Donald Trump, Bloom County, and the Short, Self-Serving Memory of the Religious Right

Donald Trump, Bloom County, and the Short, Self-Serving Memory of the Religious Right January 21, 2016

I was recently reminded of just how self-serving and short right-wing Christians’ memories are, and it happened right when we’ve been talking about the nature of power in broken social systems.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was a teenager, I ran across a cultural gem that instantly became my favorite comic strip of all time: Bloom County, which was created and drawn by Berkeley Breathed. He even won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987 at the height of the strip’s popularity.

ACKPHFT! (Credit: JD Hancock, CC license.)
ACKPHFT! (Credit: JD Hancock, CC license.)

When I ran across Bloom County and its subversive wit and giddy pacing, its topical humor and its bizarrely-endearing cast of characters, I was hooked instantly. I probably learned more about politics and society from that strip than I did from any other source, so you could say it was sort of like the Last Week Tonight of its day. Every generation needs one, I reckon; my parents had Doonesbury, and I had Bloom County.

The strip was recently rebooted by Mr. Breathed. (You can catch up starting here if you haven’t ever brushed up against its genius.) And the person who inspired this reboot was none other than the current Lizard King of racist Republican bigots-for-Jesus: Donald Trump.

Yes, indeed!

You see, back in July, when Mr. Breathed heard that the Donald was running for the highest office in the land, he was inspired to pick up his pen and start anew.

Why This is Awesome News.

Being a political, topical cartoonist, Mr. Breathed took regular potshots at stuff going on in the news. For many of his storylines, he utilized one of his main characters, Bill the Cat. Being a largely-mute character with no real personality of his own aside from a rather dissolute form of amorality, Bill lent himself well to endless makeovers and re-imaginings around which outrageous satires could be arranged.

It seemed like Bill had his hand (paw?) in every single headline of the day and was involved with every single major name in the news. He went to Chernobyl and caused the nuclear disaster there; he enjoyed a very torrid affair with Jeane Kirkpatrick; he became the lead singer for a hair-metal band and testified in front of a Congressional committee in an eerily familiar way; he joined a cult owned by Bhagwan Rajneesh and then got deprogrammed; he did copious amounts of drugs and eventually died in a strikingly similar way to John Belushi, with the whole sordid affair written up in a book that was, itself, strikingly similar to the popular Belushi biography Wired; and he ran for President several times despite being dead for at least one of those tries.

And at one point near the end of Bloom County‘s run, the resurrected Bill the Cat was implanted with the brain of none other than… Donald Trump:

FACT: Donald Trump was hit by his own anchor last week.
FACT: His body broken but his brain intact, Mr. Trump lies in a secret New York surgical lab.
FACT: Desperate surgeons are preparing at this moment to transplant Donald’s brain into the skull of a healthy cat…
FACT: It isn’t Heathcliff.

Happy Trails, 1990.

The reincarnated Donald Trump found himself fallen far from his former glory. His wife Ivana didn’t recognize him in Bill’s body and his accountants clearly weren’t answering his calls. He had to start from the bottom and work his way up again, which he did with astonishing speed, dishonesty, and shrewdness. By the end of the series, he was back on top and busily firing everyone in the strip’s cast to replace them with characters that looked and acted more like him and Ivana.

While one might well say that the character of Donald Trump in Bloom County is given quite a bit of respect for his business acumen, he is displayed at all times as a greedy, grasping, shallow boor who thinks only of how to get more money, how to display his wealth in the most ostentatious ways possible, and how to hold onto what he has and grab for more even if doing so hurts others. His function in the strip is to ruin and corrupt absolutely everything he touches. His understanding of empathy and social justice is nonexistent and his relationships with the poor and nonwhite characters in the strip are downright mortifying.

The real Mr. Trump probably didn’t like Bloom County much. Indeed, one quote attributed to him is one offered up in the wake of the news that the strip was retiring: “I never thought Berke Breathed had talent, so he was probably forced to quit.”

But all that was years ago.

Let’s Walk Down Memory Lane.

Let's waltz back into the boardinghouse, since we didn't learn our lesson right the first time. (By Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6520413.)
Let’s waltz back into the the Bloom Boardinghouse, since we didn’t learn our lesson the first time. (By Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, link.)

The Donald Trump strips came out when I was a young Pentecostal co-ed in college. This was also back during Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal days, when Americans were just getting used to the idea of businesspeople being ultra-dramatic celebrities in their own right.

If you want a general idea of the stories circulating around him at the time, Cracked has collected some of the worst and worst-er of the breed: stories about his audacious dishonesty and braggadocio, more stories illustrating his sheer evil pettiness and yet more stories about his general weirdness and misogyny (and his bizarre first run for President). Some of this happened after I left Christianity, but the general idea has never changed.

