Trump, Biden And The Search For Authenticity

The nascent race for the U.S. Presidency is a great case study in desire. Voters are looking for “authenticity” in the candidates, or so the pundits say. Donald Trump and potential candidate Joe Biden are very popular right now because they seem to be genuine, passionate and unscripted. Everyone is tired of the highly scripted, tightly controlled candidate who doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been vetted, polled and tested with focus groups. The public face of such politicians is clearly false and constructed by others. What we long for is to glimpse the real self behind the façade, and we praise anyone who allows us a peek behind the mask. The inner self, we believe, is the true self that resists all that meddling by others.

This false view of the self is what James Alison, in his educational series Jesus The Forgiving Victim, calls the “blob and arrow” model. The blob represents me, what is thought to be my true self. The arrows are my desires which originate with me and are directed towards things in the world that I want, such as a job, a mate, or a political office. James explains:

Part of the self-understanding of the “blob” is that is has a defensive role, protecting and hiding the “real me” and my “real desire” which is always under a certain amount of threat from the fundamentally “flaky” public world, the world of commerce, of business, of politics and of war, in which no forms of discourse are really truth-bearing. So, what I say in public, how I act in public, and what I say I want in public, are always a certain form of dissimulation, since it is only the private ‘self’ which is real. (400-401)

Authentically Dependent on Others

This way of thinking about ourselves can be very flattering. It identifies us as the good guys pitted against the flaky world out there. But unfortunately for our egos, it just isn’t true!  Our desires are not stable, unchangeable things that originate deep inside of us. Our desires are given to us by the world around us through our highly developed capacity for imitation. In other words, each and every one of us is the product of a script that predates our existence. We are formed, shaped, brought into being by the cultural script into which we were born. There is no “true inner self” that exists somehow separate from and unmoved by our “public self”. Our inner self is the result of being in an extraordinarily powerful and fluid feedback loop with the world around us. Unless we can understand that the ground of being in which we live, move and desire is the culture around us, what James calls the “social other”, we will forever misunderstand that our “authentic self” is the product of our social interactions.

The truth is that our “authentic” selves are much less stable than we normally understand. We are constantly courting the attention and approval of others, without which our “sense of self” erodes. We feel insecure, ashamed, and we lose confidence in ourselves without that approval. Politicians and celebrities, people who rely on the approval of others, are no different than we are. They are just more public about it! Their dependence on our votes or our wallets is no secret at all.

And like these public figures, we should not be ashamed of our need for approval. Jesus knows that being human means that our selves are constructed in and through relationships. The question is, which relationships are forming us? Some relationships have our best interests at heart; others are abusive and manipulative. James explains that Jesus is inviting us to become aware of just how dependent we are on the “social other”, which is not always good for us. He wants us to enter a kind of detox program so that we can free ourselves from its grip.

A Detox Program

That detox program is prayer. When we read Matthew 6:5-6 with this understanding of the self and desire, what do we find?

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When we pray in public and put our piety (or authenticity!) on display, our “reward” is the approval of others. Jesus warns us to beware of that reward. Instead he urges us to withdraw from the social other, to shut ourselves away from their glances so that we can begin to receive ourselves from a different source. James writes:

[Jesus] is saying, “You are addicted to being who you are in the eyes of your adoring public, or your execrating public, it doesn’t matter which, since crowd love and crowd hate give identity in just the same dangerous way. So, go into a place where you are forcibly in detox from the regard of those who give you identity so that your Father, who alone is not part of that give and take, can have a chance to call your identity into being.” (412)

The truth is that an authentic self can be called into being by relationships that mirror God’s unconditional love. But crowd love or hate cannot call forth an authentic self! It will only shape a “self” in its image. As James explains, we too easily become a puppet of the crowd, forever doing its bidding in order to keep the feedback coming. When we praise politicians’ for being “authentic”, we need to realize that our praise is coming toward them from the crowd of which we are willing members. Perhaps such politicians are not dependent on us for their identity, but perhaps they are too dependent on us without realizing it.

