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Trump and the Scapegoat Effect

Donald Trump is the scapegoat supreme of our time.

Don’t kill the messenger. See, to have a scapegoat is to not know you have one. It is to unite in common cause with other actors in your community to purge a common monster to preserve peace and order. Trump, more than any other figure in our present culture, fits that bill. (Yes, Trump and his supporters scapegoat other groups as well.)

Having dedicated his life to the study of scapegoating as the origin of culture, the late anthropologist René Girard is someone who should join every conservative’s pantheon. He argues that human beings unconsciously stumbled upon a circuit breaker that kept violence from virally overwhelming our ancient communities: the common identification and expulsion of a common enemy. The catharsis and solidarity scapegoating provides led early people to mythologize their victims into gods.

Over time, pagan communities commemorated these gods through careful human-sacrifice rituals to preserve order. Anthropological evidence suggests early kings were themselves sacrificial scapegoats—victims were often first deified and glorified in parades—albeit ones that found ways to convince the crowd to delay their sacrifice. The Biblical narrative, Girard argues, progressively deconstructs archaic sacrificial religions, culminating in Jesus’ reversal of the scapegoat-king ritual through his Passion. The camera of history is taken from the scapegoating community and placed in the hands of the victim as Jesus reveals and breaks the unanimity of the crowd’s need for arbitrary scapegoats to satisfy their collective resentments.

In today’s Christ-haunted West, we no longer have complete unanimity in our identification of common enemies, but we still seek it in the sub-factions we continually form. Yet Donald Trump’s faction is not going to prevail in any lasting way: his sacred dogma is built on “Winners.” His brand is a throwback to Nietzsche, who was himself a kind of throwback to a still older “golden age,” a time when pagan religion celebrated history’s winners, who were deemed right because of their might.

Trump even viscerally looks the part of the old scapegoat kings who would be ceremonially paraded before being sacrificed: he is often mocked for having small hands and goofy orange hair; he eats profane food like McDonald’s; he loves gaudy decoration in an age of “shabby chic”; he calls himself a winner in a culture where people must offer faux humility to gain status. Trump, who has repeatedly said that were he not her father he would be dating his daughter, is even accused of breaking the age-old taboo against incestual lust.

In the ancient cultic world of our past pagan order, hierarchies of kings, priests, and elites often killed or excluded the odd, weak, infirm, disabled, ethnic minority, or child based on the cultural fact that they were intrinsically inferior and thus deserving of a worse lot in life. But since the crucifixion meme began dominating the West, our modern cultures are increasingly self-critical and haunted by victims. Jesus robbed us of our blindness to the unjust order of “might makes right,” but he didn’t create an alternative ideology to deny us choice. We still have to choose, to a person, to model forgiveness and nonviolence as we seek to heal the victims most vulnerable to exploitation. But we’re stubborn in doing this work, and so we try to create cathartic peace and order through scapegoating—this time in the name of victims.

♦♦♦

But Trump is a monster! Yes, but given the right circumstance, so are you. His ugliness is simply more apparent than that of other managers of the state’s sacred violence. Let’s be frank here: though his speech is scarily vulgar, the violence he promises is already occurring.

Think his call to deport illegally undocumented workers is fascist? The Obama administration, garbed as it is with the shimmering rhetoric of victimhood, has already deported over 2,500,000 human beings—23 percent more than Bush.

How about his pledge to torture suspected terrorists? Clinton-Bush-Obama beat him to it. They just don’t talk about it like he does. And let’s not limit it to foreigners; Obama didn’t bat an eye as elderly tax protester Irwin Schiff died of cancer chained to a prison bed far away from his family for breaking the sacred taboo against being too stingy in sharing his resources with the collective.

How about the time Trump promised to target terrorists’ families? Obama, the great defender of Islam, already trumped that when he murdered people like U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, who hadn’t seen his father for two years. This teen and his friends were blown apart by the Nobel prize winner while having a campfire dinner, apparently for the sinful dreams of his father.

