BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. So two weeks after Trump lost the election, he and his followers still claim victory.
NEWS REPORT President Trump is doubling down on his refusal to concede writing in all caps last night, the president tweeted that he won the election [END CLIP].
PROTESTORS Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Jeff Sharlet, who has been covering the election for Vanity Fair, credits to Christian adjacent ideas for these claims. The first is the so-called prosperity gospe. The notion that, among other things, positive thinking can manifest positive consequences. Even electoral victory in the face of electoral loss.
NORMAN VINCENT PEALE 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. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD 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. But the problem with prosperity thinking like day and date rapture prophecies is that when the bets don't pay off. Into 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. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD From spiritual adviser, 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 conspiracy's and Trump's base. It's called Gnosticism. Jeff, welcome back to the show.
JEFF SHARLET Hi, Bob. Good to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD OK, Gnosticism, a kind of early Christian apocrypha.
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, a heresy that goes back at least to the second century that 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. And 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.
BOB GARFIELD So in order for this to function, you have to sort of 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 kind of silence, 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 SHARLET One of the things that makes Gnosticism a nice metaphorical frame for Trumpism is that it presents the Divine as this sort of series of contradictions. Probably the most famous Gnostic texts, The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Is a quite lovely poem. And it sort of set up as a divine voice that is speaking. I am the scorned and the revered and so on.
READER I am the one whom they call law and you have called lawlessness. [END CLIP]
JEFF SHARLET That kind of contradiction is immediately recognizable to Trump, and it also speaks to the shift that Trumpism had to make as it moved from outsider status to the center of power. And that's what Gnoticism gives it as well. The deep state is what the Gnostics would have viewed as the church, the bishops, the authorities, the so-called experts. They called them waterless canals, these sort of dry river beds. And 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.
BOB GARFIELD 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, kind of the opposite, no?
JEFF SHARLET And 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 Gnoticism is 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 Parler and a few YouTube instructional videos. You know, obviously I'm mocking that, but it's important to recognize what I encountered as I was going in interviewing so many of these folks. They had what they were experiencing as a kind of 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 GARFIELD And in this kind of world, experts and journalists, they're not just misguided, their enemies, no?
JEFF SHARLET You know, I think about this my time sort of covering Trump rallies. And Trump loves naming the enemies and also the promises. Right. So 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. The press is functioning for Trump, even more so than the so-called illegals or those whom he calls animals - undocumented peoples. The way the Jews function for the czar, the way that communists functioned in the Cold War, they could be anywhere. Your own child could become one within this kind of Trumpian Gnoticism. 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 sort of 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 GARFIELD If the question is how can something so, you know, bizarre and disjointed flourish in the United States of America, you say agnosticism helps us understand that.
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, it answers this question. How can so many Americans embrace what to many of us looks like authoritarianism or even full fascism and the true ideological sense and 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 making it happen. It feels democratic even as it does away with even the need for democracy.
BOB GARFIELD After Trump lost the election,Q Whoever he is or she went silent. But then came the notion that the election had been stolen. And it's like, here we go again.
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, he has sort of picked up again, but you don't need Q drops anymore because before whereas Trump was sort of channeling those believers and winking at it. Now Trump himself as the source. You don't need to go to 8chan. You just need to go to Trump's Twitter to get the secret revelations, and 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 pulling Biden's string's? Is it former Obama.
TRUMP People that you've never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows, people that are...
LAURA INGRAHAM What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory. A dark shadow, what it that?
TRUMP People that you haven't heard of. There are people that are on the streets. There are people that are controlling the streets. [END CLIP]
JEFF SHARLET And 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 GARFIELD You spoke to a guy at a Trump rally, a guy named Dave. And I'm going to read a passage from your piece. Dave says, quote, The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn't make mistakes. And you say that the message to Dave is study the layers. He says there are major operations going on, including one the guy tells you, which is to use COVID-19 field hospitals as a cover to rescue children from the deep state's sex trafficking. QAnon and what you call American Gnosticism seem to be just made for one another.
JEFF SHARLET 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 who said It turns out Trump is not a five-D chess player, he's a six-D chess player. There's always another dimension, there's always a new interpretation. And so the challenge for you is to maintain the faith and 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. And 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 concretization 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 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 GARFIELD Well, we're going to get to the transformational part shortly. But it began, you say, is just transactional people willing to put aside their sentiments about a president who is a serial molester or worse in order to get two hundred conservative federal judges on the bench.
JEFF SHARLET In the sort of the secular press, there's an odd naiveté about evangelicalism, an assumption of Christian nationalism's naiveté. This sense that how could they be fooled by this very unpious con man? Well, 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 kind of a very sinful guy, but obviously a hero of the Bible. So 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, so that's the deal.
BOB GARFIELD We've spent a lot of time on this program examining the overlaps and the distinctions between evangelical Christianity and Christian nationalism. Big overlap, but definitely distinct. Does Gnosticism inhabit both circles of the Venn diagram?
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, narcissism is sort of it's present in the sort of the Christian nationalist I don't even want to say wing. It's become the sort of the main body of white evangelicalism. But that speaks to what I see as a sort of the transformational power of Trumpism. And 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 sort of authoritarianism of Trump ism. And with it, they have moved from sort of holding up as central a love ethic and now speaking more and more about a war ethic. The point now is to divide, and 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.
BOB GARFIELD This Gnostic mindset is actually uniting very disparate followers in belief about something sinister.
JEFF SHARLET 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. And it has to find that way to make the Venn diagram at which they meet. And I think this kind of Trumpian Gnoticism, this search for secret knowledge, this sort of awareness that people have something about the systems, institutions, aren't working. Even as we recognize that white supremacy 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. So they need a metaphor for what's been lost. This can appeal to white evangelicalism. It can appeal to right wing populists. It can appeal to even free marketeers who discover 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 can bring all of these people together under the sign of this divine that transcends institutions.
BOB GARFIELD And you discuss 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 this with this power unleashed, that those wells are going to run dry? Do you? .
JEFF SHARLET They're really not, because for so many folks, the red pill moment, as of course, they refer to it, you know, borrowing from another theological text, the science fiction movie, The Matrix, when you take the red pill and you see the true nature of reality past the institutions and so on, that's an epiphany. I think, for those who really been red pilled, who have been born again into this Trumpian Gnosticism, there is no reason to let go. And anything that we would suggest as proof will become to them proof of our deception. And that makes for a dangerous situation that the best case scenario is going to simmer and simmer for a long time if it doesn't boil over.
BOB GARFIELD The new administration will be fighting coronavirus pandemic. But what, if anything, can Biden do to fight viral superstition? How can they stop this?
JEFF SHARLET 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. I think 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 believers are going to say, oh, now I see.
BOB GARFIELD I think we should try and do the real work of democracy and build something beautiful democracy we haven't yet had maybe and let them join if they want. But we don't counter evangelism with our own evangelism.
BOB GARFIELD Jeff, thank you.
JEFF SHARLET Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Jeff Sharlet is a professor of English at Dartmouth and his most recent book is This Brilliant Darkness A Book of Strangers. This is On the Media.
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