Every Sabbath in synagogue, it is the custom to read a selection from the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, in an annual cycle that begins with the autumn holiday of Simhat Torah. This week’s selection included the well-known Biblical story of the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf while Moses is on Mount Sinai communing with God, and of the wrath of the prophet and the Supreme Being when they discover this betrayal. Which naturally makes me think of Trump, the great Golden Calf idol of present-day America.
What is idolatry? It’s a useful concept whether you believe in God or not, because it is one of the basic spiritual traps humanity is prone to; people so often worship unworthy people or things. The truth is, life is hard, and the knowledge that we all must face death creates fear and a desire for something or someone to save us by reassuring us that our lives have meaning. So far, so banally true, but what can possibly explain the masses that hysterically worship a man of no qualities like Trump?
As many observers have pointed out, part of the explanation is that very lack of qualities. Is he vulgar? So are the masses. They constantly daydream about having wealth like that, and using it like him to gild everything in sight, buy sexual favors from models, or do worse if they say no, while never facing any consequences. They too want to say and do whatever horrible things come into their foul little heads with impunity. This aspect of the Trump idolatry is easy to grasp, and hard to overstate.
There is a subtler aspect to this terrible phenomenon, though, and this is where the Biblical story comes into the picture. I chose the phrase “a man without qualities” for Trump deliberately. In an important sense, the world-destroying dictator types like him really are men utterly without qualities; that is, they are nullities. The almighty Leader is actually a shell of a man, which is why the masses can project all their hopes and dreams onto him. Remember, the Bible tells us the Golden Calf was fashioned from all the gold jewelry the escaping Israelite slaves had swiped as they fled Egypt. The Psalmist says that idols are powerless, for they are “the work of human hands.” So is the Leader, in truth; he is the product of his followers’ minds. Are they “religious Christians” who yearn to find “a mighty warrior for Christ”? Hey presto, and the walking exhibition of all Seven Deadly Sins, he who never darkens a church door, is a “baby Christian”! Are you struggling to keep body and soul together after your employer “rightsized” you out of a job? Like magic, the multiple bankrupt becomes a “successful businessman” who will bring back those coal-mining and steelmaking jobs, showering some of his fabulous wealth on you… or at least, he’ll let you enjoy it vicariously as you ogle his “hot” wife and daughter.
In short, the Leader and the followers are both parasitic on each other. Without his followers, the Leader is nothing, a washed-up, failed businessman and politician facing numerous serious criminal charges. Without their Leader, the followers are nothing but atomized individuals in a rapidly disintegrating society.
According to later Jewish legend, Moses did not deliberately smash the two tablets of the Law when he came down the mountain and saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. What happened was, the word of God vanished from the tablets in that frozen instant of time, and without them, the stone tablets suddenly became too heavy for Moses to carry, so he dropped them. So it is with us Americans: the ideals by which this country was founded have become unintelligible to us, so much so that words like democracy and freedom can be twisted by the Leader and his followers into their opposites. All those miniaturized copies of the Constitution they like to carry around and the flags they flaunt everywhere are more empty idols into which they pour their own secondhand fears, dreams, and hatreds. “Eyes have they, but see not, ears have they, but hear not,” the Psalmist taunts the idols. “Nothing but the work of human hands.” And just like the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf, we are all being punished with a plague.