The book of Exodus in the Old Testament tells the story of the children of Israel’s escape from slavery out of Egypt. They spend a lot of time wandering around in the wilderness, exploring their relationship with Yahweh, before they settle in what would ultimately be deemed “The Promised Land.”
One of the stories that comes out of this journey that doesn’t look to good for the Israelites is when Moses, their leader, went up on a mountain to talk to God and retrieve the law. This is all recorded in Exodus 32. The people saw that Moses was taking a long time and said to Aaron, Moses’s second in command and the one who did most of the talking “Come, make us a god who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.” So Aaron, thinking he was taking care of his people, said “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people did. And when he had gathered up the gold, he melted it down and fashioned it into a shiny golden calf and said This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Then Aaron built an altar to it and made a proclamation that tomorrow would be a feast to the Lord. So the next day people got up early and brought burnt offerings and peace offerings and behaved in ways that normally would not have been deemed acceptable.
Then God spoke to Moses and told him to go down from the mountain because “your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have behaved corruptly. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a cast metal calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. So now leave Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” But Moses tried to defend his people. He said Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians talk, saying, ‘With evil motives He brought them out, to kill them on the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and relent of doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” So God relented of the harm which He said He would do to the Israelites. Moses had once again saved his people.
So soon as Moses approached the camp, and he saw the calf and the people dancing; and Moses got real angry, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf they had made and completely burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the Israelites drink it.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Don’t let your anger burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ Then they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” ( I love that – I threw in the gold, and POP – out came a calf!)
So when Moses saw that the people were out of control—because Aaron had let them get out of control to the point of being an object of ridicule among their enemies— Moses then stood at the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all Levites came. And he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘Every man of you put his sword on his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “[Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.” So, in other words, things got real bloody because of all of this.
And on the next day Moses said to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Then Moses returned to the God and said, “Oh, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves! But now, if You will forgive their sin, very well; but if not, please wipe me out from Your book which You have written!” However, the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will wipe him out of My book. But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless on the day when I [punish, I will punish them for their sin.” Then the Lord struck the people with a plague, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.
So this is a particularly bloody and vengeful story and not the kind of New Testament stuff I usually prefer. But it DID provide us with a metaphor that has stuck with us for a few thousand years – the golden calf or golden idol. The golden calf is an idol of gold that we make to replace what is good or holy with something that is fleeting or idolatrous. You may recall the movie Dogma that did this literally – Mooby the Golden Calf was a children’s television character that had a media empire – actually idolized by the masses.
The reason this story is on a lot of people’s minds this week, though maybe not in its entirety, is because as CPAC this week an artist presented a golden statue of Donald Trump for the audience to admire, take pictures with, and share social media of and about. The irony of the traditional-family-values crowd displaying a golden statue, and one of a man with questionable values that spent the last four years seeking more and more power and flouting civil norms, was not lost on the audience outside of CPAC. Social media immediately lit up with comments about CPAC’s golden idol and the antithetical nature of that for a crowd that generally wants to institutionalize religion (in the name of religious liberty, of course).
But CPAC this year has been idolatrous in more than one way. The golden idol is just the physical marker. The entire event was a service in the church of Trump. As David Weigel in the Washington Post noted, one panel discussed whether tech companies are “colluding to deprive us of our humanity.” One speech explored what to do when a social media network “de-platform” a conservative by deleting his account. And seven main-stage panels or speeches litigated the 2020 election, with panelists who mostly — and incorrectly — argued that Donald Trump won. The Conservative Political Action Conference has evolved from a fractious meeting of Republicans and libertarians into a celebration of the 45th president and the airing of his grievances.
Mike Schlapp, who chairs the group the organizes CPAC, admits that CPAC is no longer a place where any kind of platform will be formed or developed. The purpose of CPAC is to relive the last few months in a decidedly right-wing way. The left, they claim, canceled so much that they need CPAC to live through and discuss what is rightfully theirs.
CPAC is not a place to make progress or look to the future. It is a place to relive the past and air grievances. It’s the Festivus of political events.
Which brings us to this year’s highlight: Trump’s CPAC speech.
Now, on the one hand, I would like to just leave Trump in the past and not see him in my rearview mirror because he lost, and he is over and just not give him anymore attention. He got too much attention when he was a major political figure. But I think that might be a slightly dangerous position because “Trumpism” has become a major force in conservative politics, and at the heart of Trumpism is Trump, and he is not letting the movement go on without him. He is still at the beating heart of everything. If we want to understand conservative politics in America, we have to understand Trump, for the time being.
Trump’s speech was fairly typical in that it was riddles with lies and inaccuracies. It was REALLY long, so he had a lot of time to get plenty of falsehoods in there. He lied about our economic relationship with China, Biden’s energy policies, and his efforts to create a viable vaccination plan, but a huge chunk of the speech deal with the 2020 election.