Let’s not pretend it is avant-garde to vilify Trump. Everyone’s doing it, especially the cool people, the ones, like us, preoccupied with social status but hiding it in speech always patronizingly preening about victims. From Buzzfeed to Vanity Fair, CNN, the New York Times, broadcast networks, Wall Street, Fortune 500 companies, academia, Hollywood, music stars, Silicon valley, and NPR, to both party establishments, everyone’s united in this orgy of outrage. It’s almost like the scapegoat purgings of yesteryear, but again, because of the cross of Christ scrambling people’s tribal unity, there is always a counter-factional push-back.

Still, scapegoating partially unifies. Just why is it that old enemies like Romney, the DNC, and the media unite to expose Trump’s shady timeshare-like university gimmick but offer deafening crickets for Hillary’s use of the Haiti earthquake to secure an exclusive gold-mining contract for her brother? Trump’s shamelessness reveals the banality of the establishment’s passe violence.

The thing that drives this outrage mob mad is the mirror Trump’s vulgar speech holds up to the state’s violence-based unity. The one thing the crowd can’t stand is a scapegoat’s refusal to apologize for its sins. Look at how the old victors of history wrote of their witch hunts, with the victims admitting guilt.

In the popular imagination inspired by the mainstream media, Trump is a wolf whose fangs will bring violent chaos from which the lamb herd must unite to protect us. He just needs to flinch and admit he’s a wolf! But peel off the wool skins and you’ll see the herd is itself a wolf pack that wants to eat you too. Just in a way that gets them crooned about [1] on late-night comedy and earns them Nobel prizes while they quietly blow up kids. Trump refuses to apologize for his rhetoric, and so there is no blood for the wolves to complete their feast.

I’m not saying he hasn’t promised to make grave violence. But look who writes history: the winning crowd. In the pagan world, Oedipus was cast as the scapegoat who accepts all guilt for his community’s woes. Yet behind the mythic veil, it takes two to tango in the deadly dance of violent rivalry. Today’s myth is being written by people who use victimism to hide the continuance of sacred violence. Watch out for the false catharsis they’re trying to create in purging Trump. It will not satisfy.

When Trump says the U.S. should have taken the oil in Iraq, he gets universal sneers from the established imperial class the way a drunken wingman is eliminated from the bar for loudly telling his friend to close the deal and “nail” the girl he’s chatting up.

He’s broken decorum, violated the taboo, and revealed that which is supposed to be unsaid and unseen. In being an awkward freshman rookie at selling victim-garbed statist violence, his campaign is doing the most for liberty. He’s not hiding the scapegoat mechanism right.

♦♦♦

Whenever one stands in defense of scapegoats, one is always accused of being in league with their sin. It’s like their perceived stench is supposed to get on you. Standing in between a stoning mob and an adulterous woman, you can expect to be told, “What, you think adultery is cool, huh?” Telling people it’s gross to brag and laugh at the mob butchering of Gaddafi like Hillary did [2], you hear, “You think that dictator monster was a saint, huh?” People do not like to be awakened from the righteous anger that a cathartic scapegoating provides. They don’t like being told that purging this monster and shaming the beast won’t make things better.

So don’t worry, I won’t hire Trump. Nor Hillary. Nor, for that matter, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. But let’s not morally cleanse ourselves by scapegoating any of them either. It won’t work. Instead, humbly reveal and stand with the victims of sacred violence they all promise to hurt, no matter the quantity or how unfashionable the victims may be. Don’t settle for hiring any person to represent you who leaves even one nonviolent person confined in a cell you yourself wouldn’t place there. Likewise, I will reluctantly deny myself the fleeting high of the collective purge ritual we call voting rites.

Win or lose, Trump’s flavor of sacred violence is an anachronism that won’t prevail; victim-dressed violence is firmly in the driver’s seat of history. Instead, if you meet him, wash his feet. Scrub them till the glued wolf claws and fur fade away. Wash Bill and Hillary’s too. Forgive them, these sacrificial scapegoat gods, for they know not what they do.

David Gornoski is your neighbor [3]—as well as an entrepreneur, speaker and writer. He recently launched a project called A Neighbor’s Choice, which seeks to introduce Jesus’ culture of nonviolence to both Christians and the broader public. A Florida promoter of local agriculture, he also writes for WND.com, FEE.org, AffluentInvestor.com, and AltarandThrone.com.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Trump and the Scapegoat Effect"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 1, 2016 @ 12:59 am

There’s a hole in this treatise of scapegoating.

