Trump and the Return of Divine Right

In deploying his pardon power freely and using the Bible to justify family separation, the president is exactly the sort of ruler that Enlightenment thinkers feared.

The heartbreaking scenes on the southern border seem a world away from recent presidential pardons. Sobbing children and bereft parents have nothing in common with Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza and, most recently, the Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, who had been convicted of arson in 2016 and whom President Trump pardoned on Tuesday. Yet both come down to a relationship between justice and mercy that has a long history — and a cautionary moral for the president.

Family separation shows justice without mercy. The pardon power displays mercy in the name of justice. The administration cites the biblical injunction to obey the powers that be as one explanation for their zero-tolerance policy on immigration. With regard to immigration, it seems, there can be no discretion. By contrast, presidential pardons show how extensive discretion can be, because the Constitution gives the president “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in case of impeachment.”

.. Most Enlightenment thinkers were uneasy about the pardoning power. The two greatest oracles for the Constitution’s framers, the French philosopher Montesquieu and the English lawyer William Blackstone, both attacked it. “Clemency is the characteristic of monarchs,”

.. The framers argued that “without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel,” as Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 74. This was particularly true in “season of insurrection or rebellion,” Hamilton continued, “when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth.”

.. With the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington received an array of powers many European monarchs might have envied. The president could veto legislation — something no British monarch had done since 1707

.. He has used the pardoning power as one of his few unfettered prerogatives, in just the undemocratic way Enlightenment thinkers feared. For them, authority flowed from the people, not from God; the pardon was a residue of divine right. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites Paul’s epistle to the Romans to justify family separation, he not only revives an argument used to defend absolutism and slavery but also implies there is still a power above the law defined by the Constitution.

.. The president can casually exercise his discretionary power to pardon Mr. Arpaio, who abused prisoners in his care, but then claims he is powerless to end a policy worthy of Sheriff Joe himself.

Why Not Mike Pence?

our first openly Hefnerian president gets impeached

.. If Trump were impeached and removed from the White House, the presidency would devolve to precisely the kind of man whom much of pre-Trump religious conservatism insisted that it wanted in the Oval Office: an evangelical Christian family man with a bluenose’s temperament and a boring Reaganite checklist of beliefs.

.. evangelical leaders currently fretting about Trump’s political position would face a case where doing the consistent thing — namely, returning to their Bill Clinton-era position that character counts in presidents and using illegal means to conceal gross infidelities are impeachable offenses — would actually deliver something closer to what they claimed to want, not so very long ago: not a liberal in the White House, but President Mike Pence.

.. We do not have a parliamentary system where party leaders fight internal battles and get replaced by their internal rivals on the regular; instead, we elect a quasi-monarch, whose removal seems as traumatic as a regicide. And thus party loyalists tend to identify with their leaders the way royalists identify with their kings, and regard the prospect of impeachment not as an opportunity for a change of leadership but a revolutionary threat.

.. Sure, making use of Donald Trump to keep Hillary Clinton from being president is a fascinating flourish by history’s Author, but the idea that the Almighty might use a porn star to make Mike Pence president represents, if anything, an even more amazing miracle.
.. So anyone interested in looking for the hand of God in history should probably welcome that miracle’s arrival
.. That God is using Trump not as an agent of his good work but as a kind of ongoing test of everyone else’s moral character seems like a not-unreasonable inference to draw.

.. And for those same religious conservatives to pass up the chance, preferring a scorched-earth battle in defense of priapism, would be a sad confirmation of the point that a beloved Christian author made many years ago: The doors of hell are locked on the inside.

The Christian sect that has always cheered on Donald Trump

Why Donald Trump’s biggest Christian champions love him so much.

Observers have characterized evangelical support for President Trump as reluctant yet highly durable. But this depiction ignores Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians who, from the beginning, have been largely enthusiastic Trump supporters.

Sixty-one percent of Pentecostal pastors surveyed in 2016 planned to vote for Trump, and they are a force on Trump’s “evangelical advisory board.” And notably, the Pentecostal-Charismatic media consistently gives the president favorable coverage. Unlike the evangelicals who see Trump as a necessary, but distasteful, conduit for their policy preferences, sincere theological conviction drives many Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians to see the president as a prophetically foretold leader.

.. the groups are historically distinct— until the mid-20th century, Pentecostals and their Charismatic descendants weren’t routinely grouped with their evangelical counterparts.

.. he uncannily demonstrates deep affinities with certain Pentecostal-Charismatic subcultures. Here are five historic subcultures and theologies that explain why some Pentecostal-Charismatics proudly support Trump.

1. Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrity culture

Trump has cultivated support among Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrities such as Jim Bakker, Paula White and Mark Burns, who, like the president, are media moguls with scandalous histories. These televangelists attain authority as Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders through celebrity culture over (and in some cases, against) traditional qualifications for the ministry, such as ordination or seminary education.

.. the general public historically viewed tongue-speaking, emotive Pentecostals — who burst onto the 20th century American religious scene with a black leader (William J. Seymour), interracial services and female preachers — as delusional or even dangerous.

.. as the movement grew, presidents seemingly warmed up to Pentecostal-Charismatics — even the televangelists. Televangelist Oral Roberts met with Kennedy, Nixon and Carter; in 1985, Ronald Reagan gave a very friendly interview to Charismatic Baptist media mogul Pat Robertson.

