Bob Garfield: Two weeks after Trump lost the election, he and his followers still claim victory.
Male Speaker: President Trump is doubling down on his refusal to concede. Writing in all caps last night, the president tweeted that he won the election.
Bob: Jeff Charlotte, who has been covering the election for Vanity Fair, credits two Christian adjacent ideas for these claims. The first is the so-called prosperity gospel, the notion that, among other things, positive thinking can manifest positive consequences, even electoral victory in the face of electoral loss.
Norman Vincent: You can think your way to failure and misery, but you can also think your way to success and happiness. The world in which you live is not primarily determined by outward conditions and circumstances but by the thoughts that habitually occupy your mind.
Bob: That's Trump's childhood pastor Norman Vincent Peale, whose runaway bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking is thought to be Trump's personal gospel. The problem with prosperity thinking like day and date rapture prophecies, is that when the bets don't pay off, it's egg on a lot of faces.
Paula White: For I hear the sound of victory. I hear the sound of victory. I hear the sound of victory.
Bob: From spiritual advisor, Pastor Paula White, the day after the election. As prosperity gospel loses its edge for Trump, another strain of fringe Christianity, this time dating back nearly two millennia is flourishing. Charlotte, a professor of English at Dartmouth College, says it has animated QAnon conspiracies and Trump's base. It's called Gnosticism. Jeff, welcome back to the show.
Jeff: Hi, Bob. Good to be with you.
Bob: Gnosticism, kind of early Christian Apocrypha?
Jeff: A heresy that goes back, at least to the second century, that in its original form is this idea that the God we see is not the real God, but just something that they call a demiurge, a kind of apparatus, behind which is the real power. The way you know this power is not through expertise or through study, but simply through experience. You know it in your gut, as Trump likes to say. When I look at this, I see this as a powerful metaphor for Trumpism in the way in which it rejects expertise, elevates this self-knowledge, and it has an enemies list of institutions, so-called experts, those who know data, who are all getting in the way of the true divine, as revealed by President Trump.
Bob: Are you having an 1,800 year sense of deja vu? Like you've seen this Glenn Beck episode before? How does MAGA psychology paralleled these ancient heretics and to what degree?
Jeff: Gnosticism parallels, especially the the Church of QAnon and there's been this debate whether or not QAnon is a religious movement. In structure, unquestionably, it is in fact, the theology of Trumpism, and extends outward even to those MAGA followers who may not follow the so-called Q drops, but are getting the religious message that the truth is got to be secret. That the way that you understand this, as the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Gnostic Gospels says, "Recognize what is before your eyes and that which is hidden, will be revealed."
I remember speaking to one QAnon follower who certainly recognized the Gnostic parallel, and she experienced that through Trump's tweets, as many Trump followers do. It's not all of them, of course, but the core believers see the tweets as a kind of scripture. You encounter folks who say, "Trump's tweets matters." This echo of Black Lives Matter, this mockery, but it goes deeper than that. They really do believe that the tweets have scriptural intensity, such that you can even buy a leather-bound volume with gold gilded edges.
You can study these tweets, you can look for every odd capitalization, or apparent typo, and discover the hidden meanings. They are only for the initiates, only for those who have become the true believers.
Bob: In order for this to function, you have to live with a paradox that Trump, or the Gnostic demiurge, both has a position of power, but in fact, is simultaneously fighting those who wield the real power in this silent, behind-the-scenes struggle between good and evil. I'm not quite sure how both of those can be true at the same time.
Jeff: One of the things that makes Gnosticism a nice metaphorical frame for Trumpism is it presents the divine as this series of contradictions. Probably the most famous gnostic texts, The Thunder, Perfect Mind. It's a poem. I's a quite lovely poem. It's set up as a divine voice that is speaking itself. I am the scorned, and the revered and so on.
Female Speaker: I am the one whom they call Law, and you have called Lawlessness, I am the one you have pursued, and I am the one whom you have seized. I'm the one whom you have scattered, and you have gathered me together.
