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As Donald Trump first ran for the White House, I started wondering whether he was the antichrist. How else to explain the rapturous support of this most flagrant pagan from the supposedly most pious people in the land, but that an agent of darkness was masquerading as an angel of light? I was not alone.
It’s an old sort of speculation. Deciding that the pope fit the bill was key to Martin Luther launching what turned out to be the Protestant Reformation. The Puritans long continued in that vein, and Jonathan Edwards spoke for many when he ginned up the North American phase of the Seven Years War (“the French and Indian War,” 1756-63) to the level of Christ vs. antichrist, British Protestants vs. French Catholics. Nicely, just a dozen years later the American Patriots flipped the script and put the British on Satan’s side. It helped that the Redcoats nicely matched Roman cardinals, color-wise.
In our own time, dispensational premillennialists (try rolling that off your tongue late in a 3-hour class) are the unmatched champions of the game. As their movement rose in the wake of the Civil War, Rome still fit the bill, but after 1917 the “red” Bolsheviks succeeded them. World War II brought out the numerology around 666. ‘Hitler’ contains 6 letters and so does ‘Stalin,’ but where to get that vital third to round out the mark of the beast? ‘Mussolini’ disappointed with nine, though ‘Benito’ held promise. Same with Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. Were only Pius XI still in St. Peter’s seat, but no, he had been succeeded by the extra-digited Pius XII just before the war broke out.
Never mind, changing times demand changing figures. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Agers got nominated, also feminists and “the homosexual agenda.” The UN still lurks in the shadows, but the EU has tended to replace it; as the latter-day successor to the Roman Empire, it falls into the crosshairs of the book of Revelation. Still, these are all amorphous and anonymous; there needs to be a mastermind. Bill Gates? George Soros? Dr. Fauci? All, sadly, 5-letter last names. Somehow Mr. Triple-6, Ronald Wilson Reagan, never came up for consideration.
It’s a non-ending and ever-fascinating quest, as evident from the immense popularity of The Late Great Planet Earth (the bestselling book of the entire 1970s) and the sixteen-volume Left Behind series, published from 1995 through 2008, the year that another 5-lettered contender was elected president.
So, I wondered in 2016, if right-wingers could run so long with that ball, why couldn’t a closet Commie like me? Unfortunately, or otherwise, I decided Donald Trump was not the man—not because his name had the same 6/5 split as Barack Obama’s, nor because the game is so fungible, but because he doesn’t fit the actual biblical standard for the figure. That’s spelled out clearly in 2 John 7, namely, one who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Donald Trump neither knows nor cares enough about Jesus Christ to have an opinion on the matter.
Still, he does have that messianic glow. First, he’s nearly perfect so he doesn’t have to ask God for forgiveness. Plus, he’s constantly persecuted, oppressed, lashed, crucified by the lame-stream media. But he will rise again, and once re-seated in glory at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, will triumph over all his foes. And his followers’, as he assures them, “I am your retribution.”
Not denying Jesus but pretending to replace him—that does fit the bill. So do the now altogether too familiar marks of Trumpian character. The preening. The bullying. The self-pity and monstrous self-inflation. The pathological narcissism gobbling up all the air in the room and anyone else sharing it.
We can have some pity for the loneliness, the relentless self-doubt, that lies behind it all. And we have to salute the real genius at work as well. Trump is incomparable in his command of the media, the utter master of the camera and the tweet (the X?). He is turning his current trial for fraud (think of it—Trump on trial for fraud!) into a stage to vent his rage and berate his enemies and steal the show. He must be the center of attention, even in a negative glare. That scowl is just inescapable.
Trump’s Soul … and Ours
Still, antichrist? The more fitting title might come from Trump’s other incomparable achievement, his consummate record of lies. The Washington Post counted 30,573 of them during his term in office, and he has carried on since unabated.
When it comes to lying, the Bible actually has quite a bit to say, much more than a few allusions to antichrist, and its words can be pointed indeed. Take Jesus’, for instance: the devil “is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Making Donald Trump today’s poster child for son of Satan?
Are we comfortable with that? I learned early on not to call people names and to be very hesitant about accepting extreme characterizations and blame-placing. In part because I was taught to examine such for (respectively) my own projections and self-absolutions. So also in this case. The only way to escape the thrall of Donald Trump is to see our own part in creating it. Not a sufficient step, to be sure, but a necessary one.
Trump commands the media because in the dark recesses of his soul he knows exactly what we want in ours. Those cameras keep rolling because people keep watching and will switch the channel if he’s not there. Trump speaks the rage and resentment of the blue-collar left-behinds. He breathes the disregard his rich supporters feel toward lesser mortals and the institutions that claim to aid them. He incites self-righteousness in his progressive foes, shortcutting the attention they need to pay to their own part in creating the inequality and social stigmas that roil his base. Then too, who does not want a clear-cut world of black and white? Revenge upon those who have done us wrong? A clean sweep against complexity and the rising unknown of a parlous future?
Donald Trump then may be neither the antichrist nor the devil incarnate but the demon of America. He shows the maturity of an eight-year-old, in his case frozen in time around 1954 when the United States stood head and shoulders above the world in GDP and military might, when suburbs sprawled and gas-guzzlers rolled and smoke-stacks belched and women were at home and Blacks still in their place. His inner third-grader screams that things are still so, or should be so, and a sizable share of the nation agrees. Those who don’t have perhaps made their own peace with the world that has evolved in the meantime, but they have not managed, or cared, to convince others of its promise.
Perhaps they can’t. Perhaps we can’t. Antichrist thinking despairs of history. Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 speaks to just such a mood. It is a story about a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people,” yet was pestered enough by a widow to finally give her justice. Jesus told the story, Luke tells us in verse 1, to remind us “to pray always and not to lose heart.” But then he closes it on an ominous note: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v. 8)
And so we hang, suspended between those two verses.