The received wisdom is that Donald Trump has ridden a wave of voter anger to the top of the Republic polls. That’s superficial, too easy, and misconstrues the cultural import of Trump’s appeal.
Trump is popular because, billionaire though he is, he plays the populist who gleefully bash the elites. America regularly produces characters like Trump – big, brash, glitzy, loud, straightforward, unsubtle.
But there’s also something deeper going on. It’s all in Girard. Trump is the candidate who refuses to be scapegoated.
Rene Girard argues that ancient myths are myths of scapegoating. In a sacrificial crisis, when mimetic rivalry leads to a war of all against all, the only way to restore harmony is to direct all the mimetic energy toward a single object, a scapegoat. When everyone turns against the scapegoat, they all become brothers again, and social harmony is restored.
It’s crucial, Girard says, for the scapegoat to acknowledge guilt. Oedipus admits that he’s the cause of the plague in Thebes. The sacrificial victim nods before the slaughter.
The gospels present something new, something revolutionary. When all the world joins together to expel Jesus from the land of the living, Jesus resolutely refuses to acknowledge guilt. Jesus makes it plain that the scapegoat is innocent, and as a result the whole mechanism unravels. An uncooperative scapegoat, a scapegoat who refuses to play by the rules exposes scapegoating for what it is: A show trial that perpetuates violence against the innocent.
Contemporary media replays the scapegoat process over and over again. Someone is called out for violating a social taboo; media scrutiny and assaults are overwhelming; eventually, the accused acknowledges guilt, announces that he has developed new sensitivities; everyone breathes a sigh of relief because our cultural norms have been successfully defended; the confessor is relieved to be restored to the human race again, no longer a pariah.
Trump is the anti-scapegoat. Targeted by cultural elites – the media, the GOP establishment – he refuses to nod. He won’t apologize. This is thrilling for many, not because they are angry, but because they are delighted to see someone who refuses to play his assigned role in the blame game.
Trump will be the anti-scapegoat to the end. He will refuse to be blamed. Extraordinarily thin-skinned, narcissistic, and therefore extraordinarily manipulative, he refuses to be blamed even when his actions are blameworthy. He does no wrong. Someone else is always at fault.
Maybe he will walk away declaring “victory”: He will claim that he pushed issues that would have been ignored, stirred interest in a drab Presidential debate, awakened masses of voters, helped to form a coalition against Hillary. He will make a deal with the GOP that leaves him more of a celebrity, his businesses more secure.
The GOP should be praying hard that Trump’s exit is like this, because he may walk away and blame the GOP. Which would be a very dangerous outcome for the Republican Party.
Whatever way it goes, if – when? – his campaign erodes, you can be sure of one thing: It won’t be his fault. The anti-scapegoat will refuse to become a “loser.”