Jeff: That kind of contradiction is immediately recognizable to Trump. It also speaks to the shift that Trumpism had to make, as it moved from outsider status to the center of power. It became institutional, and yet its whole claim to authority was its anti-institutional status. That's what Gnosticism gives it as well. It's the deep state. The deep state is what the Gnostics would have viewed as the church, the bishops, the authorities, the so-called experts, they call them waterless canals, these dry river beds.
Beyond that, beyond the demiurge is what they called the depth. The depth that you experience, not through fake news, not through experts, not through, even elections. You just know, you know this is the truth. It makes for a logical evolution, surprisingly, from prosperity gospel, which of course, maintain this idea of a law of faith, the idea that you are going to become, for prosperity gospel, almost Christ-like yourself. God wants you to be powerful. Here, you're going to become Trump-like yourself. You're going to make America great again. You don't really have an investment in institutions, including democracy. All that falls away as so much chatter, so much noise in between you and the power.
Bob: Gnosticism, Trumpism, Amway, they all seem to be cut out of the same bolt of cloth.
Jeff: They do. What's interesting about Gnosticism, it's an ancient heresy, mostly forgotten 'til a series of texts are found in Egypt in 20th century, and then a great scholar, Elaine Pagels, popularizes it through her best-selling study. I should acknowledge, a lot of people draw progressive ideas from the Gnostic gospel, that's certainly possible, but there's a way in which I see American Gnosticism as dipping into a much deeper well of conspiracy theory that has been with us all along. For instance, we take a central idea of QAnon, which is this horrific idea that Democrats are kidnapping children, cannibalizing them, and so on. This is a a makeover of the old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
Bob: The Blood Libel.
Jeff: The Blood Libel, right. There is a way in which all conspiracy theories tend to have some similar structures. You've heard this song before. This is a cover song, this is not an original.
Bob: Now, one super handy aspect of gnostic thinking is that the events on the ground, and facts, and evidence, don't have to conform to your worldview for you to believe it. In fact, the opposite, no?
Jeff: There it is, again, one of those contradictions. On the one hand, you don't have to trust expertise, you don't have to trust those who have put in the work of developing bodies of knowledge. Because here's the Americanized aspect of this Gnosticism. It has a small D, democratic veneer, which is to say that you engage. You make this gospel through your research. You too, can become an expert in the technology of voting machines, with just a few hours on Parlor, and a few YouTube instructional videos.
Obviously, I'm mocking that, but it's important to recognize what I encountered as I was going and interviewing so many of these folks. They had what they were experiencing, as a intellectual excitement. They said, "I am finding out for myself, I'm not beholden to authority. I personally, am helping President Trump make America great again, because I am making the real knowledge that is beyond the fake knowledge, the fake news, I make this truth."
Bob: Anti-vaxxers seem to have the same mentality and seem to be pursuing the same kind of false quest. They go to the University of Google and suddenly become experts in virology.
Jeff: The structure is a kind of anti-intellectual intellectualism. What's fascinating is that within this, it allows this room for disagreement. Those of us outside of Trumpism tend to see as a lockstep acceptance of whatever the great leader says, and yet, when you when you dip into that world, you encounter this almost delight in their ability to disagree.
For instance, some QAnon followers believe that John F. Kennedy, Jr, who died many years ago is actually alive and plotting with President Trump. Others don't believe this, but they agreed to discuss it, to share points to say, "Look at this YouTube video, but now here is this death certificate," and so on, and back and forth, and back and forth, so it becomes this endless quest.
Bob: In this kind of world, experts and journalists, they're not just misguided, they're enemies, no?
Jeff: Yes. Certainly, we see the animosity toward Dr. Fauci, this sinister figure in that world in their imagination, but the real enemy is journalists. I think about this in my time covering Trump rallies, and Trump loves naming the enemies, and also the promises. If he talks about illegals as he puts them, you'll get cheering. Guns, even louder cheering, but the loudest noise comes for the denunciations of the press.
I think it's worth looking at the way that the press very much functions as the enemy within for this kind of authoritarianism. The press is functioning for Trump even more so than the so-called illegals are those who he calls animals undocumented peoples. The way that Jews function for the Czar, the way that communists function in the Cold War. They could be anywhere. Your own child could become one within this kind of Trumpian Gnosticism. It is very much people like you and I, Bob, who are laboring in the veil of delusion.
