No. I’m not saying the Trump supporters are actually guilty of idol worship. That would be silly. I am, however, saying that there is a central aspect in the runaway Trump train that mirrors a central aspect of Idolatry, considered abstractly. Namely, the abandonment of principles by seeing them as embodied in something tangible, so that all that is required is loyalty to the embodiment, not to the principles themselves. Allow me to elaborate.
The concept of idolatry in the Bible is presented, on the surface, as simply the worship of the “wrong” god. You should be worshiping this here god of your fathers who took you out of Egypt yada yada yada, and not these here other Canaanite or Hittite gods. This is actually how it is generally presented in the Torah, so it is a legitimate simple understanding. However, it seems that there ought to be a deeper meaning than that, as there are with many things in the Torah. I would even go so far as to say that the “wrong god” understanding is a primitive idea of what idolatry is, in keeping with the Maimonidean principle that sometimes concepts in the Torah are presented in a somewhat primitive way, enabling the simpleminded to have a basic grasp of the ideas, and giving the somewhat less simpleminded a pathway for developing the concepts further.
Maimonides says that the idolatrous has it’s source in the longing for God and spirituality, only It is then misdirected into the worship of somewhat more tangible things like the celestial bodies, seen as intermediaries between us and the ultimately divine. Even the Greek and Roman gods were always represented by an image or statue in places of ritual worship, thus lending them tangibility.
So idolatry on this account is a misdirection of a good instinct, rather than a bad instinct from start to finish. But what is the exact nature of this error? What is so bad about making this subtle mistake?
The answer to this can be found by moving past the “wrong god” theory of idolatry. The problem with this theory is that it makes the prohibition on idolatry arbitrary, like there is nothing intrinsically wrong with worshiping Apollo or Jupiter, they just happen to be the wrong gods. Even advancing past that and saying that the problem is the falsehood of worshiping powers that don’t exist just reduces idolatry into run-of-the-mill falsehood, which is prohibited elsewhere.
The crime of idolatry is not in worshiping the wrong god, but the wrong kind of god. The conception of God as One all in caps and such is not just that there happens to be only one of these Zeuslike things and that therefore we should be appeasing and propitiating him in our pursuit of the fulfillment of our desires. The Oneness of God means that He is of an entirely different nature to the concepts of the Pagan gods. He is conceived of as completely abstract, devoid of physical limitations and characteristics, demanding from us the pursuit of the Good and the Just simply because they are the Good and the Just. The Oneness so emphasized by Maimonides and the great philosophers of the medieval Islamic tradition, does not mean just that there happens to be one, but that He in principle must be One, as He is eternal, unchanging, unlimited.
The worship of God, therefore, entails a direct commitment to something abstract, with a duty to personally uphold principles that are also abstract. This conception of the One God brings with it a call to allegiance to principles in their purest abstract form. Idolatry is giving in to the temptation to somehow concretize these abstract things, to use something tangible and visible to embody these principles. The problem then being that the moment God is concretized, he no longer is that which it is appropriate to worship. The same is therefore true of principles. Once principles are seen to be embodied by a man, they’ve lost that which makes them noble in the first place.
So we can say that Idolatry, at its moral roots, is the crime of substituting a thing for a principle. Shifting your allegiance from a principle to a thing, no matter how perfectly that thing seems to embody the principle, is a disaster. Because things are changeable. They are susceptible to the whims of fate and chance. As such, it is inevitable that over time the principle which the thing was seen to embody will be forgotten, and all that will be left will be blind loyalty to the thing. The thing can be a pagan god, a man, or an institution.
The constitution of the United States of America can be seen as a profound protest against political Idolatry. When a bunch of people got together and devised an set of principles, based on reason, that will govern their new country, thus creating a nation out of thin air, it was seen by many as the highest folly. Surely you can’t govern a nation with mere ideas, you need a King, something concrete to embody the government. There is much in this objection, for people tend to get uneasy with pure abstractions, they have difficulty standing up for something they can only perceive with their minds, this kind of society cannot possibly remain cohesive for long, can it?
