By Brian Nail
As many Americans grow increasingly optimistic about the possibility that Trump will soon be voted out of office, it is worth considering the more widespread set of political and religious forces which produced this viral president in the first place. Trump’s time in office has revealed longstanding structures of racial oppression that are unlikely to simply disappear in the event that he loses the upcoming election. Although many advocates of so-called “political civility” have regarded him as a monstrous anomaly,Trump’s ascendancy has a genealogy, or perhaps epidemiology, that can be easily traced to White Christian libertarianism–the nexus of contagion that has so far sustained America’s viral president.
Despite the advice of medical experts, the president, and the Republican party more broadly, continue to pursue policies to promote a condition of herd immunity that is based largely on conjecture. Writing in The New Yorker, physician Dhruv Khullar argues that Trump has in practice become the “pro-infection candidate.” Khullar suggests that for Trump and his political allies, embracing the risk of infection and disregarding the threat their behaviour poses to others is regarded as a sign of patriotic strength: “According to the Republican leadership, real patriots risk their lives and the lives of others; liberty is walking into a store without a mask; power is touring a hospital without one[.]” This aversion to mitigating the spread of the virus through social distancing efforts and mask-wearing has been eagerly embraced by Trump’s evangelical following.
For many evangelicals, efforts to curtail large in-person gatherings have been interpreted as an affront to their religious liberty. In a recent radio interview, the president’s son went so far as to claim that his father “literally saved Christianity” by opposing some states’ efforts to limit large worship services and religious gatherings. According to Eric Trump, “They want to attack Christianity, they want to close churches, they want to―they’re totally fine keeping liquor stores open―but they want to close churches all over the country.” Meanwhile, in states like Florida, its Republican governor Ron Desantis has fought to keep bars and restaurants open throughout the state in order to maintain its tourism economy.
By mimicking Trump’s own aversion to wearing a mask, Kate Blanchard suggests that the president’s evangelical followers are risking their own lives in order to prove their loyalty to him and the worldview he embodies: “I suspect that refusing to wear a mask is not actually a denial of its danger, any more than to handle snakes is to deny the danger. Going maskless is, rather, a way of embracing danger, of proving membership in the club and obedience to their leader.” Through the president’s insistence upon holding unrestricted campaign rallies and his administration’s emphasis upon affirming citizens’ so-called religious and economic “liberty,” Trump has affirmed the values of his base, while also putting many of their lives in danger. But the viral threat that Trump poses (in some cases literally) reveals the self-destructive logic of a political ideology that embraces death in multiple forms, perhaps even its own.
In a recent video promoting an anti-lockdown protest movement in Idaho, the state’s Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin appears holding a gun over and a Bible to deliver the following message: “We recognize that all of us are by nature free and equal and have certain inalienable rights, among which are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing happiness and safety.” The gun and the Bible each serve as potent symbols of the political and cultural legacy of settler colonialism. By brandishing the gun, McGeachin invokes what Patrick Blanchfield terms “gunpower”–a mode of social reproduction that maintains White hegemony in the present by legitimating forms of dispossessive violence that are the historical legacy of settler colonialism. Likewise, the Bible is invoked as a symbol of the supposedly divine mandate that has been employed by White Christian Libertarians to affirm and sanctify their dispossessive violence. Wrapped within the thanatopolitics of racial capitalism in the United States, God, guns, and country continue to constitute the sacred forms at the heart of White Christian libertarianism–having recently cast aside his Presbyterian upbringing and embraced “non-denominationalism,” this is indeed the faith of Trump.
Trump’s conservative Christian base are often described as “evangelicals,” but this broad term typically connotes a distinct religious and political expression that in many ways defies denominational classification because many of its core values are deeply secular. According to Gerardo Martí, “The Christian libertarian ideal asserts confidence in believers becoming financially self-sufficient, stimulating a productive economy, and gives no regard to blaming social structures for the failure to accumulate investment wealth” (21). This fusion of an evangelical prosperity gospel with the racist politics of White conservatism developed alongside a growing reliance upon Black and immigrant labor in the United States. This economic reality is one of many stark contradictions that lie at the heart of the oppressive structure of racial capitalism that White Christian libertarianism has sought to maintain.