Trump is still in denial about the results of the election, and that’s important, because it means his supporters are, too. And in a country where we say the government gets its power from the consent of the governed and a big chunk of the population doesn’t see the government as legitimate, that could have serious consequences.
Trump’s opening line is “Do you miss me?” So we know this from the start this is going to be a speech about him. And he didn’t disappoint. The entire speech wasn’t about the future of the Republican party or the conservative movement – he made no effort to look forward or to develop new ideas or establish a platform – it was strictly a review of his presidency. The entire speech was a reminder to the listeners that the conservative movement should be focuses on the past and their grievances and that there was no need to look forward. What mattered was the Trump years and wallowing in the self-pity and absorption that they allowed.
He begins by talking about how Biden has had a disastrous first month, but quickly pivots to “the wall” and his perceived successes in border security. He elaborates on how he had made the border, and thereby the country so much safer than it had ever been and claims Biden had undone that within a matter of weeks. He also manages to throw some shade at Dr. Fauci in all of this in a throw away line about masks. He also briefly says he may come back to beat the Democrats for a “third” time in the future, hinting at a 2024 run.
Trump spends a great deal of time talking about what a disaster Biden’s and the Democrats’ immigration policies are and how we are a nation of criminals now and nobody respects us, trading in his typical bravado, racism, and masculine appeals.
In a strange transition then Trump begins to blame Biden for America’s schools that are still doing online instruction. He says this is because Biden has caved to teacher’s unions. This is particularly amusing because a) this was going on when Trump was president, and b) the president has no say over whether school are virtual or in-person, those are state and local decisions. But it makes his listeners angry, and when they are angry, they are happy.
He then talks about the development of the vaccine that took place when he was in office. He takes credit for the “miracle” of the vaccine and the therapeutic treatments available now. He says it is because of his actions that any of these things happened. He claims that Operation Warp Speed was a breathtaking success, when we know from experts who came in under Biden that it was a mess with no real goals or implementation that needed serious re-tooling. But he takes full credit for the success of the vaccination roll-out since he left office, claiming it was his doing all along.
He reminds us of his success in instituting the Muslim ban and bemoans that Biden has undone that. He reminds us that he limited the number of refugees let into the country more than any president ever and Biden is going to undo that. He lies, and warns that we don’t know anything about these people who are coming in.
He rambles about endless wars, but then transitions into withdrawing from the World Health Organization, because to him and his followers that was a bold and wise move. He framed it as a financial decision.
This of course leads to a reminder that Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Treaty, and Biden almost immediately re-joined. And from there we get a litany of Trump’s energy accomplishments. He approved the Keystone Pipeline and expanded fracking. He made American energy independent. He disparages wind power and other green sources of energy.
Republicans, he says, believe that every citizen must come first. America must come first. His administration did that, he claims, by building the strongest economy in the history of the world. Then he turns to Trumpism. He says, “Many people have asked what is Trumpism, a new term being used more and more. I’m hearing that term more and more. I didn’t come up with it, but what it means is great deals, great trade deals, great ones, not deals where we give away everything, our jobs, money.” And that may be a part of it – but Trumpism is more than economic policy. Trumpism is the culmination of this entire speech – it is focusing on grievance, insider/outsider status, racism, and masculinity. Trumpism is politics by grievance and opposition as opposed to the desire to make progress. Trumpism is being entrenched in one’s own self-absorption to the point that governance is not possible.
He says, “It means low taxes and eliminated job killing regulations, Trumpism. It means strong borders, but people coming into our country based on a system of merit. So they come in and they can help us as opposed to coming here and not being good for us, including criminals, of which there are many, it means no riots in the streets. It means law enforcement. It means very strong protection for the second amendment and the right to keep and bear arms. It means support for the forgotten men and women who have been taken advantage of for so many years. And they were doing great, they were doing great before that horrible thing from China came in and hit us. And now they’re starting to do really well again. If you think about it, we built the economy twice. We built a then and then like every other country in the world, it went down and then we built it again. Now it’s higher in many ways, certainly in the stock pocket, it’s higher in many ways than it was before. That’s because of the foundation and no country comes even close to competing with our comeback.
And it means a strong military and taking care of our vets, but a strong military, which we have totally rebuilt, we have rebuilt it. And our military has never been stronger than it is today. It was tired, it was depleted, it was obsolete. And now we have the best brand-new equipment ever made and it was all produced right here in the USA. Isn’t that nice? And we take care of our vets. We had a call recently just before leaving office, the vets had a 91% approval rating for the way we took care of them. It’s the highest number in the history of the polls. The vet polls. On top of all of that, we have even created the Space Force, the first new branch of the United States in nearly 75 years. The mission of the Democrat Party is to promote socialism. They want to promote socialism, ultimately leading unfortunately to communism. And that will happen. If you look at Venezuela, you look at some of these countries, that’s why some of our biggest supporters are from South America, Latin America, because they’ve seen what goes on with all of this cancel culture and you can’t speak it, and let’s cut them off, and let’s not give them words.
