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 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, 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—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.