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Jan 2, 2020

Trumpism and the discourse of sin in education

How do educators talk to people who seem to be impervious to ethical argument? A democratic society is hard to conceive without the possibility of persuasion. The problem is not in “echo chambers” of social and mass media, and not in deficiencies of communications. The problem is in refusal to enter dialogue and to consider ethical argumentation. This paper will examine the Augustinian concept of sin and Martin Luther King’s notion of “social sin” and indicate the educational potential of the authoritative moral discourse.

In his July 17, 2019 speech, President Trump had not even once spoke of compassion, empathy, love, forgiveness. The speech was built on such virtues as greatness, success, victory, and revenge, the state of the economy, trade, markets, and jobs.[i] A typical MAGA rally otherwise, it distinguished itself by audience’s chant “Send her back,” repeated 13 times under the speaker’s approving gaze. The chant was referring to the Somali-born House representative Ilhan Omar; it echoed the President’s own tweet a few days earlier. The incident did not damage Mr. Trump’s ratings that have been at about 40% for a year.[ii] Trump’s supporters show no sign of abandoning their leader – not because they do not understand him, but because they do. Regardless of the outcome of the impeachment process, and of 2020 presidential elections, Trumpism is here to stay whether Trump stays or goes.

The psychological Ur-Fascism

I will begin with a diagnosis. Earlier explanations of Trumpism still works – to a degree. The movement’s core is disaffected, economically constricted, mostly White people of all social classes, alienated from both the new global economy and from democratic politics. However, the explanation does not account for such people’s refusal to acknowledge Trump’s moral failings, both personal and of his performance in the office. I used to think it was a form of denial, but the chant episode shattered the illusion. Trumpism is not a case of a bad shepherd leading ignorant flock. It is more likely that he is just saying what these people want to hear, so it is not clear who is corrupting whom. The phenomenon of mutual reinforcement is hard to deny. We are dealing with a mass movement that resembles Fascism – not necessarily as a political ideology (although there is some of that, too), but as a cultural and psychological phenomenon. My intention here is not to stick alarmist labels on people for political reasons, but attempt to find the closest historical analogy. Fascism just fits best.

I will begin with Dmitry Bykov, a well-regarded Russian writer and literary critic. Bykov initially relies on a work by Umberto Eco Ur-Fascism.[iii] Eco points out significant differences among various totalitarian regimes in the first part of 20th century Europe, and yet tries to identify family resemblance. He lists 14 features of Ur-Fascism, all of which can be observed in Trumpism: anti-modernism, the cult of tradition, irrationalism, and rejection of critical thinking, the fear of difference, the appeal to frustrated middle class, the conspiratorial nationalism, the sense of humiliation by enemies, the idea of life as permanent warfare, the cult of a hero, the machismo, the elective populism and disdain for parliamentary institutions, and finally, the use of Newspeak. It is debatable how many of those features can be found in Trumpism—arguably all of them and most at the very least.

Bykov elaborates on the idea that Fascism rejects modernity. He further defines Fascism as a “cult of ecstatic, orgiastic pleasure.”[iv] Fascism, he says, is intentional evil. His description of Fascism in terms of erotic and intentional embrace of evil is very perceptive:

"If the Modern is characterized by a cult of suffering and sacrifice, Fascism is a cult of pleasure. […] Take a look at the German culture of 1930-s. […] Notice the excitement of corporal liberation, the ecstasy, the cult of eroticism, of sexuality. The Fascist culture contains a lot of sex; it is the sexuality of submission, the sado-masochistic, and celebratory, complacent sex. […] It is the cult or orgiastic, ecstatic pleasure that is characteristic of Fascism. […] Fascism is a conscious evil, because without the intent, there is no orgasm, and no orgy. It is a conscious and joyful violation of moral taboos.[v]"

This is why people like David Remnick are wrong when they are trying to persuade Trumpists by appealing to their moral sensibilities.[vi] Trumpists know they are being bad and unkind to immigrants, to people of color, to the disabled, to sexual minorities—to all others. The unkindness is exactly what they enjoy. It is a collective psychosis impenetrable to rational dialogue. A Trump rally is an orgy of hate, and people show up for the same reason they would attend other orgies: for the pleasure of being bad. The sheer number of those attending allows them to avoid personal responsibility, to drown the moral voice in the crowd’s ecstasy. Notice the joyful rejection of “political correctness” which is simply a contemporary version of politeness or propriety. The ability to say what is on one’s mind is an act of delightful liberation from ethics. The source of pleasure is not the mass violence yet, but the first step in that direction. After all, the process of dehumanization always starts with words, not with actions. While Trumpism is a very young species of Fascism, it bears the mark of a future monster.

