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Trump The Girardian Scapegoat


Gen. James Mattis has finally criticized the man he once served as Defense Secretary. Excerpt of his full statement:

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

Personally, I think it’s undeniably true that Trump does not try to unite the American people, but I find it insupportable to believe that the riots tearing apart America today are the culmination of Trumpism. What’s more, why did Mattis have nothing to say about the rioting? Not even a line? A military veteran friend says Mattis’s statement sounds more like score-settling than anything else.

But leave that aside. What Mattis is doing here is opening up a way to resolve this crisis by making Trump a scapegoat, in the sense that the cultural critic René Girard meant. Look:

According to Girard, the primary means for avoiding total escalation came through what he calls the scapegoat mechanism, in which conflict is resolved by uniting against an arbitrary other who is excluded and blamed for all the chaos. With the guilty party gone, the conflict ends and peace and social order return to the community. Achieving social order in this way is only possible, however, if the excluding parties unanimously believe that the person or group expelled is truly guilty or dangerous.

Girard’s examination of different “myths of origin” revealed that scapegoats, regardless of their actual crime, have carried the weight of all of the community’s transgressions. Read inside out, these stories reveal much about primitive society’s attempt to curtail violence and restore order in a fragile world with no civil structures. All of human culture, according to Girard, is built upon the edifice of scapegoating and ritual repetition. This reading of culture, inspired by an insight into of the innocence of the victim made available in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has made possible an increased awareness of this mechanism and its aftereffects, so as to interrupt these processes and achieve a different kind of peace.

If Girard’s theory is correct, then pinning the blame on Trump could be the way out of this catastrophe. To be clear, this does not have to do with Trump’s actual guilt. Everyone just has to convince themselves that he is the source of our conflict. I don’t see that happening, and even if it did, it would solve nothing, as Trump is not in fact the source of our racial and race-related problems.

UPDATE: It’s frustrating that some readers see the word “scapegoat” and assume that I’m claiming somehow that Donald Trump is innocent, then flip out. Read closely. I’m citing Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory, in which warring parties in a social conflict agree that a particular person is fully responsible for the conflict, and sacrifice that person for the sake of restoring peace. Some readers say that I’ve got Girard somewhat wrong; that might be. In any case, I believe Trump is certainly guilty of many things, but the rioting and looting are not his fault, nor is the problem of police brutality in America, or American racism. But if somehow Left and Right can convince themselves (falsely) that we are at each other’s throats because of Donald Trump, then somehow getting rid of him would restore peace. As I said, it would be a false peace, because Trump, however much he has exploited these problems, is not the source of them. But we would find that out later.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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