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Quick Takes

Donald Trump and the Theopolitics of Ineffable Power (Daniel Miller)

Donald Trump’s political rise continues to confound pundits and political thinkers, retaining a sense of mystery that has accompanied his campaign since early in the nomination process.

Time and time again, Trump has made bold pronouncements, statements of extreme grandiosity, statements that seem impossible, contradictory, or both. When pressed on how he aims to achieve these seemingly impossible goals, he simply reasserts that he will achieve them, usually demonstrating a stunning lack of detailed policy knowledge in the process.

In demanding rational justifications, in pressing for policy specifics, we are, his advocates seem to say, missing the point. This is TRUMP. When he says he will achieve these things, he will, through a sheer act of will and determination. Trump’s appeal to the sheer force of his will was on clear display in his acceptance speech at the recent Republican National Convention.

Summing up his speech as a whole, he proclaimed that he is the one to “show the whole world that America Is Back—bigger, and better and stronger than ever before.” And his rationale? “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” Trump alone knows “the system” (by which he means the entirety of failed America), so he, alone, will fix it.

Yet, pressing beyond mere assurance, Trump refuses, utterly refuses, to give reasons, to provide a rationale for why we ought to believe this, beyond repeated appeals to himself. And the crucial point is that his strategy is working. According to at least one poll (and recognizing that there is virtually no consistency in polls at present), Trump vaulted ahead of his rival, Hillary Clinton, following his acceptance speech.  According to a CNN story following the Republican National Convention, Trump’s “bounce” owes largely to increased support among independent voters, largely as a result of the convention speech.

Given the fact that he does not provide policy statements or arguments of how he will achieve his aims, what is Trump’s (expanding) appeal? No doubt there are many ways of answering this question, and many lines of inquiry to consider.

I do not to simply discount any of them. But I want to propose one reason which may be easy to overlook, if only because it is not easily subject to social scientific analysis, cannot be attributed to societal distrust of Hillary Clinton, or any of the other usual reasons cited in the media.

In simply asserting that he will achieve his goals through the sheer exercise of will, Trump taps into a constitutive feature of our social and political imaginary, one which is also a theological imaginary — ineffable power. Though he does not speak in these precise terms, Trump lays claim to the exercise of ineffable, omnipotent, sovereign power that exceeds the limits of reason itself.

I want to introduce this theme of ineffability, which I believe promises only tragedy, through comedy. The theme of ineffability figures prominently in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 satirical novel Good Omens. The basic premise of Good Omens (the title of which is a play on that of the 1976 film The Omen, remade in 2006) is that the infant anti-Christ, whose destiny is to usher in the end of the world and ultimate victory of the forces of God over those of evil, is switched at birth with an ordinary child.

This switch occurs unbeknownst to the characters Aziraphale, an angel tasked with overseeing the interests of heaven on earth in anticipation of the battle of Armageddon, and Crowley, Aziraphale’s demonic counterpart, tasked with preparing the anti-Christ for his pre-ordained task.

My interest in the text is not its end (I leave that for interested readers to pursue on their own), but with its parodic take on the intersection of such classically Christian doctrines as those of divine providence and omnipotence as they relate to the theme of ineffability.

Repeatedly throughout the text, Aziraphale and Crowley are confronted with classical theological conundrums which they can only resolve by appealing to divine ineffability. Thus, seemingly incongruous demands of logic (e.g., if God is omnipotent, why is God compelled to follow the ordained plan for the end of the world? How can demonic forces be morally condemned if their actions are ultimately part of a divine plan? etc.) are, when applied to divinity, dispensed with on the grounds of ineffability.

The opening pages of the book offer a sort of preliminary summary of ineffability. God, it is suggested, “plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to be involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules and who smiles all the time.”(14)

As with any good satire, Gaiman and Pratchett in their humor highlight issues which have been serious and vexing in the history of western Christian thought. Specifically, they highlight the difficulties of linking divine omnipotence, understood as sheer and irresistible power, with justice. Their comical suggestion, of course, is that such a linkage can only be achieved through appeal to “ineffability,” which is to say that it can only be rendered comprehensible by removing it from the realm of rational comprehension.