One thing Donald Trump does understand and handle competently is giving Americans what they want. He pole-vaulted into our national consciousness right about when Gordon Gekko was teaching us that “greed is good” and whoa Nelly, did Mr. Trump live out that ideal.

Christians in my neck of the woods were not fooled. We were 100% perfectly aware of what kind of person Donald Trump was. None of what I’m saying here would have been a shock or a surprise to anybody I knew then. Indeed, I did not know a single Christian in or out of Pentecostalism who thought of him as anything but the embodiment and epitome of capitalism gone mad. If he’d been a little more mustache-twirling, he might have gotten a coveted Antichrist nomination, but as it was, he was everything non-Christian about America and every single reason we needed to oppose secular culture. He was a greedy, self-serving, sexist, opportunistic scoundrel, a bastard-coated bastard with bastard filling, with not one redeeming feature. Charity and lovingkindness were as far from him as Mars is from my desk chair, and as alien to him as that diamond planet is to Earth. And dang, he just seemed so mean, especially when he and his first wife, Ivana, divorced.

We also knew even then that he wasn’t nearly as successful as he claimed he was and that his companies didn’t seem to do well. And yes, we knew that the man had an ego that never seemed to quit.

We’d have laughed at the very idea of Donald Trump being a fervent Christian. Our pastors spoke out against him, usually alongside warnings about caring so much for wealth and power that we lost sight of our salvation. If he cared about the poor or about the livelihoods that depended upon his largely-failed business deals, he sure didn’t seem like it, and we sure weren’t hearing much about it.

If anything, Berkeley Breathed went way too easy on him.

How Did Christians Forget All of That So Quickly?

Imagine my surprise when Donald Trump began gaining political steam–with right-wing Christians, particularly fundagelicals. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Because they operate in a broken social system, these sorts of Christians care more about power than about morality and maintaining a good witness. Thus, they will line up behind anybody who hates who they hate and who promises them the power they seek. They will switch allegiances whenever it becomes necessary to win whatever “culture war” they think they’re fighting this week, and I’d already seen them do so to line up behind people they’d have considered absolutely anathema until then.

When fundagelicals lined up to slob Mitt Romney’s knob back in 2008, I was shocked because back in my day, Mormons were considered stone-cold wackadoodle cultists. My first church was right next door to a Mormon church, and my people learned a lot about the religion as a result. I cannot possibly overstate just how much animosity existed between my denomination and Mormonism–and while we were pretty fringe back in the 1980s and 1990s, like many of that day’s extremists we would have been considered tame by today’s standards. We would never have considered “working with” a Mormon for anything. In fact, many people in my denomination and its sister groups considered “ecumenicalism” a demonic lie straight from the bowels of Hell itself, meant to water down and dilute TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.

As late as 2007, fundagelical leaders were advising their flocks that “If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan.” They viciously fought the idea of his candidacy. But by 2008 they’d lined up nicely, and by 2011, no less than Unca Pat Robertson was calling him “an outstanding Christian”. In much the same way, one could find fundagelicals lining up behind Rick Santorum, who is a very firm 100-and-crazy-percent Catholic, which my tribe considered a pagan cult. And as late as 2012, Franklin Graham–son of evangelical preacher Billy Graham–might have been waffling on whether or not President Obama was Christian, but he was totally behind Mr. Santorum.

Now pretty much all the right-wing Christian leaders are slobbering over Donald Trump. Jerry Falwell gave him what Time called “a hero’s welcome” at Liberty University recently. Unca Pat is defending his racist policies, as is Franklin Graham.

But I’m not surprised anymore.

The one thing one could say about Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum was that they seemed fairly dedicated to their faith systems, while the only religion Donald Trump has ever appeared to have is acquiring and then showing off his wealth.

When one asks Christians why they would ever support a man like this as their chosen leader, one hears the same refrains over and over again: “He says what I wish I could say; he’ll make America great again.” This unabashed racist, sexist, twice-divorced fornicator, warmonger, fearmonger, and conspiracy-theorist is the id of the American Religious Right. He seems to have no filter at all, and he’s so eager to be in the news that he’ll say and do absolutely anything–even if it means courting the approval of Sarah Palin, who is so hypocritical, embarrassing, and erratic that her party’s largely abandoned her.

Ms. Palin’s far-reaching and incoherent endorsement word salad speech was detailed in the New York Daily News, which headlined it on the front page as “I’m With Stupid.” (Semi-sane Republicans are probably even as we speak seeking medical attention for the permanent cringe they got listening to her speech, which I am totally not kidding here blamed President Obama for her son’s recent arrest for domestic violence.) Right-wing Christians still adore their gaffe-prone, weirdly-rambling “grizzly mama” despite her numerous and mounting instances of ignorance, zealotry, and total hypocrisy, because–like Donald Trump himself–she knows how to rile her tribe up and pander to them.

