Much has been written and said about the significance of the American presidency of Donald Trump, perhaps more than any other presidency in history. Questions hover interminably over his statements, deeds, the differences between and consequences of the disjunctures between what he says and what he does, and his motivations and ultimate objectives as president. It seems that varying schools of thought exist on how to interpret this chameleon’s character and actions. Is he a populist? A protectionist? A racist? A Democrat or a Republican?
He seems to possess a protean quality of assuming different forms in the perceptions of his audience. This piece seeks to posit a tentative evaluation of Trump’s significance from a possibly idiosyncratic Catholic perspective. It seems that a controversy looms over the president’s rationality, even to the point of the suggestion that he is irrational and this blog will try to explore the use, type, and consistency of his reason.
The Church and Divine Reason
For the Church, reason is the buttress of faith that defines the providential link between God and humanity. This God-given language is exemplified in biblical exegesis, that is the interpretation of the scriptures; in the assurance of doctrinal orthodoxy; and in the organization of the Church. This is the tripartite pillar that upholds the dignity and truth of faith.
Biblical interpretation entails the rational cultivation of either literalism or the labyrinthine techniques of allegory. The divine revelation of scripture commands both faith and the faculty of reason in order to interpret the operations of the deity.
Orthodoxy is based upon canonical exegesis and the complementary writings of the Church Fathers. The organization of the Church is the reification of both faith and reason, a ‘terrestrialisation’ of the spirit of fidelity to become bodily. The visible and almost tangible ordering of the hierarchy is at once a microcosm of the great chain of being and God’s will made flesh, as the Pope is Peter’s successor.
What is Trump’s rationality?
Donald Trump’s rationale, his raison d’etre, is entirely exhibited by the propensity that seems deeply rooted in him to ‘make the deal’, i.e. to advance and acquire. His actions throughout his public career show a distinctive quality of compromise and adaptability. Reason is an ancillary consideration to the demands of the speculation and accumulation of power and wealth.
Each of his statements, whether corroborated by his other pronouncements or conflicting with them, is an independent act in unique time as his individual tweets are marked by the offhand and the impulsive. Perhaps, rather, his acts exist outside of time as consistency, reliability over time are waylaid by him.
The president issues statements and makes observations that have a divisive quality and his actions reveal a man for whom the linearity and lucidity of reason itself are either illusory, irrelevant or employable merely in the short term.
Trump’s reason is mutable because of its deployment of various means – the particular demands of a particular negotiation – to harvest money and power, these are his unchanging ends. Whereas pious reason works to justify faith, elevating itself beyond itself as a terrene method of and language into what Immanuel Kant called the noumenal realm beyond experience; Trump’s pragmatism both uses and cancels reason depending on the dictates of the situation. And, as noted, his ends are exclusively material – if we count the exertion of political and commercial power as having a certain materiality, implying as it does material effects in the lives of millions. Therefore Trump’s sometimes rationality and sometimes irrationality, however slippery, is rooted anchor-like in the arid and irreligious soil of the phenomenal world of the everyday world of wealth and power.
“People open their purses and pour out gold; they weigh out silver on the scales. They hire a goldsmith to make a god; then they bow down and worship it. They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they put it in place, and there it stands, unable to move from where it is. If any pray to it, it cannot answer or save them from disaster.” These lines from Isaiah 46, verses 6-7 neatly combine in fulminatory tones idolatry and the pursuit of earthly gain. It is difficult to look from this back to Trump without gleaning a sense of condemnation. However, as a man and a public figure borne along by the force of seemingly irrevocable currents of development in western society.
Trump’s pragmatic instrumental rationality is orientated exclusively towards the acquisition of wealth and power. This is set against the instrumental reason of the Church which is directed to the growth of faith. This is an unpragmatic reason, grounded upon the eternal principle of God’s word as expounded upon the scriptures.
The president is at the nexus of a cultural conflict between the economic system that necessitates ad hoc compromise and parley, and the dictates of God and Church. His status raises the question of the actual and true status of a Church in a political and economic environment that countermands solidity of conviction.
Those who insist upon the segregation of the realms of the spirit from the quotidian sphere of transaction and negotiation can see a means to even the extolment of the president and acknowledge a perceived necessity for realpolitik – the sense that political decision-making ought to be autonomous and free from reference to personal faith. Yet there are those that amalgamate these two areas in their worldview. Although the Church establishes a stark qualitative contrast between the world of felicity promised and the world below, the living faith of the devout and believing permeates their being rendering impossible such a segregation.
Trump’s economic protectionism, his insistence on building real and metaphorical walls betrays an insularity that uncovers his view of America as an extension of his business interests and methods.