The mission of our movement and of the Republican Party must be to create a future of good jobs, strong family, safe communities, a vibrant culture, and a great nation for all Americans. And that’s what we’re creating. Their party is based upon unvarnished disdain for America, its past, and its people. You see that happening. It’s horrible the way they treat the legacy of our country, the culture of our country. Our party is based on love for America and the belief that this is an exceptional nation blessed by God.”
So Trumpism is militarism, and statism. It can’t be defined without insulting the opposition – it exists only in opposition to progressive policies, not as its own philosophy. It is just a negation.
He says, “We take great pride in our country. We teach the truth about history. We celebrate our rich heritage and national traditions. We honor George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and all national heroes. And of course, we respect our great American flag.” So it is nationalistic. It claims to have a monopoly on the truth and history and will propagate that. He says, “We believe in patriotic education and strongly oppose the radical indoctrination of Americans youth. It’s horrible. We are committed to defending innocent life and to upholding the Judeo-Christian values of our founders and our founding. We have raised free thought, we stand up to political correctors, and we reject left wing lunacy. And in particular we reject cancel culture. We know that the rule of law is the ultimate safeguard. And we affirm that the constitution means exactly what it says, as written, as written. They want to change it. They want to change it. They want to get rid of it, frankly. We believe in law and order and we believe that the men and women of law enforcement are heroes who truly deserve our absolute support. We don’t defund the police. We are not defunding the police.” Further emphasizing that Trumpism is not a philosophy in and of itself, but simply opposition to a different philosophy. It is simply oppositional. It is grievance politics.
Then he spends a good chunk of his speech talking about the security of elections. Trump is still arguing that the election was stolen, and much of this speech is about how the election was taken from his because it was “rigged”, or the election was fraudulent. He makes numerous claims about the election’s security that have all been debunked but remain in circulation because he continues to make them and sympathetic media repeat his claims. They are lies. But they are part of the Trumpist narrative because Trumpism is about upholding your grievances.
To the point that Trump calls out by name anyone who took a stand against him. He refers to the Democrats as evil and vicious, and then lists by name any Republican who did not fall in line behind him in the last few months. It is clear that if you stand against Trump you stand against the party. Trumpism holds onto its grievances tightly. Trumpism does not forgive and forget.
So Trump says he will be actively working to elect candidates who support the vision he has laid out in his speech: “Military, law and order, great trade deals, great education.” And then he proceeds to talk about how many votes he got.
He wraps up by claiming they are in a terrible struggle for America and it will take all of their talent and dedication to be victorious. But they will be victorious. And, he concludes, the brightest days of the movement are ahead.
At the heart of this speech, and Trumpism, is Trump and his personal grievances. Trumpism isn’t a philosophy, it is at best a cult of personality, and at worst just a litany of grudges. The danger is those grudges are large in scope – they are grudges against groups of people like people of color, refugees, women, judges, the media, and those in the tech industry. Trumpism does not distinguish between a personal grudge and an ideological one. All grievances are the same. And Trump’s grievances are the metonymy of America’s grievances.
This is why the golden Trump statue is so perfect. Because Trumpism isn’t a platform or a philosophy. It is grievances. And Trump’s grievances are the grievances of an entire group of Americans. He is their symbol. Their idol. They put him on a pedestal because he is at the heart of their ideology – his grudges against a changing landscape are their grudges. And so they literally idolize him.
This idolization, to be honest, spells the death of the Republican party as we know it and conservatism as it has been for the last 100 years. Since Barry Goldwater it has been evolving into something more like a negation of the opposition, but now, with the birth of Trumpism, conservatism is collapsing completely as a philosophy and being replaced by a platform of simple opposition and grievance. What is hard about such a thing is that it is entirely dependent on the opposition for its very existence. It cannot exist or evolve on its own except to become MORE racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, or otherwise exclusionary.
I don’t think those who worship the golden idol at CPAC are going to be struck down with a sword. But I do think there are lessons to learn, here. The whole point of the golden calf story is that the Israelites in Exodus lost sight of the truth and fashioned a golden statue of a false god because they were impatient and aggrieved. Trumpism isn’t that much different. People with grievances are looking for something to focus on that is easier than hard truths that require patience, grace, faith, and work. Grievances are easier. Trumpism is easier. And some people are happiest when they are angry.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.