‘They’re all hustlers’

‘They’re all hustlers’ September 29, 2020

McKay Coppins gets a bunch of Trump administration/campaign officials to describe how “Trump Secretly Mocks His Christian Supporters: Former aides say that in private, the president has spoken with cynicism and contempt about believers.”

The sneering mockery and disdain comes through in years of Trump’s remarks about his most enthusiastic supporters — the “court evangelicals” above all. It’s not all new — Coppins draws quite a bit from Michael Cohen’s tell-some insider memoir — but seeing all of it laid out in depth there in The Atlantic might raise hopes that this will move the needle with those supporters, perhaps diminish their enthusiasm for Trump.

And maybe it will, at the margins. Maybe a few pastors will realize that white evangelical support for and loyalty to Trump is not reciprocal, and maybe they’ll turn down the volume on their usual election-year reminders to their congregations that it’s the Christian duty and biblical mandate of every white American to vote Republican. And maybe that’ll add up to Trump’s 81%-share of the white evangelical vote dipping to, say, 79.5% instead. Maybe.

And maybe small marginal changes will be enough to prevent a repeat of the Electoral College inside-straight Trump allegedly squeaked out in 2016. (Although I’m far from convinced that, if all the legitimate votes cast had been counted as cast, he actually “won” Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even by the tiny few-thousand-vote margins he claimed.)

But let’s not get caught up in hopeful speculation that this will be any kind of “Lonesome Rhodes” moment — like the ending of A Face in the Crowd, where Andy Griffith’s folksy demagogue gets caught on a live microphone expressing his contempt for the “idiots” who believe what he says, turning his own fans against him. That ain’t gonna happen.

What I want to highlight here, instead, is Donald Trump’s desperate need to regard religious leaders and their followers as nothing more than, in his words, “hustlers” who are “full of shit.” His need, in other words, to reassure himself that they’re no better than him. Or, since “better” isn’t really a category he finds useful or comprehensible, that they’re no different from him. He likes “hustlers” who are “full of shit” — or, at least, likes having them around to reinforce his belief that there is nothing else, no other idea or ideal or purpose in life, than the hustle and the grift.

Actual believers confuse and confound Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christian or Jewish or humanist. It doesn’t have to be religious belief, just belief in anything other than or beyond the competitive, cynically transactional, Hobbesian game of musical chairs he imagines life in this world to be. Anyone who’s not hustling and not transparently “full of shit” is playing some angle he just doesn’t understand. They seem to regard money as less than paramount. They’ve got some other way of keeping score in something other than the game and the hustle that is all that Trump has ever understood. And because he can’t understand such people, he fears them, regards them with suspicion and distrust.

This is why Trump’s contemptuous remarks about his Christian supporters are so similar to the decades of bewilderedly contemptuous comments he’s made about members of the military, veterans, and prisoners of war — others who, in Trump’s view, stupidly and perversely regarded some calling as higher than the pursuit of money. It’s also why Trump cycles through wives and mistresses while expressing the same confused contempt for anyone who seems to be genuinely in love with their spouse. He just can’t figure out what they’re playing at, so he dislikes these people. (“I don’t get it. What was in it for them?“)

Trump reminds me of Lord Henry, the old cynic in Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, who hears an “uncouth” street preacher ask “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose — how does the quotation run? — his own soul?” The question nags at Lord Henry because he had been so certain he’d known the answer. What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world? Well, it profits him the whole world. Duh! But here was some shabby believer suggesting that he’d been wrong all along, suggesting some other way of looking at things he couldn’t quite grasp. And it unsettled him.

That’s why Donald Trump has surrounded himself with religious leaders he can understand — with full-of-shit hustlers who share his own pursuits and priorities. With people who don’t allow any concerns about their own souls to diminish their single-minded pursuit of money and power and “the whole world.” He needs people like that around him just the way that Lord Henry needed people like Dorian Gray around him — people who view the world the way he does and don’t unnerve him with hints that there might be something more to life more important that what he’s spent his whole life pursuing.

Let me share one anecdote from Coppins’ report. This involves the prosperity-gospel televangelist Creflo Dollar. Dollar is Black, but he’s a devotee of white evangelicalism — the Christian nationalist, WhiteJesus-following, hyper-partisan religious movement that has always emphasized Redemption in the historical sense over redemption in any form Isaiah preached.

One day in 2015, Donald Trump beckoned Michael Cohen, his longtime confidant and personal attorney, into his office. Trump was brandishing a printout of an article about an Atlanta-based megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million from his flock to buy a private jet. Trump knew the preacher personally — Creflo Dollar had been among a group of evangelical figures who visited him in 2011 while he was first exploring a presidential bid. During the meeting, Trump had reverently bowed his head in prayer while the pastors laid hands on him. Now he was gleefully reciting the impious details of Dollar’s quest for a Gulfstream G650.

Trump seemed delighted by the “scam,” Cohen recalled to me, and eager to highlight that the pastor was “full of shit.”

“They’re all hustlers,” Trump said.

Coppins is wrong to regard that as mockery or contempt. Yes, Trump was contemptuously mocking Creflo Dollar’s followers, but he was praising Dollar himself. The guy had figured out a way to get himself a G6, and Trump admired that. Coppins describes this admiration again later in the piece:

Trump seemed to feel a kinship with prosperity preachers — often evincing a game-recognizes-game appreciation for their hustle. The former campaign adviser recalled showing his boss a YouTube video of the Israeli televangelist Benny Hinn performing “faith healings,” while Trump laughed at the spectacle and muttered, “Man, that’s some racket.” On another occasion, the adviser told me, Trump expressed awe at Joel Osteen’s media empire — particularly the viewership of his televised sermons.

Again, this parallels Trump’s attitude in Jeffrey Goldberg’s earlier Atlantic article “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’.” Donald Trump has nothing but bewildered contempt for the wounded or slain soldiers he sees as “suckers.” But he admires former officers turned lobbyists who have monetized their military service for personal wealth. Those ex-military lobbyists now plundering the federal budget may also be “hustlers” who are “full of shit” and running a “scam,” but in Trump’s view, that’s to their credit.

Many of the “court evangelicals” surrounding and supporting Donald Trump are not successful hustlers. They don’t all have game when it comes to the “scam.” But they’re all trying to play that game. They’re all, in Trump’s apt phrase, “full of shit.” That’s why he gets along so well with them.

And that’s why, despite all the religious flourishes that Trump himself views as weird — the prayer, the God-talk, the laying-on of hands — Trump likes having them around. People like Paula White and Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress and Eric Metaxas reassure Trump that he’s right about the world — that everything is transactional, and competitive, and profit-seeking, and that anything else is merely a sucker’s dream.


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