At his inauguration eight years ago, Barack Obama became the first president to acknowledge “nonbelievers” as legitimate contributors to the American conversation.
On Friday, America will inaugurate one of them.
I don’t mean that Donald Trump is an atheist, or a “nonbeliever” in the same sense as the millions of Americans who simply live their lives without religion. But he’s never asked God for forgiveness, which is kind of a big part of the program. “If he’s a Christian, then he’s probably a baby Christian, because there’s a lot of not having the self-control,” as one evangelical supporter put it. No, Trump is a nonbeliever in a more global sense. He’s an information nihilist, an existential skeptic, an agnostic when it comes to the truth. He doesn’t believe in policies or goals, ideas or people. He believes in himself, full stop.
Asked recently if he had any heroes, Trump could only produce a wilted word salad that failed to hide the nasty and self-serving cynicism at its core. Cut through his answer’s Dr. Seuss–meets–Sarah Palin nonsense (“certainly you can respect certain people and certainly there are certain people”) and feints at filial piety (“my father was a builder in Brooklyn and Queens — he did houses and housing and I learned a lot about negotiation from my father”) and you arrive at a credo of pessimistic, intentional myopia: “I don’t like the concept of heroes ... natural ability, to me, is much more important to me than experience.”
His callousness about the world betrays itself every time he demands that others participate in whatever his current narrative happens to be. Has any other human asked to be believed as often as Donald Trump? We’ve all been reading this as personal insecurity, the cry of a needy ego, and it may well be. But it’s also the plea of a man who thinks reality is conjured via argument, that you can debate your way into the truth. He is, after all, the man who once admitted that his own net worth varied according to his mood.
Trump’s affection for “fake news” may seem credulous, but he’s not gullible. Though he may want you to agree with his side of the story, he doesn’t spread disinformation in order to get everyone on the same page. Rather, he’s just creating conditions in which it’s impossible for everyone to agree on anything. The last story standing wins — until the next one comes along. Trump discards his own assertions about the world when they no longer serve him, and he seems to expect the same behavior in others. “Lock her up”? Well, “that plays great before the election — now we don’t care, right?”
To say that President Obama is, by contrast, a believer speaks to more than just his religion. Obama is a man of deep conviction and boundless faith. He’s a Christian, sure, but more than that, he believes in things — in America, in his fellow citizens, in freedom, in the future — despite mounting evidence to the contrary. To characterize this confidence as the audacity of “hope” doesn’t do it justice. Hope is just a desire; Obama talks about the promise of the future as if he knows it to be true. Critics have mocked him for having a messiah complex, but that’s just misreading passion about the abilities of others as a boast about himself.
Conservatives and conspiracy theorists questioned whether Obama was a Christian as a proxy for questioning whether he was truly American. I find his profession of being saved by Christ believable to the point of banality. His personal theology is more grounded in humanity than it is heaven-sent, centered on the same Jesus-as-community-organizer model that beguiled Thomas Jefferson and Gandhi alike. It’s his faith in America that strikes me as otherworldly.
Obama’s hymns to America have always been selective readings. The ugly and off-key notes in our national songbook may be history, but he doesn’t count them as part of the anthem. As my colleague Ezekiel Kweku put it, Obama claims the Selma marchers as part of the American tradition, “But those who swung clubs and cracked skulls on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were also America, and they laid claim to another American heritage.”
Obama raises his enemies up to look them in the eye, whether they deserve it or not. This can make us lose perspective on who they really are — authoritarians, white supremacists, bigots — but it’s a necessary fiction. To believe our enemies can eventually deserve our respect is the only perspective that allows for a future in which we coexist. To lack faith in the capacity of our enemies to change means that we don’t seek victory so much as domination.
Remind you of anyone?
Trump’s nihilism is dangerous because beliefs are what ground morality: Justice is impossible if we can’t agree on truth. When presidents take the oath of office, they are not swearing to God. They are making a pledge to the country. The refrain “so help me God” is not written in the oath — though it’s been said by nearly every president since Franklin Pierce — but it is a petition for assistance in “faithfully execut[ing]” the office, not a proclamation of religion per se. The faith the founders intended presidents to call upon isn’t spiritual but civic; the guiding force is not theology but democracy.
When Trump takes the oath of office, what higher power will he be pledging to? How can we possibly have faith in him?