It was begun before the nation was founded and it exists in full bloom among righteous democrats, liberals, conservatives Republicans and the rest.

They have been the ultimate scapegoat so effectively that even their complaints are used against them as a sign that the labels they have been given are correct.

Unfortunately they have no way to hide, so they remain easy targets for all that ails the country. So while I think there are some interesting perspectives to comment about here —

that one groups history in a democracy suggests that scapegoating doesn’t wear off for some regardless the falsehood on the claims placed on them.

#2 Comment By cecelia On September 1, 2016 @ 1:34 am

I thought this would be about how Donald uses Mexican, blacks, Muslims, etc. as scapegoats – you know – bait and switch get people all roused up about other people so they ignore the real problems.

Donald is no scapegoat – he has earned people’s dislike.

#3 Comment By cecelia On September 1, 2016 @ 1:36 am

And BTW – the whole liberal media picking on Trumpie is not supported by an analysis conducted by The Shorenstein Center – Hillary got more negative coverage than Trump.

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#4 Comment By DonCHi On September 1, 2016 @ 2:26 am

Well written, and interesting. But it seems to avoid the possibility that Trump stands for less violence, less bloodshed, less evil then the Establishment presidents we have hired. The “wingman” analogy was great. I’m just not sure it’s totally accurate. I don’t think the Establishment is freaking out so much merely because Trump is the same as them, but less discreet.

#5 Comment By Mel Profit On September 1, 2016 @ 6:37 am

It’s rare that someone offers something new, or actually offers insight. This author does that.

#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 1, 2016 @ 8:01 am

Quite the rant, Mr. Gornoski. I had been wondering what you might be up to lately. Six months ago (Feb. 25) you wrote for World Net Daily (WND): “A few years ago I used to write for WND under the pen name David Hanson… I respectfully retire the David Hanson moniker and its homage to the individualistic rationalism of the founding era. In its stead, I resume as my given name, David Gornoski, with a renewed focus on religion as the key to understanding the challenges we face and the way to overcome them. There is a choice before us as neighbors and society: Be like Jesus or self-destruct.”

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#7 Comment By Traveler On September 1, 2016 @ 9:00 am

Huh. For a moment there I actually thought that I was reading some alt-right webzine. I had to do a double take to make sure that this was indeed TAC. The whole Passion of Christ being referred to as a ‘meme’ was the clincher.
I’m not sure if this was meant to be a Millenial’s Rant kind of thing. But it surely sounded like one.
I’m not sure I actually get the whole angry tone of this piece. But, what do I know? I’m just an observer from the sidelines.

#8 Comment By Paul On September 1, 2016 @ 10:18 am

Hurt your feelings, I guess. I am sorry for that, but really, Girard’s anthropological and political monism, as well as his current trendiness, deserve to be lampooned. Certainly scapegoating takes place, an insight that was not his, but it is hardly the explanation for *everything*. You can certainly engage whomever you choose, or not — and granted, I was being snotty — but I encourage you to consider whether any of that was perhaps deserved.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 1, 2016 @ 11:52 am

@ cecelia, who wrote: “And BTW – the whole liberal media picking on Trumpie is not supported by an analysis conducted by The Shorenstein Center – Hillary got more negative coverage than Trump.”

The study that you link to, cecelia — “Pre-Primary News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Race: Trump’s Rise, Sanders’ Emergence, Clinton’s Struggle” – describes itself as “a new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzes news coverage of the 2016 presidential candidates IN THE YEAR LEADING UP TO THE PRIMARIES.” (my caps)

Thus, this study showing “pre-primary news coverage” – news coverage before the first February, 2016 primaries – does not dispute the mainstream media’s abandonment of journalistic standards in its assault on Trump DURING THE CURRENT PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN.