As we analyze the presidential candidates with this in mind, we might ask ourselves the same question: Are we bolstering our own sense of self by aligning with a particular candidate? Group belonging is a sure way to feel good about ourselves over against those “baddies” in the other camp. Perhaps our longing for authenticity in our candidates reflects our desire for a more stable, authentic identity for ourselves. Maybe we all need a little time in detox.

This article is a modified version of an article I wrote for my blog series  inspired by Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice by James Alison. This series can be found on the Patheos Progressive Christian Teaching Nonviolent Atonement page. For other parts in this series, see:

Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Huh?

Listening for the Unheard Voice

Authentically Boring: The Case for Praying by Rote

If Jesus is the Forgiving Victim, Then What Am I?

The One Thing: God, Faith, and a City Slicker

Image: Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photos: Flickr, DonkeyHotey, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Creative Commons License, some changes made.)


Donald Trump

The Donald’s “Inclusive” Racism

The central assumption of democracy — beyond the assumption of fair elections, which is disturbingly questionable — is that voters are the possessors of their own “interests,” and vote for the candidate most sympathetic to them.

But of course those interests are fair game for advertising, bombast and propaganda — and the psychology of fear.

Thus, not only are candidates capable of misrepresenting their support of people’s interests, even more insidiously, they engage baldly in manipulating them. This is a game that turns the endless presidential campaign season, especially as it is conveyed to us in the mainstream media, into little more than a mish-mash of clashing sound bites: full of sound and fury, you might say, but signifying nothing, or at least nothing much.

The two-party system, which comes to us courtesy of Big Money and is taken so seriously by the media — as seriously as any advertising campaign takes itself — is, essentially, a race to seize control over the nation’s collective reptile brain.

Let’s make America great again!

Welcome to the 2016 presidential campaign, underway well over a year ahead of time and already devolving into cartoonish absurdity, thanks to the loudmouth billionaire who leads the Republican fray.

Donald Trump, with the help of his money and his ego, is exposing the absurdity of American politics like no one else I can remember. Whoosh! Gone is the protective veil of political correctness. Let’s hear it for naked cynicism!

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As far as I can tell, Trump is the unapologetic standard bearer of late-stage, theater-of-the-absurd American exceptionalism. He directly addresses the prerequisite for national identity: an enemy. Someone to hate. Someone to fear. This is nationalism; this is Republicanism. And Trump brings his own special twist to it: a gleeful American inclusiveness.

And not a moment too soon, here in “post-racial” America. As Rick Perlstein astutely pointed out last month, Trump’s inflammatory, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant announcement of the start of his presidential campaign — presenting a gift-wrapped enemy to the racist that secretly lurks in so many American hearts — was almost precisely juxtaposed with the immensely symbolic lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. “And, immediately, Trump shot to the top of the Republican charts — with a bullet,” Perlstein wrote.

He added: “I’ve never seen anything that lays bare the core lineaments of conservatism so neatly: There is our tribe, which is good, true, and pure; and there are those other tribes, who are existential threats to you and me (Reagan’s favorite phrase), and must be suppressed in order for good to be preserved. ‘We’ all know this, even if ‘they’ don’t allow us to say this. If anything, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina opens space for this particular new longing to air this other silent truth more freely.

“This is important: Conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole.”

But there’s a special brilliance to the reconfigured racism Trump is offering to the American people.

Consider this paragraph from Trump’s campaign website. When you click on “positions,” only one topic shows up: immigration reform. And it’s not just any old immigration reform, it’s IMMIGRATION REFORM THAT WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

As the website explains: “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries). They have even published pamphlets on how to illegally immigrate to the United States. The costs for the United States have been extraordinary: U.S. taxpayers have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc. . . . The effects on jobseekers have also been disastrous, and black Americans have been particularly harmed.”