From its origins in the ideology of settler colonialism, White Christian libertarianism has embraced overt structures of racism through its association of divine blessing with the accumulative advantages afforded to Whites by racial capitalism. Trump invokes this toxic blessing each time he promises to “Make America great again.” As Joan Wallach Scott notes, the MAGA movement “conceptualizes the nation not just as a firm, but as an exclusively white firm.” This conception of the nation as a white firm obtains its divine mandate from the theocratic vision of Christian nationalism which rejects the notion of American secular pluralism, seeking to build instead what they define as a nation built exclusively on so-called Christian moral principles.
And yet, Trump’s popularity among evangelicals remains somewhat difficult to explain in light of his personal aversion to the Christiann faith and its professed moral code. Roberto Esposito’s explanation of the immunitary dynamics of political community provides an illuminating theoretical lens for understanding the contradictory, self-destructive, death-dealing logic of White Christian libertarianism. It turns out that what we may be witnessing is an immunitary crisis in theory as well as in practice.
In his book, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Esposito literalizes the body politic metaphor to explore how the biological dynamics of immunity may provide a hermeneutic framework for understanding the ways that political communities are produced and survive. He begins his study with an explanation of the etymological kinship between the concepts of immunity and community, noting that their relationship is not merely oppositional but dialectical. The Latin words immunitas and communitas share in common the root word munus, which “refers to an office–a task, obligation, duty” and also a gift (Esposito 5). Therefore, to live in community, the individual is obligated to participate in some form of social reciprocity: “Common life is what breaks the identity-making boundaries between what is proper to each individual and what belongs to everybody and hence to nobody” (Esposito 22). But Esposito suggests that the expropriative demands of a community can ultimately erode the agency and autonomy of individuals to the extent that the very survival of the community itself might be threatened. This is where the concept of immunity comes into play.
Esposito’s theory of immunity points to the key insight that the survival of any community depends upon the degree to which its institutions are resilient enough and adaptable enough to mediate between the internal and external pressures that are an inevitable feature of any society that is truly alive. According to Esposito, religious forms of the sacred and the institution of law are intimately bound up with the processes of immunization that is necessary to sustain the balance between radical individuality and radical community. But in doing so, the institutions perform their homeopathic function through a paradoxical logic of exclusive-inclusion: life is affirmed through death, the sacred is defined in contradistinction to the profane, and law only exists through the threat of violence. But Esposito notes that when immunity is “unable to directly achieve its objective, it is forced to pursue it from the inside out. . . . [I]t can prolong life, but only by continually giving it a taste of death”(9). If left unchecked, the immunitary dynamic that responds negatively to external as well as internal demands for reciprocity can mutate into what Esposito defines as a crisis of autoimmunity, which occurs when “the warring potential of the immune system is so great that at a certain point it turns against itself as a real and symbolic catastrophe leading to the implosion of the entire organism.”
In a recent interview regarding the pandemic, Esposito suggests that the very concept of “social distancing” is paradoxical:
“The immunity system is necessary for survival, but when it crosses a certain threshold, it starts destroying the body it aims to defend. That threshold is crossed exactly when social distancing demands a total rupture of social bonds. At that moment, it becomes an anti-communitarian propensity.”