#10 Comment By cdugga On September 1, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

Anyone attempting a populist leadership role is a potential scapegoat. I am reminded of the rolling stones line about who killed the kennedy’s, after all, it was you and me. We want to label and point. Categorizing and putting things into context, so far as the political arena is concerned, seems to have evolved into a way of divesting ourselves of responsibility for the issues of the day.
I am not sure I followed what the author intended about scapegoating, but it is a powerful political predilection. In Louisiana our republican legislature seems to have successfully attached all blame for our economic crisis on bobby jindal. Republicans looking at the unsavory prospect of actually losing to the likes of hillary are already scapegoating the don even though I believe his anti-establishment campaign was purposeful establishment strategy. Trump will be easily scapegoated if he loses and allot of republican congressmen lose their seats. But if he wins we can expect him to tow the republican establishment line of tax cutting, starving the beast, climate change denial and fossil fuel pandering, all heavily supported by NRA directed policy. Like, what would he do different ? I can’t think of any issue of GOP substance that he stands against. Or is it that he really takes no consistent stand on any issue? Ultimately the success or failure of state policy will be attributed or blamed on the politician and not on the voters. It does appear that we are wired to scapegoat or worship our leadership. We have witnessed economic and middle east war scapegoating of president Obama with a vengeance. I would say the vengeance of a profound cognitive dissonance. The black man simply cannot have been such a good leader. Donald Trump was never a real republican. The beat goes on.

#11 Comment By Lowe Laclau On September 1, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

Just commenting to correct the author, who states that Nietzsche’s philosophy was one of celebrating “winners” and “winning”. That’s a completely false reading of his work. If he celebrated anything with the writings on the “Ubermensch” it was the celebration of active (as opposed to reactive) values. “Winning” is too determined by societal values for him give even the slightest concern about it.

#12 Comment By Publius On September 1, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

“humbly reveal and stand with the victims of sacred violence they all promise to hurt, no matter the quantity or how unfashionable the victims may be”

Do you have children? Will you stand “humbly” by as their butchers arrive with sharpened steel? This kind of pacifism hardly deserves the name of conservatism, since it won’t actually *defend* anything worth conserving.

“I will reluctantly deny myself the fleeting high of the collective purge ritual we call voting rites”

Go. In the name of God, go.

#13 Comment By Clint On September 1, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

And BTW – the whole liberal media picking on Trumpie is not supported by an analysis conducted by The Shorenstein Center – Hillary got more negative coverage than Trump.

Mainstream Media: Defeat Trump by Attacking His Supporters

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#14 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 1, 2016 @ 5:52 pm

“When Trump says the U.S. should have taken the oil in Iraq, he gets universal sneers from the established imperial class the way a drunken wingman is eliminated from the bar for loudly telling his friend to close the deal and “nail” the girl he’s chatting up.

He’s broken decorum, violated the taboo, and revealed that which is supposed to be unsaid and unseen.”

Well actually it was said, time and time again: “the war will pay for itself”. And it did, at least for Haliburton and other profiteers.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 1, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

“How about his pledge to torture suspected terrorists? Clinton-Bush-Obama beat him to it. They just don’t talk about it like he does. And let’s not limit it to foreigners; Obama didn’t bat an eye as elderly tax protester Irwin Schiff died of cancer chained to a prison bed far away from his family for breaking the sacred taboo against being too stingy in sharing his resources with the collective.”

That is just preposterous. Torture is now somehow to be equated to a multiple, duly convicted and sentenced, repeat felon serving a prison term? Schiff was not in jail for “protesting” anything, but for intentionally refusing to pay his taxes. Which he did over and over again.

Unless all government is to be vilified, and we are in the realm of extreme anarchism, I fail to say why Mr. Schiff should be able to be “stingy” with his resources while the rest of are required to “share” ours, and face no consequences thereby. No government can survive without mandatory taxation, and, I guess that is the reductio ad adsurdum point. All rulers, from George Washington to Hitler, are the same, and so what possible difference could there be between Obama/Clinton and Trump?

And what really grates is the way that “victimhood” posturing is turned on its head. Trump is the real victim. As is Schiff. They are “scapegoats.” Um no, the former is a person who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, has ripped off people from Day One anyway, and is now spewing hate and bigotry like a fountain. And, for all that, the worse he faces is electoral defeat. The latter was a crook and deadbeat, who was given numerous “second” chances and spurned them all, in favor of a legally and constitutionally ridiculous and ridiculously self serving “theory.”

