have instigated a Constitutional crisis. And in the chaos that would have been created, Trump could have declared a state of emergency and had a serious chance of achieving his rather transparent goal: to remain in power through a type of coup that is technically called an “autogolpe”. (Those who have seen other coups should understand that this is a fairly rare type of coup, but is generally considered a coup nonetheless.) The plot was never very likely to succeed, contrary to the expectations of the Trump followers who attacked the US Capitol. (Unlike Pence, this Epiphany they passed their loyalty tests. As often happens with Trump, they will probably be promptly discarded now that their usefulness has reached its end.)
One of the most striking things to me about this apocalypse is how deeply it conforms to the core pattern that is constantly critiqued with dead-eyed precision throughout the Bible. Both the Hebrew Bible and Christian Bibles (which include it) really are aimed very carefully at this pattern of human folly, right down to the false prophets who seem to have been magnetically attracted to this monstrosity. How can that be? Well personally, I think God has breathed truth throughout the Bible, and it is there to find for anyone whose heart is open to find it there. Still, for those who don’t buy into that sort of thing, I’d add that this book is also the work of marginalized people groups. They generally have some serious advantages when it comes to spotting the foibles and follies of these brutal cult-like systems. This is especially present when those systems attempt to crush them for their failure to buckle under and become loyal to them. It is a miracle of faithfulness that they managed to create and preserve such a unique record of insights; it was an extremely difficult social task in the age before print.
But if this is a core part of our cultural inheritance, how can it be that the people who claim to champion it are there in the very heart of the Trumpian machine, doing everything they can to keep it running? Now that’s a good question. In part, I think the answer involves long traditions of carefully and deliberately subverting the rather clear message of the Biblical texts. But also, there will always be an opening to this kind of subversion, often through parody and slander.
I think we can understand the subversion by thinking about the way discourses around truth are subverted more generally. Everybody thinks they have truth on their side when a successful slanderer goes to work: the slanderer obviously audaciously claims to have truth on his side, and those who resist the slanderer also make the very same claim. If we just look at the surface and don’t try to judge rightly, things look equivalent. You just have two parties both claiming to have truth on their side. This makes it tempting for those who want to go with the slanderer to wash their hands of the whole debate, and the difficult work of truth-seeking. They will often cynically intone, with what appears to be worldly wisdom, “What is truth?”
But we can also take that question seriously. Yes. What is the truth of the matter? Without asking that earnestly, persistently and well, we’ll never be able to tell the difference between the slanderer and the truth-tellers.