We are the ones who are both promulgating the conspiracy, but we're also trapped in the conspiracy. We're lost in this mist. We can't actually see the truth, because we haven't done the hard work of research.
Bob: If the question is how can something bizarre and disjointed flourish in the United States of America, you say Gnosticism helps us understand that because of the psychology of empowerment for those who revel in the authoritarianism that this belief system shares with them?
Jeff: Yes. It allows you to experience the joys of authoritarianism without actually having power, in the same way the prosperity gospel with which Trump began back in 2015, 2016, allowed you to imagine yourself rich. I remember covering those rallies and the pleasure that people would take as Trump's plane came in and talking amongst each other about all the gold fixtures on the plane. That's prosperity gospel. I give to the preacher who drives a Rolls Royce, and God's going to reward me for that.
It's almost like I have an ownership share in that Rolls Royce, but also answers this question, how can so many Americans embrace what, to many of us, looks like authoritarianism, or even full fascism in the true ideological sense, and yet insist that they're not? It's because, just as the prosperity gospel believer feels like they're participating with their tithing, you're participating through your study. It can't be authoritarian in your mind because you're helping make it happen. It feels democratic, even as it does away with even the need for democracy.
Bob: After Trump lost the election Q, whoever he is or she, went silent but then came the notion that the election had been stolen. It's like here we go again.
Jeff: Yes, he has picked up again, but you don't need Q drops anymore, because before, whereas Trump was channeling those believers and winking at it, now Trump himself is the source. You don't need to go to 8chan, you just need to go to Trump's Twitter to get the secret revelations. What's exciting for the believer is you don't need to now be decoding strangely capitalized tweets. It's all caps, and it says, "We won." The message is clear. The long promised storm as QAnon puts it. It has in some ways arrived if not in the form that's expected.
I think going forward, Trump, in power or out of power, I think he's crossed over. It's almost as if he bought into his own con. I really heard it in that late August interview with Laura Ingraham.
Laura Ingraham: Who do you think is calling Biden's strings? Is it former Obama officials?
President Trump: People that you've never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows, people that are--
Laura: What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory. Dark shadows, what is that?
President Trump: No. People that you haven't heard of. They are people that are on the streets, they're people that are controlling the streets.
Jeff: We all laughed at the campiness of the rhetoric, but we weren't paying attention to what he was saying and how it was different, how it was now flat. It wasn't, maybe I'm talking about a mainstream idea, maybe I'm talking about something crazy. It was full delusion. Trump himself wasn't offering it with the same kind of wink as he was before. In fact, he wasn't even making eye contact.
Bob: You spoke to a guy at Trump rally, a guy named Dave. I want to read a passage from your piece. Dave says, "The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn't make mistakes." You say that the message to Dave is study the layers. He says, "There are major operations going on, including one that guy tells you, which is to use COVID-19 field hospitals as a cover to rescue children from the deep states sex trafficking." QAnon and what you call American Gnosticism seem to be just made for one another.
Jeff: Or rather, I would say that QAnon is made out of American Gnosticism. One of the most significant things is the way they adapt to changing circumstances. One of my favorites was one Q interpreter said, "It turns out Trump is not a 5D chess player, he's a 6D chess player." There's always another dimension. There's always a new interpretation, and so the challenge for you is to maintain the faith. If you seem to have come to the hard wall of reality, that's a weakness of your faith.
That's where you need to look deeper. I think where this gains a lot of energy is to take this kind of gnostic metaphor, and in this merger with evangelicalism, what began as transactional has become transformational, in a sense, concretizing, making real world and their imagination, what evangelicals have long called spiritual war, which essentially refers to an internal struggle. It's not a particularly exotic term unless you start thinking that the demons the powers and principalities are real, and they have names like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, that you yourself can be called into action to fight spiritual war, maybe on the streets of Washington, with your fists.
Bob: Well, we're going to get to the transformational part shortly, but it began you say as just transactional, people willing to put aside their sentiments about a president who is a serial molester or worse, in order to get 200 conservative federal judges on the bench?
