Herod and Trump – Different Times, Same Story

Herod and Trump – Different Times, Same Story December 26, 2019

Matthew 2:13-23 is a horrific story of Herod the Great ordering the massacre of children.  The passage comes up every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary in the season of Christmas.  The last time we encountered it was in 2016, just after the election of Donald J. Trump.  Three years later, we’re seeing uncanny parallels between Herod and Trump.

Herod and Trump. Images are in the public domain.

We can’t read the story about Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents without recognizing the patterns of behavior repeating themselves with our current president.

It turns out Herod and Trump share much of the same backstory, qualities, and characteristics.

Donald Trump inherited his wealth from his father, Fred Trump.  Herod, too, inherited his wealth from his father Antipater who was a man of great influence and power.  We might say that Herod was in the real estate business, just like Trump and his father.  Herod loved to acquire land and build cosmopolitan cities, fantastic palaces, and massive fortresses.  Trump, too, covets property and buildings that bear his name as a testament to his massive ego.

There are interesting religious parallels between Herod and Trump, as well.

Even though he completely rebuilt the Jewish Temple, Herod was regarded with suspicion the religious leaders because his father was an Arab, and Herod was only a convert to Judaism.  Yet, like Trump who trumpets how much he has done for Evangelicals and Jews, Herod fancied himself the protector of the Jews and touted his religiosity.

In Matthew 2:1-12, Herod is visited by the Magi who are following a star to search for a newborn king.  He feigns a pious promise to the Magi to worship the child once they find him and share the baby’s location with him. The Magi do find Jesus and bring their gifts to him but are warned in a dream not to return to Herod.  The king is so enraged that he’s been tricked, he sends his soldiers to kill all the baby boys under the age of two, sure that in wiping out all of them, he will eliminate the one that he believes to be a threat to his throne.

Trump, too, feigns religiosity.

He invites Evangelicals to the White House and hires them as advisors (see Paula White).  He declares himself to be “the chosen one.” And he stages photo-ops of Evangelicals laying hands on him in prayer.  All the while, Trump’s policies result in the deaths of children.  While they are slow-moving and not as immediately evident as a sword impaling a baby in his crib, Trump’s roll-back of environmental protection laws, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, and economic policies that cut off children from food assistance programs will all lead to the deaths of children.  Not to mention his refusal to move on legislation for common-sense gun laws, which has contributed to the deaths of hundreds of children, men, and women over the last three years.

But the most damning evidence of Trump’s cruelty toward children are his cages for immigrants and his betrayal of the Kurds.

Seven immigrant children have died in cages under his command.  Countless Kurdish children have died in attacks from Turkey after Trump pulled U.S. troops from the Syrian border.  Just as Herod had no qualms in ordering infanticide, Trump has no qualms in separating children from their families or abandoning our allies, leaving children bloody and dead in their parents’ arms.

That these grown men should be so afraid of children is a testament to their fragility and paranoia.

Herod feared a child born in a manger.  Trump fears children with brown and black skin.  He also fears teenagers such as Greta Thunberg who stand up to him and call him out on his anti-climate agenda and his hypocrisy.

What is so frustrating is the stunning lack of accountability for Herod and Trump.

Both were/are protected both by sycophants and patrons who ensured their reign.  As long as the wealthy were/are making money, they look the other way.  Both men liked to rub elbows with the authoritarian dictators of their day.  But here’s the key – they are only able to be in power because they had friends in high places who put the there.  Roman leaders such as Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, and Octavian put Herod in place as the ruler of Palestine, but they expected his fealty in return.

Trump, too, longs to be counted among the greatest of dictators.

His love affairs with Kim Jong Un and the Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman are bad enough.  But his position as president is only possible because of Russia’s hacking of the U.S. election process, and he is deeply indebted to Putin, for whom he is only his puppet-in-chief.

Just as Putin is fine with Trump undermining our democracy and terrorizing his own people, the Roman leaders were perfectly content with Herod carrying out genocide against his own people. You may wonder what kind of person could order such gruesome slaughter.  Herod must have been criminally insane, you might think.  And you would be correct.  According to historians, Herod the Great had descended into increasingly poor physical and mental health that made him paranoid and led him to horrific acts of betrayal and murder.

Trump, too, has been showing signs of increasingly disturbing psychological issues and deteriorating physical health.

Psychologists have noted that his behavior is consistent with a pathological narcissistic personality disorder.  He has grandiose delusions, attacks his enemies like a schoolyard bully, and is so paranoid that he has completely isolated himself.  Physically, his obesity is obvious, as are his slurred speech, and his unsteady gait. His word salads indicate an inability to maintain a cohesive train of thought.

Yet the people around Trump refuse to intervene, which is confounding.

He is known to be charming when he wants to be, but certainly uses tactics of fear, manipulation, and gaslighting in order to control his family and underlings.  This must have been the case with Herod as well.  Herod had ten wives and fourteen children. (Trump only has three wives and five children, so he doesn’t measure up to Herod here).  But in the last years of his life, Herod had become so mentally unstable and paranoid that he murdered his wife, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother. He also killed his firstborn son.

Of course, Herod and Trump do not carry out the murders themselves.  Like most dictators, they have minions to do the killing for them.  But whether by their own hand or by their dictates and policies, the blood is still on their hands.

What lessons can we glean from the stories of Herod and Trump?

First, we cannot underestimate the lengths to which dictators will go in order to secure their power, exercise their cruelty, and have their egos stroked all the while.  We may be surprised, but we cannot be shocked.  We must expect it and prepare accordingly.

Second, no country is immune to authoritarian regimes.  The Roman Empire, Nazi Germany, the United States – any of them are susceptible.  Even when we think we have structures in place to protect the rule of law, tyrants both foreign and domestic can find a way to infiltrate the system – often in broad daylight.

Third, no dictator lasts forever.  In the end, Herod lost the favor of the Roman Emperor Augustus. He descended into madness and attempted suicide.  When he finally died, his kingdom was divided among his remaining sons who continued to carry out his reign of terror.

We don’t know how the Trump reign will end.  But eventually, it will.  What damage will happen in the meantime – and what Putin has planned in his never-ending chess game of world domination – remains to be seen.

But the biblical story also tells us that goodness and divine love finds a way through, even in the midst of the bloodiest and most fearsome regimes.

Joseph was warned in a dream to escape before Herod launched his campaign of infanticide.  We imagine the holy family furtively slipping out under cover of night, just as the soldiers sweep through the village in the early dawn light.  Perhaps Mary and Joseph heard the screams and wails as they hurried down the road toward Egypt.  Only one child – their child – survived.  But that one child carried the hope and salvation for the whole world.

Of course, the stories of Herod and Trump also raise disturbing issues of theodicy that make us question the presence, power, and goodness of God in the face of such gruesome terror.

Those are the questions we’ll tackle next. . .

{Read next: The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents: Don’t Look Away}

For more historical information on Herod the Great, visit: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-king-of-Judaea


Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky.  She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).

Twitter: @LeahSchade

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LeahDSchade/

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