The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Trumpism


Our 0.001% benefit egregiously from a duopoly party system comprised of Democrats and Republicans. The very very rich therefore seldom run for top political offices; they don’t need to.

For changing the world to accord with their own (typically warped) notions of what is good for it, they have philanthropy.  The idea that the rich ought to give something back through public service nowadays seems almost quaint.

In view of what happens when one or another of them comes down with Potomac Fever, this is not an altogether bad thing. It was different in the Roosevelt days; maybe even in the Kennedy days. But that was long ago.

Nowadays, political ambition runs mainly in plutocratic families in which intelligence and decency have been bred out; the Bushes and the Romneys are examples. But, then, the offspring of legacy Republicans usually aren’t that rich. Compared to newly minted high-stakes financiers, too-rich-to-jail banksters, and sleazy real estate moguls, they are barely even “comfortable.”

Indeed, a Donald Trump could buy and sell a Jeb Bush or a Mitt Romney many times over. Just ask the Donald!

Informed observers tell us that the ten billion dollars he claims he has is probably an exaggeration. They all agree, however, that he is very very rich.

Of course, Presidents still have to be elected; even in a “democracy” as corrupted by money as ours, no man – it is always a man – can straight-out buy the office for himself.

And so it was that, as recently as a few months ago, most people thought that a Trump candidacy would be too ridiculous to take off. Nobody thinks that anymore.

It had seemed too that Trump was in the race just for the fun of it, and that he would soon turn back to less strenuous, more lucrative pursuits; after all, there are many delightful ways to act out and show off, if there are no budget constraints holding you back. This might still happen. However, for now, candidate Trump is a man on a mission.

What that mission might be is, to say the least, unclear. Trump may not know himself.

The idea that he is a Democratic Party mole would explain a great deal, but it is too conspiratorial to be true. Also, Democrats, the Clintons especially, just aren’t that clever. Probably, neither is Trump.

Maybe, the Donald wants to secure a place in history as the man who brought the GOP down. That would be a feather in anyone’s cap.

But, in view of all that is known about how he thinks and operates, the idea that he might actually be trying to make America and the world better gives him way too much credit.

Most likely, he really just is in the race to have fun – and maybe also to enhance the prestige of the Trump brand, when the time comes for him to go back to wheeling and dealing in golf courses and casinos. Time will tell.

Trump cannot boast the academic credentials of his crazier and more dangerous rivals, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz; he didn’t do as well as they did in school. But he is plainly a lot better than they or any of his other rivals for the GOP nomination when it comes to calculating his actions, and getting his way.

* * *

Trump is not the only gzillionaire in living memory to throw his own hat into the ring; before him there was Nelson Rockefeller.

The two could hardly be less alike.

Rockefeller was no saint, but he was a bona fide liberal; Trump is whatever suits him at the moment. And, like other robber baron offspring, Rockefeller was old school: motivated more by noblesse oblige than greed or (ruling) class solidarity. No one could accuse Trump of that.

Conspicuous consumption was not the Rockefeller way; he had it, but he didn’t flaunt it. Indeed, he cultivated the common touch. Trump’s “populism” is very different; it is all about over the top glitz.

By Nelson’s generation, good taste had become a Rockefeller family tradition; Trump is a confirmed McMansion man — the more grotesque and gaudy, the better.   The Donald and the Shah of Iran would doubtless have seen eye to eye on many things, not least on architecture and design.

Rockefeller never got what he was after, though not for want of trying; he only made it as far as the Vice Presidency. By the time of his ignominious death in the saddle, his political future seemed bleak.

It is very unlikely that Trump will get what he is after too. Although his rivals for the GOP nomination are, to the man (and woman), low-grade dunces, he will probably not be the Republican nominee. But even if somehow he is, any Democrat, even one as lackluster and inept as Hillary Clinton, will easily trounce him next November.

Today, Nelson Rockefeller is best remembered for the way he died, and for his god-awful drug laws. A legacy of shame!   Still, compared to the Donald, he was a hundred times more estimable.

There is no need, however, to take the measure of the Republican front-runner by comparing him to Nelson Rockefeller or any other politically ambitious capitalist; Trump makes his shortcomings clear enough on his own.

But comparing the Trump and Rockefeller candidacies can be instructive in other ways.

The comparison reveals a lot about how American politics and American society have changed.

There really was no religious right in Rockefeller’s day, but the notions and attitudes today’s religious right champion were more diffused and more hegemonic when Rockefeller sought the presidency than they now are.  A half century ago, American politics was still at least nominally in the clutches of prohibitions and attitudes set in place by seventeenth century Puritans from the British Isles.

In recent years, their influence has all but disappeared. Even on the religious right, where one might have expected Puritanical attitudes to have remained robust, only traces have survived.

This fact of American political life is widely misunderstood and under-appreciated.   Because our homegrown theocrats, along with other rightwing radicals, call themselves “conservatives,” and because the description is close enough to be misleading, the nature and extent of the changes that have taken place within their ranks are easily overlooked.