Jeff: Yes. I think in the secular press, there's an odd naivete about evangelicalism and assumption of Christian nationalisms naivete. The sense that how could they be fooled by this very unpious con-man? Well, many of them were. They understood this as a deal and as a good deal. They said, ""Look, there's things we want to get done." They had theological models, King Cyrus, who was not a believer, but used by God, or King David, who was a very sinful guy, but obviously a hero of the Bible. They have these examples of how God uses unlikely figures. No surprise that Pence is in God's corner, but what a miracle that a man like Donald Trump could be used to bring religious freedom back to the United States.
Bob: We've spent a lot of time on this program examining the overlaps and the distinctions between evangelical Christianity and Christian nationalism, big Venn overlap but definitely distinct. Does Gnosticism inhabit both circles of the Venn diagram?
Jeff: Yes, Gnosticism is present in the Christian nationalist, I don't even want to say wing. It's become the main body of white evangelicalism, but that speaks to what I see as the transformational power of Trumpism. I think what's been interesting is to see how many evangelicals have made that quick step to Christian nationalism, and from there, into the authoritarianism of Trumpism. With it, they have moved from holding up as central, a love ethic and now speaking more and more about a war ethic.
The point now is to divide. I think, too many secular folks are stuck on one version of Christianity and saying, "You're so hypocritical. This isn't what Christianity is about." There's more than one Christianity in America and what we're seeing is the emergence of a fully militant Christian nationalism that can easily absorb or feed into the Gnosticism of Trumpism.
Bob: This Gnostic mindset is actually uniting very disparate followers in belief about something sinister.
Jeff: Any kind of right-wing social movement, to be powerful, it has to draw on a lot of different strands of conservatism and reactionary thought, that are often at odds with one another. It has to find that way to make the Venn diagram at which they meet. This kind of Trumpian Gnosticism, this search for secret knowledge, this awareness that people have, that something about the systems, institutions aren't working.
Even as we recognize that white supremacy is at the center of things, we have to remember that all, but the Richard Spencer's, they don't want to think of themselves as white supremacists. They need a metaphor for what's been lost. This can appeal to white evangelicalism. It can appeal to right-wing populace. It can appeal to even free marketeers who discovered that more important than their commitment to free markets, is the power to make the economy over in their own image and for their own wealth. It can bring all of these people together under the sign of this divine that transcends institutions.
Bob: You've discussed the distinction between transaction and transformation, because Gnosticism, in this past four years, bubbled up to the surface and was mined like oil for its political power. The wells are dug, the rigs pumping away, and you don't think that now with this power unleashed, that those wells are going to run dry, do you?
Jeff: They're really not, because for so many folks, the red pill moment, as of course, they refer to it, borrowing from another theological text, the science fiction movie, The Matrix, that when you take the red pill, then you see the true nature of reality past the institutions and so on. That's an epiphany. For those who've really been red-pilled, who have been born again into this Trumpian Gnosticism, there's no reason to let go. Anything that we would suggest as proof will become to them, proof of our deception. That makes for a dangerous situation, that our best-case scenario is going to simmer and simmer for a long time, if it doesn't boil over.
Bob: The new administration will be fighting a coronavirus pandemic, but what, if anything, can the Biden administration do to fight viral superstition?
Jeff: I don't think they can. I don't think they can. I almost think they shouldn't try. This is one of those things, the harder you push against it, the stronger it's going to become. We need to just keep on speaking clearly, transparently, plainly showing the sources of data, laying it out and not trying to argue with a conspiracy. You can't win that argument. There's no point in which the believer' going to say, "Now I see." That'll never happen. I think we should try and do the real work of democracy and build something beautiful. Democracy, we haven't yet had maybe. Let them join if they want, but we don't counter evangelism with our own evangelism.
Bob: Jeff, thank you.
Jeff: Thank you, Bob.
Bob: Jeff Charlotte is a professor of English at Dartmouth. He has been reporting on Trump's 2020 campaign for Vanity Fair and his most recent book is This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers.
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