The phenomenon of the conscious rejection of moral constraints may be understood in a pragmatic sense. What do we do with it, at both the political level, but also in the educational realm? We have a diagnosis, but what is the pathogen? Is there a cure? Can people be inoculated against it? I will now turn to St. Augustine’s concept of sin in search for answers.

The concept of the sin

Augustine begins with a famous incident, when he and his friends stole pears from a neighbor, and fed most of them to swine. He describes his motives as “having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself. Base soul, falling from Your [God’s—author] firmament to utter destruction— not seeking anything through the shame but the shame itself!”[vii] He notices the pure desire to be bad, to break moral taboos. In general, he observes, there is something else that sinners normally want – money, power, or pleasure. However, in this case, “my sole gratification in [pears] being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy.”[viii] If Bykov is right and Fascism is intentional evil, Augustine has captured it well.

He eventually suggests the origin of this desire to be bad: it is the desire to “the obscured likeness of Thy omnipotence.”[ix] Conscious evil is a case of seeking the thrill of pretend omnipotence, a case of God-envy. Augustine establishes a more general, and important principle: all sins are shadows or perverse versions of some benign desires:

And sloth seems to long for rest; but what sure rest is there besides the Lord? Luxury would fain be called plenty and abundance; but Thou art the fullness and unfailing plenteousness of unfading joys. Prodigality presents a shadow of liberality; but Thou art the most lavish giver of all good. Covetousness desires to possess much; and Thou art the Possessor of all things. Envy contends for excellence; but what so excellent as Thou? Anger seeks revenge; who avenges more justly than Thou? Fear starts at unwonted and sudden chances which threaten things beloved, and is wary for their security; […] Grief languishes for things lost in which desire had delighted itself, even because it would have nothing taken from it, as nothing can be taken from Thee.[x]

According to Augustine, sin is a desire without God. One can also understand it as unlimited desire, where missing limitations are not of quantity, but of quality. He does not call for moderation, which would be a quantitative limitation. Instead, a desire must be shaped for some higher purpose. Sin is desire not shaped by love. In Christian theology, “God is love,”[xi] among other things. It is important to note that the kind of love John refers to in his gospel is agape, not the romantic, exclusive love. Agape is more of a kindness to distant others. The ultimate sin is the desire to be God, at least where the omnipotence is concerned. It is the desire for power without a good reason to use of that power.

The idea of privation was not unique to Augustine; it was more or less a common place among his contemporaries, both in the West and in the East. For example, Mark the Hermit thought that the source of all sins is to forget God.[xii] The idea goes back to Aristotle’s concept of privation, the opposite of possession. Any desire not shaped and channeled by agape is sinful. The entire Trump speech at the rally is one long manifest of sin. I must note here that what I am saying here is not new, and should be known to any anyone with rudimentary knowledge of theology. The fact that a significant segment of American clergy seem to ignore such a direct manifestation of sin is quite puzzling.

The link to Bykov’s notion of orgiastic impulse in Fascism is Augustine’s observation on the social nature of sin:

"…had I at that time loved the pears I stole, and wished to enjoy them, I might have done so alone, if I could have been satisfied with the mere commission of the theft by which my pleasure was secured; nor needed I have provoked that itching of my own passions, by the encouragement of accomplices. But as my enjoyment was not in those pears, it was in the crime itself, which the company of my fellow-sinners produced.[xiii]"

Augustin then wonders about the origins of conformism, especially “when they say, ‘Let us go, let us do it,’ we are ashamed not to be shameless.”[xiv] This confirms his initial observation: sin is a perversion of a natural human desire for friendship, a perversion marked by the absence of the divine grace. The joy of being bad has to be shared with others; it does not have much pull when enjoyed alone. This is why one needs a rally, a movement, a social media platform to derive pleasure from sin as such. I will return to the sociality of sin in the concluding section of this paper.

