Trump in the Rose Garden

President Donald Trump walks to the Rose Garden to announce his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, right, to the Supreme Court on Sept. 26.

— AP Photo/Alex Brandon

How did the president of the United States become one of the nation’s largest threats to public health and safety? When one man became head of “church” and state: the Church of Trump, that is.

For many of his most ardent supporters, Donald Trump has indeed become a church — defined as a gathering place or grouping point for like-minded individuals to learn, express and amplify a set of beliefs that they collectively define and refine over time.

While unable to articulate any meaningful religious experience, biblical knowledge or deep belief system, the president has become, for many, the embodiment of a peculiar definition of American exceptionalism.

The president’s record of denigrating racial minorities, his ad hominem attacks on immigrants, and travel restrictions against people from seven predominantly Muslim countries become, in this perspective, admirable leadership qualities. Trump’s naked promotion of racial division during his 2020 campaign, through an advocacy of “law and order” politics that essentially defines suburbs as white, and “Chicago” and other Democratic-led cities as Black and dangerous, is consonant with the views of many religious and secular conservatives.

The sea of white faces ensconced in a Rose Garden ceremony honoring Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination gives a strong clue to the kind of parishioners welcome at this church of Trump. What many view as Barrett’s faith-based legal approach (a characterization she rejects) makes her a model jurist for religious conservatives (also most welcome at the church of Trump), many of whom have continued to embrace the president despite his repeated ethical and moral lapses.

For such allies, Trump’s personal integrity and capacity for empathy matter less than the right-wing policies he can impose on the nation and the number of conservative judges he can appoint to the federal bench to defend them.

But for many of the Americans who, before Trump was diagnosed, were denying or dismissing COVID-19 — a disease that has utterly ravaged Black, Latinx and Native American communities in the U.S. — Trump has also come to represent a living church whose political insinuations of racial superiority attract unstinting loyalty from his most ardent supporters, no matter how nonsensical and dangerous he becomes; they seem comforted, not horrified, that he is capable of articulating and revising political, medical and personal doctrine on the fly.

Just witness the about-face, from downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to extolling Trump’s toughness and resilience, post-diagnosis, made by the White House and conservative media in recent days. Observe the disparate reactions to the medical emergency that forced him to go to Walter Reed Medical Center, and his behavior during his photo op when he endangered Secret Service and potentially others while fighting an active COVID-19 infection.

Of course, white supremacy and religion have a long history of enmeshment in America, with Martin Luther King Jr. famously remarking that the most segregated hour in the nation was during Sunday church service. But the church of Trump is different. Jimmy Carter was America’s first born-again Christian president, a man of sincere religious political convictions who pledged a foreign policy agenda guided by human rights. George W. Bush openly acknowledged his Christianity as the bedrock of his personal transformation from a young hell-raiser into a responsible adult. Whatever their shortcomings and political failures, few ever questioned the sincerity of their religious faith.

Trump has achieved something both more dangerous and unprecedented. The president has managed to become a one-person church worshiped by an overwhelmingly, although not exclusively, white congregation that seems to believe he can do no wrong.

For the tens of millions of Americans who are mystified by the rapturous allegiance the president commands, news of his medical diagnosis confirmed their worst fears about the nation’s halting efforts to end this COVID-19 crisis. Hopes and prayers that Trump’s diagnosis might precipitate a miracle that imbued the president with a sense of empathy for the plight of the over 200,000 Americans who have perished from the coronavirus were quickly dashed by tone-deaf tweets, a hasty exit from the hospital against medical advice and a morally reprehensible photo op where Trump soullessly peeled off his mask on the White House balcony.

Trump supporters have, during this latest crisis, largely applauded their dear leader with even more reverence by abandoning logic and any pretense of intellectual and moral consistency. The White House’s decision to limit contact tracing from the Rose Garden celebration makes no sense from a public health standpoint and seems intended to mitigate the political fallout from Barrett’s disastrous debut.

At the Rose Garden ceremony that turned into an unintended “superspreading” event, a president with no faith in anything or anyone but himself beamed at the prospect of appointing a Supreme Court justice whose rulings on abortion foreshadow constraint on the reproductive rights of women, both religious and secular, around the nation.

Those in attendance came to symbolically kiss the ring of a president whose uncanny ability to detect political vulnerabilities allowed him to not just remake the GOP in his own image, but to erect a kind of parallel religious faith — the Church of Trump — where in a crowd of white faces, wearing masks that might save the lives of fellow human beings during a pandemic is never required.

Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin CNN

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