Although it offers its own powerful expression of collective identity, the ideology of White Christian libertarianism is predicated upon a rejection of the social and economic forms of reciprocity needed to maintain a political liberal society. This rejection of the social reciprocity necessary to sustain community is manifested through the flawed concept of “herd immunity.” Esposito argues that in practice, the pursuit of herd immunity is “a form of eugenics, and in some ways even thanatopolitical, because it entails the deaths of a considerable number of people who would otherwise live.” This thanatopolitical dynamic is not merely a bug but rather a feature of the ideology of White Christian libertarianism. The story of Trump’s own contraction of the coronavirus, and the incalculable number of people who may have contracted (and may still contract) the disease due to his behaviors, serves a kind of parable of his movement’s own immunitary crisis. By seeking to evoke strength, they demonstrate their vulnerability, and in the process render themselves more susceptible to obsolescence.
As America’s viral president, Trump may be regarded as a portent of the “real and symbolic catastrophe” of self-dissolution that is likely just around the corner for White Christian libertarians. With the persistent rise of the religiously “unaffiliated” or the “nones,” there has been some debate about whether or not “evangelicalism” in general is in demographic decline. But recent data suggest that as a percentage of the American population, the number of self-identified evangelicals has stayed more or less the same for the past decade.
What is changing is the ethnoracial demography of the United States in general. According to Ryan P. Burge, “In 2018, 81 percent of evangelicals were white, compared to 72.4 percent of the population overall. More than 4 in 10 Americans under 25 are people of color. For evangelicals to keep offsetting losses in future generations, they will need to become more racially diverse.” This basic fact has led some writers to conclude that evangelicalism is on the verge of significant political and cultural shift. However, as Chrissy Stroop argues, “If anything, young evangelicals are becoming even more right-wing than they once were, because evangelical culture-warring pushes young people who cannot in good conscience support the Christian Right’s agenda, or who cannot conform because of their own identities, out of evangelicalism altogether.” In short, Stroop’s analysis suggests that evangelicals are essentially doubling down on their White Christian libertarian values. As a result, evangelicalism is accelerating a crisis of autoimmunity by rejecting its own demographic future.
From a demographic standpoint, White Christian libertarianism does not appear poised to maintain its cultural and political hegemony for much longer. But the political and institutional destruction that it has wrought, not to mention the psychosocial trauma it has produced, will require decades, if not more, to address.
The pandemic has revealed the stark reality of socioeconomic inequality and the massive disparities that exist in regard to healthcare, education, and housing in the United States. Once again, Esposito’s immunitary theory of community is illuminating–to maintain the delicate immunitary balance necessary for a community to survive, institutions are necessary, especially when political conflicts threaten to destroy a body from within. Esposito argues, “Political conflict needs special institutions to achieve real political reform. And yes, institutions are full of flaws and limitations. They are often conservative and sometimes they are reactionary, but imagine how this pandemic would have developed without institutions.”
It is not too difficult to imagine what it would be like to deal with a pandemic without institutions in place. As the virus continues to spread throughout the United States, the prospects of universal testing, the possibility of accurately tracking outbreaks at schools, or even the barest assurances that citizens will be able to access affordable treatment have all virtually disappeared from our public discourse. While Democrats have framed the upcoming election as a referendum on the coronavirus (and rightfully so), it remains to be seen whether or not the party’s leadership can break with its own neoliberal inclinations in order build the kinds of institutions and social welfare provisions necessary to save lives not only from the pandemic but also from the viral threat of poverty that continues to jeopardize the future of so many Americans. If it is true that, as former president Barack Obama once cynically declared, many White working class Americans “cling to guns or religion” to relieve their frustrations, it is equally true that the bipartisan neoliberal status-quo has ensured that security, stability, and mutuality remain in short supply in the United States. The self-implosion of White Christian libertarianism itself may signal the end of the myth of American exceptionalism–and along with it the illusion of economic beatitude upon which it rests. In the coming days, the Trumpian fever may finally break in the United States, but the virality of racial nationalism persists.
Esposito, Roberto. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.
Martí, Gerardo. “White Christian Libertarianism and the Trump Presidency.” In Religion Is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Grace Yukich and Penny Edgell, 19–39. New York: NYU Press, 2020.