The problem with Augustine’s initial concept of sin is that he does not stick to it. As soon as Chapter VIII of the Confessions, he begins wondering about “sins against nature,” including those of Sodomites, which are very quickly swapped for “those offenses which are contrary to the customs of men are to be avoided according to the customs severally prevailing.”[xv] He still contends that “when God commands anything contrary to the customs or compacts of any nation to be done, though it were never done by them before.” However, that is where Augustine and Christians after him go wrong. Instead of consistently applying his own concept of sin, he succumbs to convention. To remain consistent, he would have said something like that: “the Sodomite desire, like any other, is subject to the presence of the Divine Grace. Without it, it is sinful; with it, it is not.” Yet he never says that. He began with a focused and insightful concept, and ended up with one broad, unfocused, and open to abuse. Christians were trying to convert, and could not afford to be too radical where conventional mores were concerned. It was very difficult to develop a philosophy, a theology, and a social institution of the church at the same time. That is not an excuse for philosophers; we just need to remember Augustin’s failings.

Stretching the notion of sin to the cover the social conventions opened the door to manipulations with the sin discourse. The concept that was initially meant to help accept and shape one’s desires, was eventually used to classify and categorize desires into good and bad ones for the benefits of maintaining social order. Can the original ethical sense of sin be recovered? It is hard to say if the word itself is salvageable. Perhaps it is not, for too many other connotations pollute its original meaning. I am more concerned with the philosophical notion than with the word with which it can be described.

The Augustinian concept of sin does specifically recognize the importance of desire in human action. He goes overboard in his suspicion of desire itself, but it does not negate the importance of desire, including the most important desire to belong. He offers a criterion that distinguishes constructive desires from destructive ones: any desire has to have another directionality, and extra vector, in addition to the object of desire. Augustine teaches us to check if our desire is consistent with agape.

There is an important question here: how do you know whether God wants something or not, and whether your desire is therefore blessed or sinful. The difficulty here is rooted in the very concept of God, both central to religious worldviews, and elusive by design. Epistemologically, God is a construct that describes intentionality and directionality of truth seeking. It is a kind of an ideal that was intentionally left almost blank or extremely vague, so it maintains the potential for a universal appeal. All Abrahamic traditions, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism, point to the general direction of compassion, love/agape, and kindness. There are significant differences in application, but a remarkable unanimity about the general direction. While this cluster of values does not in any way exhaust the maddeningly multiple meanings of the divine, their absence strongly suggests the absence of God.

Negative criteria are in general more robust than positive ones. For example, correlation of two variables can rarely prove causation, but the absence of correlation generally proves the lack of causation. It is the same with God. The pragmatic sin test is simple: take a discourse and look for instances of compassion, love, or kindness, as well as forgiveness, and charity. If these values are referred to, the discourse may or may not be good; it is open for further analysis. If these values are absent, but strong and shared desire is present, it is definitely sinful. Sin is easier to detect than goodness.

Trumpism is sinful not because of its economic or social policies, or its stance on climate change or on deregulation. Those are within the realm of legitimate political disagreements. No, it is sinful because of the collective orgiastic solidarity of being uncharitable to others. To recognize the sin within oneself, it is enough to ask, “Why am I having so much fun?” Even a quick reflection of the rally’s content will reveal the utter absence of agape in it. One does not have to be a religious person to recognize the gaping void where compassion should have been all along.

How does one talk to sinners

Although this is outside the scope of this essay, a brief detour on how to talk to those not yet infected. The conventional wisdom so far has been to focus not so much on Trump, but on developing specific policy proposals. I think only the first part is right. The way forward is to create the broadest possible anti-Fascist coalition, and focus on the moral danger of the Trumpist movement. Yes, do not focus on Trump as a person, but focus instead on the moral abyss that is Trumpism. People who did not succumb to the temptation need the sense of urgency to resist. Fascism have been defeated many times in the past by creating such broad anti-Fascist coalitions. Popular anti-Fascist fronts rarely presented positive programs, but knew exactly what they were against. It can and should be done in the US one more time. Instead of debating fine differences in policies, considering the benefits of Medicare for all, anti-Trump candidates should appeal to the broadest possible coalition of liberals, progressives, and moderate conservatives. The only reason Nazis took power in Germany was the Communists’ stubborn refusal to form a National Front with Socialists and centrists. By the time they relented, it was too late. However, the strategy worked in France in 1936, and yet again in 2017.

The question more pertinent to this essays is, - How do we talk to Trumpists who have already succumbed to the temptation? Here I revisit the Augustinian notion of sociality of sin (the orgiastic component of ur-Fascism). Martin Luther King has formulated a similar idea in a more contemporary terms: “When man comes together collected in society, when persons come together and come into, bring into being this big something called society, then sin rises to even more ominous proportions.”[xvi] King develops the notion of “social sin” that in his words, “is almost inescapable in this level.”[xvii] King takes Augustine’s observation a step further. While for Augustine, the social dimension of sin was a curious aside, King realizes that sociality is actually one of primary causes of sin.

