In the early Twentieth Century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim broke open the category of religion by separating it from a divine origin and relocating its source in human life itself. Contextualized by his anthropological study of Aboriginal religion, Durkheim’s groundbreaking The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in 1912, defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim; 1995: 44).
He called the sense of connection underlying the formation of these moral communities “collective effervescence” — the force of which is projected onto objects deemed sacred by way of their capacity to represent the shared energy of individuals within a moral community. In this way religion functions as a mirror that reflects a community’s sense of itself as a whole. In Abrahamic traditions, God functions as the ultimate sacred object — a collective self-portrait of the worshiping group and a symbolic representation of the communitas which binds individuals in that group together.
Durkheim’s theory set the stage for studying religion as an observable, socially constructed phenomenon that works to organize individuals into groups, or societies, each of which have their own set of dogmas and rituals relative to that which they deem holy, or set apart. In American society, government functions as a kind of religion that revolves around the “beliefs and practices” related to “sacred” texts, such as the Constitution; objects, such as the American flag; and people, such as the President, often assigned a “priestly” status. In this way the category of the sacred extends into the sphere of the secular to produce a kind of civil religion with undercurrents of a colonizing Christianity.
In the age of Trump, we might call Trumpism a religion in Durkheim’s sense of the term. It has been a long time in formation, at least for the last 400 years on American soil, and it revolves around a set of beliefs and practices related to the preservation of Western society’s sense of itself as whole, which is to say, white. In Trumpism, an irrascible man named Donald has come to stand in as high priest for a “system of beliefs” devoted to the worship of whiteness as wholeness, as god.
A white, property-owning, heterosexual, cis-gendered male, Trump embodies the wholeness towards which the white social body worshiping him aspires. His platform — built on the xenophobic fear of the non-white other and what that other signifies as a threat to the male, property-owning, heterosexual wholeness that Trump channels — functions to instill in his adherents a sense of “collective effervescence” most clearly evident in the red-hatted rallies around which Trump has organized his campaign’s faithful.
Trumpism was on full display Martin Luther King Day weekend when a group of young men from all-boys Covington Catholic High School, on a field trip to Washington, D.C., from Kentucky, participated in the anti-abortion March for Life rally while sporting the red “Make America Great Again” hats that make Trumpists so easy to identify. Whether or not their reasons for wearing these caps were motivated by a particular adherence to Trumpism or were simply, as is the apparent trend among white post-millennials, donning them to be fashionably ironic, they serve as a sacred symbol of the in-group mentality that the “MAGA” slogan implies.
That a bunch of white teenage boys from a private Catholic high school were wearing them at a demonstration which denies a woman’s right to her own body is telling. It betrays a deeply unconscious ideological investment in the superior status of the white male, presently besieged by the over-wrought identity politics of our time when heathen leftists are looking to denigrate his holy status as progenitor of national order and the “imperial Christianity”, to quote a pastor-friend of mine, informing it.
Indeed, Trump is the new face of empire religion, revolving as it does around rituals of violence on the non-white body, or those bodies deemed worthy of exclusion from the national social order where (white) men rule. According to Vox reporter Rebecca Jennings, “All over the country, there have been reports of students in MAGA hats bullying their Latino, Middle Eastern, Black, Asian, and Jewish classmates (BuzzFeed found 81 instances in one year between 2016 and 2017) on the basis of race and religion.”
Regardless of whether or not the boys instigated any part of the racially charged confrontation with the Native Americans who buffered their interaction with a spiteful crew of four Black Hebrew Israelites, their presence was deemed an automatic threat by dint of the “totemic” power of their sacred garb and the way in which they mobilized their “collective effervescence” to assume ownership of a public space and surround people of color. Their hats were no more nor less provocative than the homophobic, misogynistic and racial epithets issuing from the mouths of the four black men who accosted them before Nathan Phillips stepped into their space with his ceremonial drum.
While some interpretations of video evidence suggest the boys were simply innocent bystanders of a situation for which they were not fully responsible and to which they responded with sophomoric humor typical of their demographic, their choice of apparel signifies a collective gesture of defiance, individually performed by Covington Catholic junior Nick Sandmann, in the face of the unfamiliar other who is an easy target of white male mockery.
Irrespective of how it is worn, Trump’s campaign slogan is a sacred mantra, religious code for “whites only.” And in its status as sacred object, the red MAGA hat licenses a slew of ritual behaviors that elevate the white social body to the realm of the “set apart and forbidden” — giving a bunch of teenage white boys the permission to politicize a non-partisan issue and to assume ownership over what is ultimately a woman’s choice.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.
Jennings, Rebecca. “It isn’t just the Covington Catholic students — MAGA hats are a teen trend,” Vox, Jan. 22, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/1/22/18192933/covington-catholic-maga-teen-nick-sandmann-hat.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. s.v. “Durkheim, Emile.” Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/durkheim/.