But the incongruity of such a linkage, and the appeal to ineffability to achieve it, is not merely comical. As Catherine Keller suggests in her book God and Power, the “doublespeak” of this linkage is evident in a thinker such as John Calvin who, when confronted with the incongruities of such a linkage, doubles down on the absolute nature of divine omnipotence and appeals to ineffability (or incomprehensibility) to secure the linkage between such power and justice (26).

With regard to the former, for example, Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion insists that divine power must be absolute, and so must be undivided, by insisting that there is no distinction between “doing and permitting” in the divine. (1.18.1)  God does not permit, but rules.(3.23.1) Any other opinion is a “frigid fiction” which threatens divine omnipotence. (3.23.7) On the contrary, “men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed within himself and brings to pass by his secret direction.” This “secret instigation” is such that “the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend it,”(1.18.1) leaving us with only the possibility of trembling before an omnipotence that surpasses understanding.(1.18.4) Thus, Calvin insists, “our own little standard” is insufficient for gauging divine justice and righteousness, which are incomprehensible.(3.12.1) Appealing to the apostle Paul, he insists that “supreme sovereignty” belongs to “the wrath and power of God,” so that the justice of God’s judgments “transcend[s] all our powers of discernment.”(3.23.1)

Such considerations (which could obviously be multiplied extensively) are not, of course merely antiquarian or narrowly academic in nature. One needn’t endorse the entirety of Carl Schmitt’s thesis in Political Theology that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” to appreciate his insight that the modern notion of political sovereignty has drawn on a theological (particularly Protestant) conception like the one advanced by Calvin.(36) In a “secularized” form, such a conception is a constitutive part of, to use Charles Taylor’s term, our social and political imaginary.  (In)famously, Schmitt writes, “sovereign is he who decides the exception,” which decision marks the indivisible power of the sovereign as sovereign.(Schmitt, 8) Jacques Derrida in his Rogues sums up this significant point when he outlines the inseparability of sovereignty and unconditionality, asking, “isn’t sovereignty, especially in its modern political forms, as understood by Bodin, Rousseau, or Schmitt, precisely unconditional, absolute, and especially, a result, indivisible?”(141)  And  Keller draws our attention to the ways in which the logic of political superpower is parasitic upon the western imaginary of omnipotent sovereignty, with its tacit appeals to the ineffability of military exercise and benevolence.

Returning to the issue of Trump, I am suggesting that a significant part of the reason Trump’s appeals to sheer force of will, his naked assertion of power, resonates with voters is that it taps into a constitutive feature of our theo-political imaginary. He doesn’t give reasons or justifications to his assertions because the power that will achieve them is ineffable. And if this does not immediately strike many Americans as mysterious or evasive, but as in fact persuasive, this is because such ineffability is part and parcel of a dominant conception of political sovereignty in modern western political thought.

Further, precisely because ineffable power is a part of our theopolitical imaginary, it is not easily displaced. Theologically speaking, as Keller suggests, any such displacement requires a shift away from viewing claims to political omnipotence as idolatrous because they usurp the role of an omnipotent God, to viewing the notion of omnipotence as idolatrous as such.  Fundamentally displacing appeals to ineffable power requires a shift in the theo-political imaginary itself. Derrida in Rogues effectively sums up this point:

In speaking of an ontotheology of sovereignty, I am referring here, under the name of God, this One and Only God, to the determination of a sovereign, and thus indivisible, omnipotence. For wherever the name of God would allow us to think something else, for example a vulnerable nonsovereignty, one that suffers and is divisible, one that is mortal even, capable of contradicting itself or of repenting (a thought that is neither impossible nor without example), it would be a completely different story….(157)

Until the theological concept of omnipotence is dislodged from our theopolitical imaginary, political figures like Donald Trump are inevitable. Reflecting this, Graham Ward in his article “Religion After Democracy” may be correct when he suggests that contemporary democratic culture “dreams, secretly, of the return of the king.”(213)

The task before us, if we are to transform democratic culture, is also to transform the theo-political imaginary that supports it (rather than abandoning democracy for theocracy, as Ward himself proposes).

Daniel Miller is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Department of Humanities, Landmark College.  He is the author of The Myth of Normative Secularism: Religion and Politics in the Democratic Homeworld (Dusquesne University Press, 2016).


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