King’s solution to the massive social sin is another key Christian concept of Grace. Grace is a gift, something one neither deserves, nor merits. Historically, it has been invented in Judaism to counter the naïve hope for “contractual” or reciprocal relationship with God. The prohibition of idolatry has the same origin. King gives several examples of sin and grace; the most poignant one is about racism:

America, you’ve done that. You’ve trampled over sixty million of your precious citizens. You have called them “dogs,” and you have called them “niggers.” You have, you have pushed them aside and kicked them around and pushed them in an inferior economic and political position. And now you have made them almost depersonalized and inhuman. And there you are in that far country of oppression, trampling over your children. But western civilization, America, you can come home and if you will come home, I will take you in. And I will bring the fatted calf and I will cry out to all of the eternities, “Hallelujah,” for my nation has come home.[xviii]

Like any Christian, King predicates Grace on redemption: “If you will come home” means “if you repent.” How do you make Trumpists to repent, especially given the strong sociality of their particular sin? How do you repent alone, how do you go against your friends and co-sinners? What makes social sin a super-sin is that is masks as solidarity, as friendship. The camaraderie of raiding the neighbor’s garden is the vehicle that gets the virus of evil past the ethical immunity defenses of the soul.

The whole point of all religions over the millennia was to have an institution, where one is told what one does not necessarily wants to hear. A religious congregation is an authority that would call people on their sins. In a sense, telling people what they would rather not hear that is the central social function of any religion. American religious institutions all but failed this essential mission. Support for Trump among White Evangelicals is 25% higher than the national average.[xix] For Evangelicals specifically, it is a tragedy with long shadow stretching into the future, implications of which will be painful and long lasting. Let me just cite the diagnosis by Peter Wehner: Evangelicals are “Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche.”[xx] This may be unfair to Nietzsche, but fair to the Evangelical thought leaders.

The point is that the society as a whole cannot count on of its Evangelical churches and Orthodox synagogues to bring Trumpists back to their senses. Even if they were willing to do that, their reach and authority are not sufficient. Besides, plenty of more secular people support Trump. The institutions we have now are public education and mass culture. For better or worse, teachers and celebrities are clergy and bishops of today. Schools, universities, and streaming services are temples of today. Movies are sermons, and social media is the church hall. Whether we like it or not, there is nothing else.

Here again, the example of early Christianity is telling. The late Roman Empire was a remarkably pluralistic society with respect to religion, with Manicheans, Arians, Gnostics, and Trinitarian Christians competing for the minds of both the elites and of the masses. Of course, Christians received huge help from the imperial authority, but they were remarkably successful on their own it as well. They were not big on dialogue. In fact, all they did was telling people how rotten they are, and how terrible their sins were. The authoritative moralistic discourse worked in the past, and there is no reason it should not work now. M.L.King’s sermons were still sermons, but their appeal was not limited to a particular congregation, or even to the community of believers. In search for a non-denominational, and secular equivalent of a sermon, I will use Mikhail Bakhtin distinction between the authoritative and internally persuasive (dialogical) discourses:

"[The authoritative discourse] enters our verbal consciousness as a compact and indivisible mass; one must totally affirm it, or totally reject it. It is indissolubly fused with authority – with political power, an institution, a person – and it stands or falls together with that authority. One cannot divide it up – agree with one part, accept but not completely another part, reject utterly a third part. [xxi]"

In the internally persuasive (dialogical) discourse, a word is half-ours and half-someone else’s:

"Its creativity and productivennes consists precisely in the fact that such a word awakens new and independent words, that it organizes masses of our words from within, and doesn’t remain in an isolated and static condition ...The semantic structure of an internally persuasive discourse is not finite, it is open; in each of the new contexts that dialogize it, this discourse is able to reveal ever new ways to mean.[xxii]"

Bakhtin himself, and many of his followers, including the author of this essay, have always posited the dialogical discourse as superior to the authoritative one. However, the ideal of dialogicality clearly fails when we encounter ur-Fascism. The social sin is impervious to dialogue with outsiders. However, it is not impervious to any and all communication. King demonstrates the authoritative discourse of a preacher, an impassionate direct speech that is aimed at destroying the social fabric of the sinful orgiastic community. What really works against orgies of immorality is shame: not dialogue, but the authoritative discourse of a preacher who delivers the self-righteous admonition. The victory of the Civil Rights movement, no matter how imperfect, was a result of shaming the White majority into abandoning its social sin. Dialogue had little to do with it, nor did any kind of rational persuasion.