There are several reptile-brain subtleties of note here. First of all, the illegal immigration flow, according to Trump, begins with the machinations of “Mexico’s leaders.” It’s not a poverty-induced bleeding of the poor across the U.S. border but a deliberate, provocative act by one nation against another: something like an invasion. The Donald is not only giving us a subgroup to hate. He’s giving us war!

Perhaps even more appallingly, Trump makes a point of saying that “black Americans have been particularly harmed” by this invasion. Thus he opens the door to Black America to join the “We Hate Mexicans” club, in effect, creating a more inclusive form of American racism — the benefits of which, of course, will be reaped by his campaign.

Perhaps what this is really about is the slow-motion collapse-into-absurdity of the American empire, as Trump makes the emotional glue of hate and fear that has held it together for two and a half centuries unbearably obvious. The question he inspires, which lurks just beyond the horizon, is what sort of political entity we can build that isn’t based on these shadow “interests.” What happens after we stop seeing ourselves as conquerors? Can we build a country that honors, and fits into, a global whole?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at


Image: Copyright: Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Available through Creative Commons license.


Donald Trump, Immigration, And The Politics Of Satan

Donald Trump created a stir recently with his comments about immigration.

“When Mexico sends its people, they aren’t sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”

We could easily dismiss Trump and his comments by claiming that he’s our nation’s crazy uncle. But our crazy uncle is gaining in the GOP polls. After announcing his candidacy and making his comment about immigrants, he surged to second place among Republican voters.

It’s early, of course. I don’t expect Trump to maintain his surge. But I do think his comments reveal something important about politics.

Immigration and the Politics of Satan

In the biblical book of Job, Satan is the Accuser. Satan roams throughout the world as a prosecutor looking to make accusations against people. But Satan doesn’t care if people are good or bad. As we see with Job, all Satan cares about is making accusations.

In other words, truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Donald Trump made an accusation against Mexican immigrants that has struck a chord with many Republican voters. And that’s the point behind the satanic principle of accusation. As René Girard claims in his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “Satan seeks to have others imitate him.” Our imitation of Satan primarily comes in the form of accusations against our fellow human beings. That accusation is usually based on fear, a contagious emotion that is easily manipulated by the satanic principle of accusation.

But the fear is baseless because it isn’t grounded in truth. That’s especially true in the case of immigration. Study after study shows that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are less likely to be involved in violent crimes than the rest of the population.

In her study, Bianca Bersani, professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, states, “Foreign born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course.”

Jorg Spenkuch of Northwestern University finds that, “There is essentially no correlation between immigrants and violence crime.”

The Public Policy Institute of California reveals that, “Immigrants are underrepresented in California prisons compared to their representation in the overall population. In fact, U.S.-born adult men are incarcerated at a rate over two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.”

Donald Trump’s accusations against Mexican immigrants is a clear example of the politics of Satan. Satanic politics orders the world through accusation, exclusion, andscapegoating. While native born Americans actually have a higher rate of violent criminal activity, that fact doesn’t matter to the politics of Satan. What matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Immigration and the Politics of God

Fortunately, we do have an alternative to the politics of Satan. We don’t have to order our lives around the principle of accusation and exclusion.

The way God wants us to order our lives, including our politics, isn’t based on accusation and exclusion, but love and acceptance. For example, take Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34 continues the theme, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The politics of God makes no distinction between “illegal” and “legal” immigrants. Rather, all immigrants are human beings worthy of being included and treated with love. The Bible calls us to empathize with all immigrants, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” While in Egypt, the Israelites were marginalized and treated as less than human. In modern America, we’d call them “illegal immigrants.”

But the Bible calls us to something higher. The Bible calls us away from the divisive politics of Satan and toward God’s politics of love.

Instead of making accusations against immigrants, the Bible calls us to love them. Instead of excluding immigrants, the Bible calls us to include them.

The differences between the politics of Satan and the politics of God couldn’t be clearer. It’s the difference between exclusion and embrace. This election cycle, let’s follow God who calls us to “love the alien as yourself.”


Photo Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons License