Which came first? Ideas or ideology? And when do they morph into idolatry? In common parlance, these are chicken or egg questions. You cannot have one without the other two. They share DNA.
Madame Merriam-Webster says an Idea is a noun that is a formulated thought or opinion. Alternatively, it’s whatever is known or supposed about something, as a child’s idea of time. When used in a sentence it might be an abstraction, image, impression, notion or even for thoughtful people, a thought. Dictionary.com differs but slightly; an idea is any concept existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity. And lest we leave no nit unpicked, etymology traces it to the Greek, meaning form or pattern from the root “to see.”
Ideology, according to Madame Merriam Webster defines ideology more broadly, as the manner or the content of a thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture. She thinks it’s plural. And she says it’s commonly found in assertions, theories that constitute a sociopolitical program. She tracked it down. “Ideology has been in use in English since the end of the 18th century and is one of the few words whose coiner we can identify. The French writer A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy proposed it as a term to designate the “science of ideas,” and in that sense, the word was quickly borrowed into English. Though ideology originated as a serious philosophical term, within a few decades it took on connotations of impracticality thanks to Napoleon, who used it in a derisive manner. Today, the word most often refers to “a systematic body of concepts,” especially those of a particular group or political party.
However impossible it may sound in context; this could be stretched to imagine that Napoleon was Trump before Trump thought he was Napoleon. The Collins Dictionary says ideology is a ‘variable noun.’ Not sure how variable, but obviously variable between sense and common sense. Collins flatly says it’s used primarily as a set of beliefs, especially the political beliefs on which people, parties, or countries base their actions.
Just to test the various dictionary views and focus, we should look at famous presidents’ and their ideologies.
Abe Lincoln’s ideology was American democracy. He believed it meant equal rights and equality of opportunity. He drew a line between basic natural rights such as freedom from slavery and political and civil rights like voting. He believed it was up to the states to decide who should exercise these rights.
FDR’s ideology was the New Deal. His programs focused on what historians refer to as the “3 R’s”: relief for the unemployed and for the poor, recovery of the economy back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.
Nixon’s ideology was transactional. “As President, Nixon was only as conservative as he could be and only as liberal as he had to be. He took credit for the creation of the EPA while privately noting that if he had not taken this liberal step, the Democratic Congress would have forced more liberal environmental legislation on him. This was a President who could philosophically oppose wage and price controls and privately express the conviction that they would not work, while still implementing them for election-year effect. Still his tactical flexibility should not obscure his steadiness of political purpose. He meant to move the country to the right, and he did.”
Reagan capped the rise of the new right/conservative wing of the Republican Party and ushered in a new era of governing. “Reagan served as arguably the first true conservative U.S. president in over 50 years. Reagan advanced domestic policies that featured a lessening of federal government responsibility in solving social problems, reducing restrictions on business, and implementing tax cuts. Internationally, Reagan demonstrated a fierce opposition to the spread of communism throughout the world and a strong distrust of the Soviet Union, which in 1983 he labeled an evil empire. . . [He] embraced the ideology of ‘supply-side economics,’ feeling that tax cuts encouraged economic expansion which would result in increases in federal government revenue at a lower tax rate. Higher revenues would then be used to increase defense spending and balance the federal budget.”
Former president Trump has ideas in abundance, but his ideology is elusive. Words and views are intertwined because language and thought are related. What he says occasionally comes from what he is thinking at the time. But even so, he rarely says what he means—he talks from podiums as though he was alone in a car, driving and talking to himself, with little care about what he’s saying much less who he’s saying it to. There is no ideological link between what he says and what he means. What do his words mean in context? What does he want when he speaks? Does he want his audience, and the country at large, to understand what he’s saying?
Recently he posted nine easily understood words, on Truth Social, in all caps; “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU.” Presumptively, those words were his challenge, his way of explaining away the day before, when he pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he orchestrated a criminal conspiracy to reverse his 2020 election loss to President Biden. Those nine words presumably meant something to him. They were delivered en masse to devout Trumpers and the rest of America.
