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Donald Trump as a reflection of an adolescent culture

Monday, 4 April 2016  | Nils von Kalm

I find myself fascinated by the Donald Trump phenomenon. Why is it that a man who blatantly lies, advocates war crimes, promotes xenophobia and can't decide whether or not to condemn the support of a KKK leader, is set to become the Republican nominee for the leadership of the most powerful nation in the world? What does it say about him, about the media coverage of him and about us?

As a Christian of a somewhat evangelical persuasion, my fascination lies in the question of why much of Trump’s support comes from evangelicals. And as someone who lives in a Western, affluent culture, I am also fascinated by what this reveals about our identity and maturity.

I believe the two issues of his support by many evangelicals and what that support reveals about Western culture are linked.

Put simply, Trump is tapping into a deep sense that evangelicals have had for some time about feeling on the outer in terms of their influence on the culture. It is about having a voice in the public square and having political power.

Trump has promised that evangelicals will once again have power under him. In seeking to regain power that has been lost, Trump’s evangelicals see in him someone they can trust to give them what they want.

It is not the first time, of course, that Christians have been seduced by power. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, all of a sudden many teachings of Jesus had to be reinterpreted to become defensible in the context of empire. The Sermon on the Mount, which, for the first 300 years of the Church had been its guiding framework, was reinterpreted to fit into the prevailing doctrine of the powerful elite.

Similarly, in the 1930s, the ‘German Christians’ movement wanted to ‘Nazify’ Christianity in support of Hitler. In South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church supported apartheid. And so it is happening now in the United States, where many evangelicals are supporting a man who is the quintessential opposite of what they have always held up as a role model of personal morality.

The evangelical support for Trump is, I believe, a symptom of a deeper malaise in Western culture. That malaise is our culture’s inability to move beyond the stage of adolescence.

It is not just what Trump’s supporters reveal about our culture, though; it is also what Trump himself reveals.

Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, talks about the two halves of life in terms of our growth as human beings.

The first half of life (which for men is generally up to the age of about 30) is the time when we are trying to build our identity, achieve success, make money, look good and build our family. It is a necessary time as it is supposed to build the foundation for the second half of life. This is the adolescent stage.

Rohr says that Western culture is still largely at this stage. We prioritise defence, security and the economy over care for the poor, education, health and the arts.

This is what we see in Trump. He complains that ‘we don’t win anymore’ and wants America to win. His is a philosophy of success and of being first, no matter what the consequences are for others. Journalist Waleed Aly calls this ‘the politics of hairy chests; the politics that self-consciously gives the finger to the niceties of postmodern society.’

What this reveals about Trump, and by extension about much of our culture, is a deep insecurity. Hence Trump’s need to be the alpha male - all bravado, macho and, as David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, using threats and intimidation that ‘masquerade as strength and toughness’. All of these are actually the character of a man who, at the age of 69, hasn’t been able to move beyond the first half of life.

Our own response to Trump also reveals much about us. Do we judge Trump and mock his outlandish, ridiculous statements? The CEO of the Centre for Men Australia, Richard Fay, says it is sad to watch Trump. Fay says that Trump has never been able to break out of the need for winning and money. ‘What a trap to be stuck in’, Fay laments.

Fay, who bases a lot of his work on that of Richard Rohr, says that, after the age of about 30, there are a number of paths a man can take. One of them, if we don’t move out of the first half of life, is the path of the ‘old fool’.

Fay describes these men as having been unable to take themselves out of their box where they believe strength, power and wealth are all that matters. These attitudes have been fostered through lives of privilege, where men have spent years building an outer wall for themselves. They are held up as icons but, in reality, they are empty people.

Trump’s supporters are unable to see through his outer wall, so they hold him up as someone who ‘tells it like it is’, who cuts through all the political correctness, but who in the process lies and promotes fear, violence and hatred.

Moving into the second half of life happens when we see the need to let go of the old identity markers of success, winning and privilege, and realise that life is not about us, but that it involves giving ourselves away for the good of others. Leaders in the second half of life appeal to people’s better natures.

People often move into this stage as a result of a crisis. It might be a divorce, a job loss or the death of a loved one. It is either great suffering or great love that allows people to see that the way they have been living no longer works, and that allows them to surrender the need for success and winning. For the US, an example of a crisis was 9/11. Unfortunately the path taken by the country after that tragedy was a path characteristic of the first half of life, one of security, defence and aggression - a path that even Tony Blair admits has now led to the creation of ISIS.

Jesus is the perfect model of someone who has moved into the second half of life. His conversation with the rich ruler is a beautiful example. Jesus pinpointed the need in the rich man. His need was money. Jesus loved him and felt sad for him because the man couldn’t let go of his need. When many of us (me included) judge Trump for his outrageous statements, we can learn from Jesus who was sad for a man trapped by his own ego.

Jesus showed us that life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions. He taught about the futility of gaining the whole world but losing your very self. And he taught that life is found in denying yourself, taking up your cross and loving God and neighbour. Then he went and did it. This is the essence of living in the second half of life.

The Trump phenomenon is a reflection of the adolescent nature of our culture, including much evangelical culture. Our emotional response to Trump can teach us about whether or not we ourselves have moved beyond the need for success, winning and power. May our response be that of Jesus to the Donald Trumps of this world.

Nils von Kalm is a freelance writer. He works in church and community engagement with Anglican Overseas Aid in Melbourne, and previously spent 14 years with World Vision. He can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nils.vonkalm and at http://soulthoughts.com.


Barry Turner
April 5, 2016, 11:47AM
Well written Nils. I would also say that we are juvenile as well in our responses.

Jesus said if you love me you will obey my teaching John 14:23. God and Christ will abide in you that is the ultimate reward. Do not get worried and do not be upset. Andrew Chan put this into perspective on his eminent possibility of execution. A reporter said would you feel God would have answered your prayers if clemency was granted. His response was, "Glory to God if I am spared and Glory to God if I am not." Jesus said Peace not Power is what I leave you which is not what the world can give you. John 14:27.
Tom Fasoldt
April 16, 2016, 4:16AM
Very interesting angle. I have read Rohr's book you quote and would describe myself as an American evangelical and I am increasingly concerned about the possibility of a trump presidency. I understand he kept a copies of Hitler's speeches at his bedside. He is appealing to base feelings of being taken advantage of....this is his constant mode of operation. Very dangerous for the world.

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