How Televangelism Explains Donald Trump (Or: How To Win A Presidential Election)
I am a nerd. When I don’t understand something, I have a tendency towards zealous reading that might better be explained as a personality disorder. My brain searches for rational explanations. I’ve consumed hundreds of articles, dozens of TV shows, and several documentaries since last November and yet as of this morning I still didn’t understand how Donald Trump managed to win the American presidential election.
I have theories though! My god do I have theories. (A small sample: American history has taught us that new Democratic candidates never succeed Democratic presidents, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was disastrously run by incompetents, the average American is unintelligent, Silicon Valley’s continued ignorance of the role it plays in American life, etc.).
But the thing I’ve most struggled to comprehend has been Trump’s total invincibility to scandal. It simply does not matter what atrocity the man commits or what controversy he provokes, throughout it all, he remains seemingly invulnerable. How is this even remotely possible in the age of camera phones, YouTube, and SnapChat? Off-hand comments derail successful professional careers. Tweets that were meant as DM’s expose the cultivated images of family men as fraudulent. There’s an old saying that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only five minutes to destroy it. But none of this applies to our new president. How?
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So last night I just happened to be staying at a hotel with a bad cable package and the only interesting thing on TV was CNN’s documentary series The Eighties. This was a small coincidence as I had previously watched “The Reagan Revolution” episode of this series in attempt to make some sort of connection between the former president and the cult of personality surrounding Trump. There are some minor similarities (both were celebrities before they were president), but nothing particularly mind-blowing. The particular episode that was on is titled “Greed is Good.” It documents the national fascination with the quick accumulation of wealth that gripped that particular decade.
Now, what’s interesting about the episode was not the familiar cast of characters like Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens, or the junk bond king Michael Milken. I knew their stories. What was interesting were other equally infamous cash grabbers of that era. I’m talking about the Jim Bakkers and Oral Robertses of the world. I was not aware how they had used the gospel of televangelism to accumulate massive wealth in the same way that the billionaires used leveraged buyouts. Instead of junk bonds, these televangelists hocked their own product: everlasting salvation. And at a more expensive price, I might add.
You see, several of these televangelists had endured remarkable financial and personal scandals during that decade and yet, their ministries not only survived, some of them continue to thrive to this day. There’s Jimmy Swaggart and his “I Have Sinned” sermon or Jim Bakker paying hush money to his secretary after they had a sexual encounter. This happened all the time.
My first question was what convinced their followers to give money to these shameless, greedy men? That led me down a rabbit hole to John Oliver’s 2015 episode about Televangelists. While certainly excellent, the episode has the Jon Stewart habit of hoping by “destroying” the topic it will make the bad go away. As Hillary Clinton’s campaign team learned, that’s not how America works.
One thing stuck out to me though in the Oliver episode and that was the idea of the prosperity gospel. This idea is rooted in some branches of evangelical theology, especially in America, and basically believes that the more you believe in God, the richer and healthier you will be. To the disciples of the prosperity gospel, greed was good. In fact, God favors believers who are rich. This was a good start but unfortunately I wasn’t the first person to make this connection to Trump. Among many articles I consumed, this Washington Post piece gets at why Trump and the Evangelicals got along so well during the election despite the former living a unquestionably non-religous lifestyle.
Out of ideas, I googled the phrase “the psychology of televangelism.” And it was on that page and through some intense reading that I think I might finally have solved the mystery of Donald Trump. Those results led me to a 1991 book titled “Televangelism and American Culture, The Business of Popular Religion” by Quentin J. Schultze which I immediately purchased.
A quick qualifier: the subsequent paragraphs are by no means a total account of the complexities of the American electoral process. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve Malcolm Gladwell’d my way to an easy answer to a difficult question through pseudo pop-psychology. In short, I’m an idiot. I’m an amateur writer at best. And lastly, I’m an idiot.
Further, I want to make it totally and completely clear that all of the ideas I type below are due to Mr. Schultze’s book and in no way can I claim them as my own. My only contribution is to link his ideas to present day events. Anyway, here we go….
The book begins with a great thesis that TV ministries in the US have six distinct characteristics: 1) they’re audience supported 2) personality-led 3) experientially validated 4) technologically sophisticated 5) entertainment oriented and 6) expansionary minded. Let’s briefly check some boxes and go through them one-by-one in comparison to the Trump phenomenon.
1 — Audience Supported
There’s no Donald Trump phenomenon without the rallies. No candidate since George Wallace has fully grasped the true power of a campaign rally to get the base excited about voting. Trump recognized this early and continues to use it even now as president.