Yet this is in sharp distinction from the president’s statements of religious import, which imply a thoroughgoing ecumenism that would neatly chime with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. For instance, Trump has commented on his daughter’s marriage to a Jewish man: “I have a Jewish daughter, and I am very honored by that”. This quote is redolent of a dialogic propensity, a willingness to share the landscape of faith. But in the same breath that promulgates this ecumenical mildness, it is also shut down. If we re-examine the comment, Trump exhibits simultaneously pride and humility not in the fact that his daughter has wed a Jewish man but that his daughter has become Jewish. This, paradoxically, while showing a pluralist acceptance also shows an acceptance of what Trump believes is the natural order of things, i.e. the accommodations, mergers, and absorptions that typify the fluctuating nature of commercial operation.
Contradictions and Inconsistencies
This paradox and juxtaposition of ecumenism and its negation is in microcosm the core of the Trump enigma. He is the personification of an ‘open text’, a text that has a definitive character but whose character is not circumscribed and encapsulates ambivalence and contrarieties which subvert conventional narrative. This ambivalence, however, does not stretch as far as his personal and political ends which are final and fixed but it does constitute his means. Just as he negotiates the deal, Trump negotiates the cavern of human reason, now adapting it, now undermining it to his ends.
The president doesn’t stand on ceremony, is confrontational with the press and with his own party, asserting the stature of the ambitious man over his subsumption under order, system or even faction. This is in concert with a humanist view of man but only in a state of being – his goals, the direction of his project is ultimately anti-humanist. To paraphrase the title of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, a classic humanist statement of the Renaissance, Trump’s living oration is on the dignity of one man. Self-regarding, as men and women can and should be in the literal sense, Trump is a religious humanist but when surveying the great expanse of humanity, he reveals an anti-humanist if not misanthropic mistrust.
The Church also could be termed both humanist and anti-humanist, postulating the dignity of man, God’s darling creation while declaring that man can thrive or truly exist only within the bounds of God’s benison.
The Two Instruments
As outlined Trump’s rationality, insofar and when he employs it, is instrumental – a tool directed towards his end. Similarly, reason in the Christian tradition is also broadly instrumental as a reason in the forms of exegesis, doctrine and church organization serves as an adjunct of faith. However, Trump’s reason is implicated in a rival complex whereby reason serves acquisition, and explicitly immoral and ungodly end as the gospel of Matthew states: “No man can serve two masters: For either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon”. (6:24). Thus the gospel sets up a mutual exclusivity between faith and material acquisitiveness that can only be maintained in the case of Trump who has written: “The point is that you can’t be too greedy.” This brief utterance refers the endless dissatisfaction with the material realm with which Trump concerns himself. Compared to this paean to frustrated material hope to the statement in Psalm 37: “Delight thyself also in the Lord, and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (37.4). Here we can differentiate between the wholesome and most human ‘desires of the heart’ and the lowly, perhaps animalistic desires of the body that inhabit the world of matter, wealth and a thankless surfeit of consumption.
The differences between the Church’s instrumental reason and that of Trump is in staunch contrast. The religious reason is a necessary and unwavering instrument in the service of faith which in the souls of the devout, as well as in the words of Holy Writ, is steadfast. In contradistinction to this, Trump sets up a willful and ambivalent ratio of a protean reason that is sometimes valid for his purpose and sometimes neglected and ignored because of it. He fashions his rationality according to immediate circumstance, often creating over time contradictions in his statements and deeds. But the point is that Trump’s instruments, his reason, is unstable and mutable over time and it is the insularity of the single moment of an individual decision only that coherent validity could be attributed to him. The source of this validity, these inconsistencies is not, therefore, reason but Trump himself and his appetitive impulses. In fact, we could maintain that Trump is both subjective agent and beneficiary in a closed circle of self-aggrandizement.
Although both the God-given reason of man which is exemplified in organized Christianity and Trump’s rationality is instrumental, that is, they are subservient to a greater end, in consideration of the end or goal of the reason the Church and the president are wildly at odds.
Divine truth is the object and origin of the human reason of the God-fearing. Reason justly and validly employed speaks with the voice of the eternal, it is our beatific instructor in faith and love.
Trump’s instrumentalism is orientated differently – toward personal utility. As such it is doubly removed from God and Church by virtue of the fact that it considers truth a useful but from indispensable commodity just as much as a popular utility – like reason – is invoked and jettisoned by turns.
In sum, Trump’s mutability – some would say volatility and impetuousness – are signally incompatible with adamantine faith and principle. As an arrant individualist, Trump’s reason is inimical to the community and merely levied for the bolstering of his fortune in both senses. In his impulsiveness, cupidity, and thirst for the glare of a transient adulation, Trump has shown himself. Although he is a behavioral chameleon, his ends and means are self-evident and cannot command the adherence of a religious conscience. As an unpredictable and individualist figure, his reason cannot be shared and would founder at Isaiah’s “Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (1:18).