The authoritative discourse of shame works, because it appeals to the evolutionary shaped social instincts of our species. It is the same instinct that makes the social sin possible. Both sin and shame are social, conformist, and intuitive. Telling people they are sinners plays on anxiety of belonging – what if I belong to a wrong crowd? What if I am the only one naked in this orgy of hate while most of guests are dressed and well-behaved? What if the other, larger group will reject me for it? God in this sense represents the larger, universal social group that includes not just the rest of the humanity, but also the past and the present of humanity.

As long as liberals, the Left, and centrists speak with a voice of a particular group, one of many political voices, they can be ignored by the Trumpist. Only someone who can represent a higher authority, who can speak as a historic American, or as a voice of God can plant doubt into the sinful solidarity of Trumpism. Many educators have cultivated a careful, neutral teacher voice, voice that is reluctant to sound like preacher’s. It is a voice of dialogue, and of doubt, a voice that asked students to form their own opinion, to exercise critical thinking. The pedagogical discourse was meant to resemble Bakhtin’s internally-persuasive (dialogical) discourse. However, we went too far, and I am now calling for passionate, authoritative teacher voice that shows no doubt and hides no position. There are areas of fundamental human morality that are off-limits for dialogue; that are non-negotiable and non-discussable. Those are the fundamental, essential values of love/agape, compassion, and kindness. It would be wise to point out that the authoritarian moral discourse has its limits, and that a teacher must master the internally-persuasive (dialogical) voice, too. However, it should be made clear that both are acceptable, and should be used for different purposes.

The same or almost the same can be said about the mass culture. Someone has to portray the social sin of Trumpism, in all of its complexity, with its deceptive and so appealing qualities, and with its sinful nature. While Hollywood almost universally rejected Trump, it has done almost nothing to expose the moral failings of the movement he represents. There has been no artistic examination of the phenomenon, only a few attempts to expose the far-right wing of the movement. There is no movie where an average Trumpist would recognize himself and be horrified.

We should be calling on people who go to Trump's rallies: "it smells really bad, and you will be ashamed of yourselves one day. These rallies are not fueled by compassion or by love. I know they feel good, but ask yourself, why do you feel good? It feels great to free yourself from the constraints of political correctness. It feels good to feel great again. Nevertheless, your mother and your clergy have probably told you, we should not do everything that feels good. Watch out; it is a dirty path, because freedom at the expense of compassion is the path to hell. There is no goodness there, only pleasure, only freedom from constraints of common decency. No, you did not go all the way down that path, but you are on it. It is not too late to turn back."

[i] Donald Trump Speech Transcript at North Carolina Rally ‘MAGA’ Event, Rev

[ii] Project FiveThirtyEight,, retrieved July 26, 2019.

[iii] Eco, Umberto. "Ur-fascism." The New York Review of Books 42, no. 11 (1995): 12-15.

[iv] Дмитрий Быков, «Фашизм как высшая стадия постмодернизма» [Dmitry Bykov, Fascism as the highest stage of Post-modernism], Radio lecture 07/10/2016,

[v] Bykov, 2016, translation by the author.

[vi] Remnick, David, “A Racist in the White House,” The New Yorker, 07/15/2019,

[vii] Augustine, Saint. Basic Writings of Saint Augustine. Vol. 1. Random House, 1948: 24.

[viii] Ibid., 25

[ix] Ibid., 26

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John 4:7-9.

[xii] Quasten, Johannes. Patrology. 3. The golden age of Greek patristic literature: from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon. Spectrum Publ., 1960, p. 505.

[xiii] Ibid., 27.

[xiv] Ibid., 28

[xv] Ibid., 37.

[xvi] King, Martin Luther, Jr., Man's Sin and God's Grace, circa 1954-1960, The Martin Luther King, Jr.

Research and Education Institute,

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Wehner, Peter, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity.” The Atlantic, JUL 5, 2019,

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Mikhail Bakhtin. The Dialogic Imaginatio.n: Four Essays by M.M.Bakhtin. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 342-346.

[xxii] Ibid

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