Fourscore and four years after the formation of the republic, it came under great danger of disintegration, and it took a great great man in president Lincoln to somehow inspire a people to believe that something as abstract as the mere concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people, was worth fighting and dying for, even against an enemy espousing the much more concrete motivations of protecting their lands and their lifestyle.
It is exceedingly difficult to maintain real allegiance to principles. It is fatiguing, because it requires constant thought and reflection on their meaning and application to real world situations. If the principles are replaced by a person or an institution, all that is required is to blindly follow orders, which saves energy, and relieves one of responsibility.
The conservative base in the US is angry. They’re sick and tired of liberals telling them that they’re not allowed to notice what is going on around them because it’s not politically correct. They’re sick and tired of government running their lives for them. They feel emasculated, like they don’t win anymore. Outrage at the trampling of American principles is altogether fitting and proper. But they have fallen prey to the Idolatrous instinct. Instead of resolving to stand up for their principles more resolutely in the future themselves, and elect someone who will get out of the way and allow them to do this, they’ve decided to appoint someone who will do it for them. They see Donald Trump as the embodiment of what they’re feeling, and so they literally pledge allegiance to him.
But of course, Donald Trump doesn’t stand for conservative principles. He doesn’t stand for any principles at all. In a way, he is the ultimate idol, because he sees the entire world through the prism of support or opposition to him personally. This is clear from his treatment of people ranging from Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly to Vladimir Putin. Kelly he calls a terrible overrated reporter (she’s not) because she was slightly mean to him in the first debate, Putin he refuses to criticize in any way because he once called Trump a genius. Has anyone ever heard Trump say that someone who opposes him personally might be right about something? Of course not. People who oppose Trump are wrong about everything, that’s what being wrong means.
I’m not sure Trump has any concept of what it would even be like to stand for a principle or a value for it’s own sake. This is a man who’s said that he doesn’t ever need to ask God for forgiveness because he doesn’t make mistakes, even though he has flip-flopped on every issue that he now claims to hold so dear as a born-again conservative.
Yet, ironically, it is precisely this breathtaking lack of principles that is endearing him to so many people who claim to be the most principled in the land. This happens in the following way. Trump attacks the establishment with reckless abandon, and so those who are angry at the establishment fall in love with his arrogant brashness, so he becomes their idol, and now every example of his arrogant brashness receives their full and full-throated support–as they associate it with their own anger at the establishment–even when it is directed against things that they are supposed to favor, like, you know, common decency and civilization.
It is this manifestation of idolatry that causes conservative voters to think that every time Trump says or does something outrageous he is standing up for principles against liberals or the weak republican establishment. They think he is willing to attack anyone because he is so strong in his beliefs, he cares about them more than anything or anyone that might be hurt by them. In reality, he is willing to attack anyone or anything because he simply doesn’t care about the things he attacks, not because he cares so much about what he is defending. It’s just that this all gets lost in the personality worship of the Donald.
All of this mixes together in a poisonous brew. The cult of Donald creates a situation where it is exceedingly difficult to convince people to give up their support for him, as the very things which would be used to demonstrate his unsuitability for the post of President, are already seen by his supporters as points in his favor, looking at them as they do through an idolatrous prism. As such, I don’t think there is actually any way that this can be stopped now. The Trump movement has a special immunity to reason, and what other weapon do the sane have at their disposal?
It’s truly amazing to see how so many people can sell out their principles like this. Ben Carson, he of the unimpeachable moral character, has now pledged his allegiance to Trump for a post in his administration. Chris Christie follows Trump around stammering his obviously insincere admiration of this morally repulsive charlatan. Yet again real world events make it very difficult to continue believing in the principle of mankind’s ability to recognize and pursue the good. Maybe I’ll go find somebody who will represent my and disgust and fight for me…