While 27% of U.S. adults say they have heard of Truth Social, only 2% use the site for news. In comparison, millions of Americans use more established sites for news, including Facebook (31%), YouTube (25%), and Twitter (14%). But Trump’s nine-word manifesto was broadcast by essentially all news outlets in the country. It’s fair to assume that millions of Americans heard and understood he was making a threat.
Understandingly, the words came to the attention of the federal judge in charge of his criminal case. Not long after he uttered those nine words, the judge spoke. Federal prosecutors called the judge’s attention to his social media post. They framed the threat as a declaration that he’s “coming after” those he sees as responsible for the series of formidable legal challenges he is facing. They defined the nine-word incitement “specifically or by implication referenced those involved in his criminal case.”
The judge got it. She had no trouble understanding who he was talking about when he said, “I’m coming after you.” She gave him fair warning about threatening witnesses. She granted a protective order narrowly restricting Trump’s public comments. “I will take whatever measures are necessary to safeguard the integrity of the case. . . the more ‘inflammatory statements’ that Trump makes, the greater the urgency to proceed to trial quickly. your client’s defense is supposed to happen in this courtroom, not on the Internet.”
The New York Times reported the judge rejected Trump’s lawyers’ request to allow him to speak broadly about evidence and witness as a political right of free speech. She warned his lawyers she would take ‘measurers’ to keep him from intimidating witnesses or tainting potential jurors. “I caution you and your client to take special care in your public statements in this case . . . I will take whatever measures are necessary to protect the integrity of these proceedings.”
Trump’s conduct, threats, belief system, and flaws bring to mind a broadly pragmatic approach to understanding what he means. He is always transactional, always in it for himself, and constantly trying to beat the odds against him. His ideological beliefs, based entirely on what’s in it for him, are classical notations of the Psychology of Ideology. “Since the birth of modern civilization, human beings have been creating stories that capture their theories about how the world works and how they should act within this complex world. These narratives both describe and prescribe human action and exist in a kaleidoscope of forms—from religious doctrines to political manifestos and from racial supremacy to authoritarian nationalism. These accounts are broadly termed “ideologies.”
His reaction to threat—loss of office—loss of importance—loss of power are political positions based on how he feels, not on what he believes. He founded Trumpism. Madame Wikipedia says, “Trumpism is the political ideologies, social emotions, style of governance, political movement, and set of mechanisms for acquiring and keeping control of power associated with Donald Trump and his political base. Trumpists and Trumpian are terms used to refer to those exhibiting characteristics of Trumpism. . . Some commentators have rejected the populist designation for Trumpism and view it instead as part of a trend towards a new form of fascism or neo-fascism, with some referring to it as explicitly fascist and others as authoritarian and illiberal. Others have more mildly identified it as a specific lite version of fascism in the United States.”
Open Democracy is an independent international media platform. It produces “high-quality journalism which challenges power, inspires change, and builds leadership among groups underrepresented in the media. Headquartered in London, it has team members across four continents.”
In December 2020, they defined Trumpism as an ideology utilized globally by the extreme far right. “Trump’s challenge to the results of the electoral process is his latest act of delegitimization of democracy. Months ago, he announced that he would accept the validity of the elections only if he was victorious. Such statements, articulated by the president of the United States, undermine the democratic system in his country and worldwide. . . Trump’s incessant questioning of the basic institutions of our government and electoral system has now produced his desired result, even if he may not be back for another four years: a superpower torn apart from within, no longer trusting of its own democracy.”
New Republic.com headlined Trump’s followers as a cult; The Trump Cult Is Loyal to an Ideology, Not the Man. “The Trumpist loyalty cult reflects at least as much loyalty to a long-standing ideology as loyalty to a man. Moreover, this loyalty has distant historic roots in the fabric of American society. Four particular strands stand out: anti-intellectualism, Christian fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, and racial resentment. These threads converge in a nexus of polarization that has fostered an exceptionally hard-line and anti-rational ideology. It culminated in the Trump presidency—the crescendo of a longer musical score.”
