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The Trumpist Reformation is upon us

If you want to understand post-Trump politics, look to Martin Luther.

Candace Owens interviews former President Donald Trump. Video screen grab

(RNS) — Over the past week, the MAGAverse has been atweet with distress at Donald Trump’s revelation that he got a COVID-19 booster shot and — worse — his insistence that other people should get vaccinated too.

After Trump laid out his pro-vax position in an interview with right-wing influencer Candace Owens, Owens took to her podcast to quiet the uproar. “You oftentimes forget how old Trump is,” she began, and went on to say:

I don’t believe that Trump is on the internet or that he necessarily uses the web to try to find obscure websites. I think that he just relies on typical mainstream sources. So I don’t think there’s anything evil going on there. I just wanted to say that because so many donors, supporters of his, are kind of like questioning where all this is coming from. And I think he just genuinely believes that. … (H)e needs to have a larger conversation to really understand what’s going on and why so many people are just horrified.

What’s going on here is that the movement Trump started is beginning to break into pieces. And that to understand the movement, we need to go beyond the conventional wisdom that American politics has been reduced to your team and my team. 

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This simple formulation doesn’t capture the asymmetry between Trumpist Republicanism and the essentially establishmentarian Democratic Party. Tribal as our politics may have become, the model for what we are going through is not Hatfields versus McCoys or Yankees versus Red Sox but the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation was a revolt against the religious establishment of Western Europe (Roman Catholicism). Its professed aim was to restore the church to a pure, pre-Catholic state (Make Christianity Great Again). And it thrived because of a communications revolution (the printing press).

Printing made possible a degree of success against the religious establishment that earlier popular heresies like the Waldensians and Albigensians failed to achieve. Hardly had Martin Luther declared war on the sale of indulgences to release souls from purgatory than pro-Reformation printers began pumping out his sermons and tracts, plus an endless stream of anti-Catholic woodcuts and cartoons. 

Although Catholicism recovered pretty quickly and reestablished control over most of the European population, the Reformation altered the religious map of the continent — and eventually of the rest of the world — forever.

Meanwhile, the printing press was splitting the Protestant movement. Embracing the reformers’ stress on Bible-reading (made easier through inexpensive vernacular translations) and their idea of the priesthood of all believers, people attached themselves to any number of beliefs based on their own reading of Scripture and on the publications of contemporary religious writers.

If the primitive Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles was to be restored, didn’t that mean no bishops, no clergy, no infant baptism? Shouldn’t there be speaking in tongues again, as at Pentecost? What about owning all property in common? What about handling snakes?

Luther’s Reformation was soon awash in convictions he did not share, and in due course Protestantism broke up into sects and denominations — all opposed to Roman Catholicism but often more in conflict with each other than with the church they dubbed the Whore of Babylon. Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Pentecostals, etc. etc. etc.

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To what extent such fracturing befalls the Trumpist Reformation remains to be seen, of course. Electoral politics under the Republican banner remains a powerful gravitational force. 

Nevertheless, we can discern at least some of the different sects and denominations. The Anti-vaxxers and the Stop-the-Stealers. The Islamophobians. The Wall-Them-Outers. And don’t forget the Plutocrats. 

Obscure websites will continue to pump out new worries, new conspiracies, new ways to resist whatever the establishment proposes to do. And as for old man Trump, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

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