Still, the worst posturing and self indulgence is reserved for the author himself, who is just too pure, too above “the collective,” and just too damn special to vote for anyone. Literally no candidate could ever be good enough for him. And then he has to nerve to pretend that “humility” is what he is all about!

I’ve seen a lot of nonsense on this site. Most recently, for example, the notion that Hillary is to blame for giving the alt right publicity, after Trump hired one of its leaders to run his campaign! But this article takes it to a whole other level.

#16 Comment By Paul S On September 2, 2016 @ 11:49 am

I think the role of a magazine like TAC is not to make its readers feel comfortable, but to encourage thought. I don’t see how it is possible succeed in doing so without taking risks and printing articles like this that, even if it makes some mistakes, at least makes interesting ones.

#17 Comment By Gandydancer On September 3, 2016 @ 11:50 pm

For the life of me I cannot extract any meaning from this article, but I did note a factual error: “The Obama administration… has already deported over 2,500,000 human beings—23 percent more than Bush.” This bogus claim has long since been comprehensively debunked. [7]

#18 Comment By Eric Hutchins On September 4, 2016 @ 10:29 pm

The scapegoat is allowed to escape. The sacrificial goat is actually sacrificed, to the gods, the lynch mob, whichever. Perhaps TAC should publish a few photographs of America’s many sacrificial goats. They are readily available online. EliteCommInc. observes that Trump does not look like any of them.

#19 Comment By Justin On September 5, 2016 @ 5:46 pm

Whenever I think about the dynamics of present-day politics, and especially outrage culture and its hatred of the Donald, I always have Girard in the back of my mind.

A popular thought a few months ago from liberals regarding Trump was something like, “He’s the embodiment of what the GOP has been cultivating…” Girard’s critique goes much deeper but even on a very simple level how could they not see his support was drawn largely from reactions to what the more extreme elements on the Left had been wantonly doing? The scapegoat effect. The same goes on the other side, as you said. “It’s those [fill in the blank]…” That sentiment permeates American political thought.

#20 Comment By Anne On September 6, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

If Trump is our collective scapegoat, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. Of course, somebody should tell him real scapegoats don’t sue.

#21 Comment By niece On October 11, 2016 @ 3:04 am

philadelphialawyer- you miss the point- and don’t even pretend to know the issue.

I agree that taxes should be paid- but until you read the minutes of every single hearing a trial- don’t comment. It is far more complex than you give credit- you are ignoring mental illness, public corruption, and desperation. You should know better if you’re a lawyer. I say that as one pursuing criminal justice- I don’t mean that as a slight.

– his niece

#22 Comment By niece On October 11, 2016 @ 3:05 am

and*

#23 Comment By Paula On October 20, 2016 @ 9:14 am

As someone who is also moved by Girard’s insights, I hope this doesn’t begin a new movement among us to raise and commend ourselves as standing above the fray, alone with our insights and virtue.

If Girard does anything he should make us forever circumspect about the objects of our derision, or of any simple story.

#24 Comment By Anna On October 26, 2016 @ 1:41 am

Thank you, Paula.

#25 Comment By Barry W Kort On January 30, 2017 @ 11:55 pm

Here is a concise summary of Girard’s Model …

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#26 Comment By Ellen D. On February 8, 2017 @ 8:49 am

Well I wonder if the author has reevaluated his theories in light of Donald Trump’s efforts to scapegoat Muslims in order to deflect attention from his complete incompetence in every area of governance and decorum, and will be composing a follow-up article to address the current situation.

Ha, ha, of course not.

#27 Comment By Jeffrey On February 17, 2017 @ 6:55 am

The brilliant and searingly original article of the author not only proposes a very interesting interpretation which is rooted in an analysis of the irrational, or “sacred”, as a fundamental engine of human relations and activities, it also lets every current of totalitarianism rouse their very ugly heads. Clearly, the author stirs thoughts, and deep reactions. Most of them, through staccato and aggressive linguistics, vaguely hold water for uncareful readers, except the one saying that the article is reminiscent of the alt right, an insult to the intelkigence of the very person who wrote this line