The Los Angeles Times differed. Trumpism isn’t an ideology. It’s psychology. Below the headline is a picture of a smiling woman dressed in an American flag with a sign saying, “Trump—Unpolitically Correct Finally!!” The article said Trumpism isn’t a political or ideological movement so much as a psychological phenomenon. “On the left, there’s an enormous investment in the idea that Trump isn’t a break with conservatism but the apotheosis of it. This is a defensible, or at least understandable claim if you believe conservatism has always been an intellectually vacuous bundle of racial and cultural resentments. But if that were the case, Commentary magazine’s Noah Rothman recently noted, you would not see so many mainstream and consistent conservatives objecting to Trump’s behavior. Intellectuals and ideologically committed journalists on the left and right have a natural tendency to, and interest in, seeing events through the prism of ideas. Trump presents an insurmountable challenge to such approaches because, by his own admission, he doesn’t consult any serious and coherent body of ideas for his decisions. He trusts his instincts. Trump has said countless times that he thinks his gut is a better guide than the brains of his advisors. He routinely argues that the presidents and policymakers who came before him were all fools and weaklings. That’s narcissism, not ideology, talking.”
And then along came idolatry. The biblical definition of idolatry in Judaism and Christianity is the worship of someone other than God as though there was God. It’s the first of the biblical Ten Commandants—“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Madame Wikipedia is late to the show, but she has an Idolatry page. “Idolatry is the worship of a cult image or “idol” as though it were God. . . In these monotheistic religions, idolatry has been considered as the “worship of false gods.”
Is Trump a god, a false god, or just an idol? That’s not just a chicken and egg question, it’s a scrambled egg answer to a question never asked. Rolling Stone wrote an answer without being asked. They titled their submission, “Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.” Trump won their souls, if not their hearts. They knew at least this much about him. “For much of his political run, the thrice-married, swindling, profane, materialistic, self-styled playboy had appealed mainly to the more fringe elements of Christianity, a ragtag group of prosperity gospelers, like his ‘spiritual adviser’ Paula White, a televangelist who promises her donors their own personal angel, Christian dominionists, who believe that America’s laws should be founded explicitly on biblical ones — including stoning homosexuals, and charismatic or Pentecostal outliers like Frank Amedia, the Trump campaign’s ‘liaison for Christian policy,’ who once claimed to have raised an ant from the dead.”
Politics is a transactional game. Politicians do not need to be moral to be elected. Trump gave evangelicals access that they had not enjoyed under any former president. In 2016, he garnered over eighty percent of the white evangelical vote. Rolling Stone said it was because, “More than half of them believe that God wanted Trump to be president.”
By the summer of 2023, Trump’s critics caught on, calling his behavior un-Christian. Even so, his conservative backers see him as their hero. “Robert Franklin, professor of moral leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, said Trump benefits from a perception among some of his followers that he is suffering on their behalf. The more he complains of persecution, the more people dig in to support him, and for a few, fight for him and make personal sacrifices (of money and freedom) for his advancement . . . Franklin also noted that some evangelicals, since early in Trump’s presidency, have likened him to Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who, according to the Bible, enabled Jews to return to Israel from their exile in Babylon. This is a powerful trope, the bad man who makes good things possible, and is hence praised as a hero. . . . Unfortunately, under this narrative, Trump can literally do no wrong. His wrong is right. No other politician gets that kind of pass.”
Naturally, Trump liked that. “No president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have,” he told the Faith & Freedom gala in Washington in June. “I’ll fight hard until I’m back behind that desk in the Oval Office.” Is he an idol or a fallen idol?
The ethical question that always troubles political writers is balance. A fallen idol is a person no longer admired. We’ll know the answer about Trump in 2024. Until then writers would do well to remember the ethics of what we write. “Ethics is the considered form that freedom takes when it is informed by reflection. It is the writing we do when we have consciously reflected on the meanings we are making, or the world we are representing. . . if it was written under the conditions of reflective practice, it is necessarily ethical.”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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