Mr. Trump and Ms. Palin both know that to get ahead with right-wing Christians nowadays, one must appeal to their desperation, their rage, and their greed. One must promise them that they will regain “their” country and with it their onetime privilege by stripping away and rolling back all the gains that other groups have made, and if that idea sounds racist and theocratic, well, they wear the accusation with great pride. Right-wing Christians are angry and upset with their loss of dominance, and their tribal defensiveness has been aroused by the sight of so many people who do not look anything like them doing stuff they don’t like and not caring one little bit what they think of it.

For forty years, right-wing Christian leaders have been getting more and more politicized. They have been rallying the troops and feeding their delusions of persecution and martyrdom; they have been telling their flocks over and over again that they deserve to run America and that by golly America needs them to run things. They have been telling their adherents that pseudoscience proves that they are divinely-made and exalted, and that rejecting this pseudoscience will destroy the world. They’ve been teaching their flocks that civil rights are a violation of the divine hierarchy, and that everything will go back to the way it was once minorities and women are pushed back into their 1950s roles.

None of this is new. Everything I’m writing about here is stuff I heard decades ago in slightly less extreme form with my own two ears from preachers belonging to several different churches and even denominations. But there’s a new direction to the rhetoric these past few years, a very unsettling new tone in the teachings: a new hatred for those who don’t support their platforms, a new willingness to do absolutely ANYTHING to trample those who don’t agree and to deny them any kind of kindness, a new greed and glorification of riches, a new contempt for the vulnerable, and a new disgust for the poor. But far worse than any of this is the new violent, punitive undertone I’m hearing from right-wing Christian leaders, a new gleefully-mean streak that condones bullying, lying, and a level of nastiness I would not have imagined using against anybody when I was Christian.

My pastors would have tanned my hide, metaphorically speaking, had any of them caught me treating anybody the way Christians today routinely treat people, and I’d have gotten that verbal lashing twice had I done it to a non-Christian. It is impossible for me to think that Christians have any hope in the world of converting or persuading anybody with this level of mistreatment and abuse, but I really don’t think that conversion is their goal. Whatever they say to the contrary, domination is their goal, and they show it constantly through their behavior.

I can only think that this new tone and direction is happening because they are perfectly aware that they are quickly losing power, and unless they find a way to force the rest of us to comply with their demands then they will soon hit a tipping point–after which they will have no power at all to force anyone to do anything. The more power an abuser loses, the more desperate that abuser becomes to regain it, and the Religious Right is the most abusive group I’ve ever seen in my life.

That is why the preachers in that end of Christianity are getting more and more hysterical, and more importantly why they have been lining up behind political leaders they would have excoriated and rejected before they knew they were losing their culture war. We are seeing desperation writ large here, not confidence. They need the flocks whipped into an outright frenzy if they want a snowball’s chance in hell of regaining any of their onetime power.

That this tactic is completely, totally guaranteed to drive even more non-Christians away from their banner and to alienate many of their own adherents doesn’t matter. That it will hasten the decline of their own religion hasn’t even occurred to them. Nothing matters except seizing and nailing down whatever they can before it’s too late, because they know exactly how the powerless are treated in their broken social system and they think that we’ll do the same to them if they become in reality the marginalized minority they imagine they are in their most fanciful masturbatory fantasies.

And the flocks have been listening to their leaders’ teachings, and they have heard all of the things I’ve heard. They’ve been learning.

Oh, have they ever been learning.

Values Voters, Indeed.

Donald Trump is a values candidate, though one must define the word a little differently than self-serving, self-congratulatory Republican politicians do. In Donald Trump’s world, “values” mean control-lust, rage, greed, terror, vengefulness, exclusion, and hatred. It scares me to imagine this guy coming anywhere near the Oval Office.

So I don’t know about y’all, but I really hope that Berkeley Breathed doesn’t go so easy on him this time around.

Mockery is the pin pricked into the egos and aspirations of blowhards and abusers the world over, and Mr. Breathed’s particular brand of it is especially pointed. He’s the hero that we didn’t realize we needed, and if he can’t persuade Mr. Trump’s fans that a Trump Presidency is a disastrous idea, then maybe at least he can galvanize people into voting against him come 2016 if he actually manages to ensnare the candidacy of his party.

I agree with Salon on this one: inspiring the return of Bloom County is likely going to be the most useful thing Donald Trump has ever done.

Welcome back, Berkeley Breathed. I’ve missed you.

If you get this, you probably wasted your formative years like I did. (Credit: Rob Marquardt, CC-SA license.)
If you get this, you probably wasted your formative years like I did. (Credit: Rob Marquardt, CC-SA license.)

By the way, if you’re not scared enough already by the idea of Christians glomming onto this clown, maybe this link will do the job, or this one. Also: holy cow, even Matt Walsh knows this guy is the worst candidate his tribe could ever pick. I never thought I’d see the day when I agreed with him about anything, even if our reasons are different.

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