2 — Personality Led
Like the great televangelists, Trump checked this box back in the 1980s when he seems to have decided that adopting the personality of a corporate movie villain was good for the brand. His supporters love that he “tells it like it is” and “isn’t afraid to speak the truth.” All relative terms of course. But the man has a charismatic personality that his supporters worship. It’s also what allows him to escape the dozens of scandals. Among his supporters, success is not judged by the accuracy of his messages but rather how he made them feel. Interestingly, this is what makes him the true heir to Reagan. For two decades, the Republican party “idea men” like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz mistakenly believed that it was Reagan’s philosophy that led to his success as a politician. It was never the message but how he delivered the message. A trained stage performer, Reagan could look into that camera lens with a twinkle in his eye and make you believe anything.
3 — Experientially validated
This is a really important one. It relates to idea number one and it traces its roots back to the days of PT Barnum‘s circus or even the great evangelical revivals. The Televangelists realized something about the new medium of television. The experience of watching a great preacher on TV had the effect of making the viewer feel closer to the charismatic man and, by extension, God. It was a completely individual experience. The Trump campaign rolling into town is the postmodern version of this. It links Trump to his supporters and helps them escape the small towns that modern America seems to be leaving behind. By watching on TV or, even better, attending a rally in person, Trump makes the supporter feel like they’re a part of a higher cause.
4 — Technologically Sophisticated
This one seems like a reach on the surface but hang with me here. One of the remarkable traits of all of the Televangelists is that they have always been on the forefront of using technology to reach more viewers. They realized that electronically transmitted messages feel more real than any kind of spiritual truth. The miraculous nature of it, especially in the beginning, was like having a direct line to God. Schultze notes that the American Dream has always been unquestionably linked to Americans’ embrace of technology. We’ve always believed, often naively, that technology would help to make our lives better. There’s this unshakable American idea that technology will return us to a better past to guarantee a Utopian future (#MAGA anyone?). And this still permeates today on both sides of the aisle. Just look at the Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world who really and truly believe that their social networking platform is going to make people’s lives better. Look at the Google founders who based their company on the idea of not being evil. Whether or not he understood this, Donald Trump’s Twitter fascination created a remarkable connection between him and his supporters. It allowed him to cut out the filter of the lamestream media and deliver his message directly into the twitter feeds of millions of supporters. The message of making America great again was being personally delivered (via their smart phones).
5 — Entertainment Oriented
See ideas 1, 2, and 3. Donald Trump, like the Televangelist, is not here without his showmanship. Similarly, you don’t make millions of dollars as a Televangelist by talking meekly into a microphone and reading a scripted teleprompter address. Give them drama! Give them conversions! Give them healings! Or at least their political equivalents. Trump cultivated his version of entertainment over decades in movie cameos, pro wrestling stints, and The Apprentice. One of the other keys to drama is shaping a good versus evil battle which the campaign did achieve, though obviously through the means of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and unfair characterization. The script is simple: there’s a protagonist (Trump/America) defeating an antagonist (in his case, the enemy has many names: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, #BlackLivesMatter, the global elite, Islamic terrorism, Mexico, etc). And his supporters ate this up. It was professional wrestling as presidential election.
6 — Expansionary Minded
So here we are in February of 2017 and President Trump has been in office for two months. Depending on your political leanings, he’s either been remarkable successful in disrupting the status quo or the most disastrous president of all time. And herein lies the big question. Can he continue the momentum of his campaign into the presidency? All of televangelism, much like empire, requires continued expansion. Trump’s fallen back to the comfort of doing rallies after undoubtedly finding the actual job of being president to be remarkably boring and tedious. Can he keep expanding? The televangelists often found that they had to do exponentially greater publicity stunts. And I fear what this could mean at the level of power that he currently holds. What happens if we have a national disaster? Terrorist attack? He decides that the real enemies of America are already within our borders? He gets the itch to invade somebody to approve American military supremacy? There is nothing quite like the prospect of war abroad to stir nationalist feeling and distract from the failures of domestic policy at home. Every Republican presidency since WWII has shown us that (and a lot of Democratic ones too!).
What it’s also shown us is that you can relate all of the six themes to any successful presidential campaign in American history. At its most basic level, becoming president (a televangelist) is about convincing (converting) enough people (followers) that your version of the American dream (religion) is better than your opponents (other churches). All of the recent winners have applied most or all of the themes towards their successful bids.
And now it’s time to wrap it up with a confession. I originally started doing all this research to attempt to figure out what it would possibly take for Trump’s supporters to realize that the emperor has no clothes. Truth doesn’t matter. Scandal isn’t going to do the trick. I had no clue. Again, we turn to Schultze, “Typically, spiritual arrogance is the ultimate outcome of the psychological pressures imposed on the leader of a personality cult. When the self is placed above even the church, Christ’s representative body on earth, bitter feuds and schism within congregations and across denominations frequently develop. If any Christian organization emphasizes human personality over the personality of Christ, ambition and ego lead to hatred within the church and even destruction of the individuals involved.”
In other words, be patient. Trump will do it himself.