In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber argued that aspects of Protestant theology shaped cultural norms in Protestant regions of Europe – and, therefore, in the United States and other parts of the world settled by European Protestants. These norms became so deeply entrenched that they took on a life of their own, surviving the general waning of faith that followed the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing wars between Protestants and Catholics.

The norms Weber identified comprise a distinctively “Protestant ethic” – ascetic, this-worldly, methodical, modest, opposed to spontaneous enjoyment, and hostile to all but the most temperate forms of physical gratification.

The underlying theology from which the Protestant ethic derives implies not only that worldly success is an outward sign of inward grace, but also that ostentatious displays of worldly success are signs of eternal damnation.

They are symptoms, not causes. In the theology Weber described, everyone’s fate is predetermined; salvation comes from unmerited grace, not good works. Nevertheless, it is only human to try to produce desired outcomes by producing symptoms associated with it.

This accounts for the prevalence in Protestant circles of norms that eschew conspicuous consumption and that militate against public displays of pridefulness.

By these standards, Trump is a plain disaster. He is this-worldly all right, but there is nothing ascetic or humble about him. Were he Catholic, and were someone other than Francis in charge at Vatican City, the Donald would be first in line to become the patron Saint of mindless, hedonistic consumption.

The Protestant ethic has mainly to do with attitudes towards work, consumption, saving, and other matters connected with and conducive to capitalist development. But these attitudes carry over to non-economic activities as well.

As everyone knows, they affect attitudes towards sex. Rockefeller led a life that accorded well enough with Protestant norms, and, throughout his lifetime, he was discreet enough to pass muster on sexual matters too. Were it not for the way he met his end, he would not now be regarded posthumously as an almost Kennedyesque cocksman.

Still, when he divorced his first wife, Rockefeller lost any chance he might otherwise have had to become President.   The ideological ancestors of today’s “values voters,” a large part of the electorate in those days, would never have allowed it.

A decade or so later, as divorce became commonplace even in fundamentalist-friendly circles, the godly were no longer quite so put off by old-fashioned improprieties. Ronald Reagan’s divorce didn’t unnerve them at all.

It is therefore not surprising that Trump’s two divorces are not an issue with values voters in 2015. What is surprising is how comfortable they seem to be with the tabloid life that the Donald has led.

The Gipper’s Number Two was no whore of Babylon, at least not in the public mind. Despite their Hollywood associations, the tabloids could never attribute any serious hanky-panky to either Ron or Nancy. Nancy even became a moral beacon; true believers loved her teetotaling “just say No” contribution to the “war on drugs.”

Trump’s fancies, on the other hand, run to super-models, the more exotic the better. His Number Three, is best known for posing nude draped out on a couch in the Donald’s over-the-top yacht.

Evidently, our later-day Puritans have come a long way since The Scarlet Letter.

Of course, in the anything-goes department, Trump, a superannuated Protestant, is a mere slouch compared to Silvio Berlusconi or any number of other political figures in historically Catholic countries.   If there was any bunga bunga in his past, it has never come to light. And since discretion is not Trump’s forte, it is a good bet that, in this case – unlike, say, in JFK’s — appearance and reality are more or less in line.

It would not be too far-off, however, to think of Trump as an American Berlusconi; the two are alike in so many respects.

Needless to say, it would be foolish to draw conclusions about Puritanism’s continuing hold over the American psyche on the basis of differences between those two deplorable characters. Nevertheless, the fact that, of the two, Berlusconi is by far the more shameless is at least suggestive.

It suggests, along with abundant evidence from other quarters, that the differences between persons and countries with Puritan pasts and those that are shaped by cultural norms more friendly to spontaneous enjoyment is not yet entirely of no consequence, notwithstanding the flagrantly anti-puritanical consumerism that keeps our overripe capitalist economy afloat.

Is the increasingly attenuated connection between America’s present and its Puritan past a blessing or a curse? The easy answer, of course, is that it is a blessing – the less psychological repression, the better. In practice, though, the situation is more complicated than that.

Where Trump is concerned, it is hard not to wish that the body politic was less depleted of the stifling, moralistic, gratification-inhibiting mentality that marked its foundation. Come back Cotton Mather! Perhaps for the first time in its history America now needs you badly.

We have known since Freud that some level of repression of human sexuality is a condition for the possibility of civilization itself, along with the discontents that inevitably follow. It has long been understood as well that too much repression can be harmful to individuals and societies.

But as comparisons of Trump and Rockefeller, on the one hand, and of Berlusconi and Trump, on the other, make plain: more Puritanism is sometimes better than less.

Nowhere would a good old-fashioned dose be more salutary than on the religious right. The fact that those poor, benighted souls so easily tolerate Trump’s foibles – not grudgingly, but enthusiastically, so long as they can get themselves to think that he sides with them on abortion – shows that they have utterly lost their bearings.

Trump will side with the religious right on abortion, if he thinks it will work to his advantage. He doesn’t care; anything goes! Compared to him, the Clintons actually seem principled.

It is as plain as can be, though, that Trump does what is right in the eyes of Trump, not in the eyes of the Lord. And yet, the godly, who must surely understand this at some level, don’t care. So long as their man stands against Progress, and heeds their yearnings for a past that never was, they will stand with him. How pathetic is that!

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).