.. Trump’s invitation to Charismatic televangelist Paula White to deliver an inaugural prayer alongside evangelical legacy Franklin Graham — a role traditionally performed by respectable religious leaders from mainstream and mainline religious organizations — reflects the changing terms of politics and religion in the U.S. It is a cultural coup to promote White, seen in more traditional evangelical quarters as a “heretic” and “charlatan,” into these honorable ranks.

.. 2. Prosperity

Engaging with devotees of the “prosperity gospel” — whose believers celebrate overt displays of wealth as clear signs of God’s favor (see: the cast of Preachers of LA) — makes sense for the wealthy, celebrity-friendly Trump. His prosperity theology, coupled with his unabashed embodiment of conspicuous consumption, resonates with Pentecostal-Charismatics, who are leading creators and purveyorsof this much-maligned theology.

.. 3. Lowbrow know-how

Pentecostal-Charismatics hail from a long line of anti-institutionalists.

.. Some present-day Pentecostals perpetuate this anti-authoritarian stance, preferring (by wide margins) common sense to intellectual know-how, and viewing cultural elites with deep suspicion and antipathy. Trump’s repeated rejection of scientific consensus regarding climate change and his rowdy approach to foreign policy resonate with Pentecostal-Charismatics. In their view, educated elites don’t faithfully describe the world as Pentecostal-Charismatics know it, and those elites sure don’t know how to fix it.

4. Zionism

Like many evangelicals, especially those who identify as fundamentalist, Pentecostal-Charismatics have been steadfast, passionate supporters of Israel, an integral part of their beliefs about “the end times.”

.. Trump’s moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, therefore, is not just fulfilling a campaign promise; to many Pentecostal-Charismatics, it’s fulfilling God’s plan for the end of days. The value of this move can’t be overstated, because it confirms and gives physical reality to Pentecostals’ mystical perceptions of Trump as more potentate than president — a ruler in the order of the biblical kings of Israel.

.. 5. Monarchy

.. For Pentecostals, how America’s democratic government works in tandem with God’s monarchy isn’t always clear. But for most, “the people” don’t ultimately decide the fate of the United States or the world. God decides the future and “brings it to pass” through his own means.

.. When he disregards conventional wisdom, they see someone who, like themselves, goes against a coercive mainstream intellectual grain. When he supports Israel, they see a king, however flawed, and an instrument for the purposes of God. When he moves his embassy to Jerusalem, they see verification of their sacred narrative.

.. When Pentecostal-Charismatic advisers to Trump talk about their role in this divine drama, it is as godly intercessors on the president’s behalf.

From this vantage point, it hardly matters whether Trump behaves morally, won the popular vote or even colluded with Russia. Trump is not just a leader selected by the people: he is an intervention — God’s anointed, divinely elevated ruler. Actually, the sheer unlikeliness of Trump’s win fits the Pentecostal-Charismatic imagination for miraculous intervention, and moves Trump far above the reach of critique.

Is ‘Game of Thrones’ a Dystopia?

And so I snarked on Twitter that “the porn-y side of Game of Thrones helps keeps liberals deluded about why they like the show,” letting them tell themselves, “Oh, I like it because it’s deconstructing this patriarchal pre-modern world and showing how it’s sex and power all the way down.” But not so, liberals: “You like it because it lets you escape the flat dreariness of liberalism for a little while. Because deep down you want a king or queen.”

.. I think that dystopian exaggeration is in fact key to the show’s appeal to liberals in many ways. It lets you fantasize about the negation of your principles while simultaneously confirming their rightness. GoT presents a vision of a world in which illiberal instincts can be freely indulged, in which the id is constrained only by physical power. All the violent, nasty stuff liberal society (thankfully) won’t let us do, but that’s still seething in our lizard brains, gets acted out. And not just acted out — violence and brutality are the organizing principles on which the world is based.

.. the show chides you for harboring the very fantasies it helps you gratify. It wallows in their destructive consequences — makes that wallowing, in fact, simultaneous with the fulfillment of the fantasies. Will to power leads to suffering and chaos, which lead to more opportunities for the will to power to be acted upon, etc. This is a vastly more complex and interesting emotional appeal than “people secretly want kings.”

.. These shows invite liberal viewers into various illiberal or pre-liberal or just, I suppose, red-state worlds, which are more violent and sexist and id-driven than polite prestige-TV-viewing liberal society, and which offer viewers the kind of escapism that Phillips describes … in which there is a temporary attraction to being a mobster or hanging out with glamorous chainsmoking ’50s admen or leaving your put-upon suburban life behind and becoming Heisenberg the drug lord.

.. But then ultimately because these worlds are clearly wicked, dystopic or just reactionary white-male-bastions you can return in relief to the end of history, making Phillips’ “reconciliation with the existing order” after sojourning for a while in a more inegalitarian or will-to-power world.

.. But what the shows properly understood are doing isn’t a celebration of illiberalism; it’s an exploration of its attractions that ultimately confirms the liberal world and all its norms.

.. fundamentally “The Sopranos” was a story without any heroes, a tragedy in which the only moral compass (uncertain as Dr. Melfi’s arrow sometimes was) was supplied by an outsider

.. fantasy from Tolkien to the present (in both its fictional forms and role-playing varietals) partakes by its nature of romantic and reactionary themes, often scratching the same anti-modern itch as certain forms of far-right and New Age lefty politics — and perhaps the same monarchical itch as certain forms of Macron-esque centrism as well.

.. it’s a world in which the fabric of a feudal society gets rent and you root for a very particular set of noble families to regain their rightful place and help weave it back together

.. whatever their politics in this world, both the show’s bad fans and its good fans are rooting a queen or for a king.