THE prospect of violence on the streets of Washington, DC, next week looks all too real, the FBI has warned. Right-wing websites are talking of an armed “million militia march” to contest the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States.
It is easy to dismiss the ragbag collection of oddballs who stormed the cradle of American democracy last week with their horned furry helmets, spear-tipped flags, and hoodies emblazoned with slogans endorsing the wacky QAnon theory that Washington is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles and cannibals. But Benjamin Teitelbaum’s new book, War for Eternity, warns us to look deeper.
The anti-immigrant protectionist nationalistic populism of Donald Trump, he suggests, is connected to similar impulses among the governments of Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and Turkey, and among extremist political groupings from Britain to India. It is rooted in a world-view embraced by advisers to President Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro, who are linked together in covert alliance.
The common factor, Professor Teitelbaum suggests, is a syncretic philosophy called Traditionalism, which sets itself up in conscious opposition to post-Enlightenment modernity. Drawing inspiration from esoteric Hinduism, it believes that human history cycles through four distinct ages, from golden to dark. Since time is cyclical, not linear, the idea of progress is a myth — a delusion shared by democracy, capitalism, and Communism alike, all of which have replaced the intuitive with the rational, and the mystical and the spiritual with debased forms of materialism.
Pro-nationalist, it sees globalisation as corrupt and sees those who embrace it — in pre-Trump America, the European Union, or the emerging economic powerhouse of China — as the enemy. Fatalistic and pessimistic, it embraces hierarchies of race, gender, and caste as true conservatism.
This confused and contradictory mish-mash, which one of Professor Teitelbaum’s students describes as “Dungeons & Dragons for racists”, has proved accommodating to the wide range of conspiracy crazies, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and those among the Capitol-storming mob who wore pro-Auschwitz sweatshirts that declared “6MWE”: an acronym for Six Million Wasn’t Enough, in reference to Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
We should not be reassured that this is merely some outlandish fringe. Consider how gently the Capitol mob was handled by a police force that had reacted with comparative ruthlessness to far less radical protest by Black Lives Matter supporters. America’s police leaders may overtly condemn white supremacists, but a sense of white entitlement lies deep within their forces, even as it does in wider society.
The Church cannot escape scrutiny on this. Even after four years of highly dubious behaviour by President Trump, huge numbers of Christians voted for his re-election — as they did in similar proportions in 2016. The determinant appears not to have been religion so much as colour. Among white Evangelical Protestants, nine out of ten voted for Trump, while black Evangelical Protestants voted eight in ten for Biden. Among Roman Catholics, the division was only a little less notable, six out of ten white Catholics voting for Trump and two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics voting for Biden.
White Christian nationalism is not a fringe concern. It is a wide and deep problem, which will remain long after its pied piper, Donald Trump, is gone.