Growing Up with “The Apprentice” and Evangelicals

I remember as a kid, aged eight or nine, watching The Apprentice on TV with my mom. I went to a Christian school (fundamentalist Baptist), so it seemed like something we weren’t supposed to be watching, but who doesn’t have their harmless little sins? And I know damn well the other parents and kids were doing the same in their homes – if not The Apprentice, then 24 or Survivor. Watching Trump was exciting – as a culture-deprived kid in a culturally isolated subculture it seemed like he had everything I wanted, everything that was waiting out there in that World they told us held so many dangers.

My teachers and our youth pastors always did warn us about that World. The devil (in a twilight state between metaphor and reality) lays traps for young people to lead us astray. Those traps are pleasant to the senses but lead eventually to spiritual isolation and death. As we got into middle school, we’d sometimes have week-long “revivals” at the end of which we’d confess and renounce our worldly CD’s. We’d just throw them away though, no record-burning here.

We were encouraged to develop that spiritual kind of longing- but what about the other kinds? I don’t know if I’ve ever really forgiven them. We wanted to adhere, but even compromises were labelled as the devil’s dirty trick. Some kids started listening to “contemporary” worship music – Christian rock, rap, screamo. To completely deny the world around us felt like it’d lead to neurosis, psychosis. But we also wanted to stay true to the faith.

I didn’t watch the 2004 Super Bowl – I was probably playing X-Box that night. But when I came to school the next morning I knew immediately that something was wrong. For homeroom, the teachers and all the kids knelt together while the principal prayed over the PA system. He prayed that our minds hadn’t been warped by what many had seen last night (“What WAS it?”); he prayed for those in thrall to the debauchery of the media; he prayed for healing for our nation. Twelve years later, when the left shot back at “Such a nasty woman” with Janet Jackson and a retooled “Nasty,” don’t think the resonance of “Nipplegate” was lost on evangelicals.

Our curriculum was designed to relate everything to the Lord. If by chance you ever come across a textbook produced by A Beka Book, take some time to look through it. I don’t know much about Soviet indoctrination methods, but I doubt the Reds could have gone much further. Every year in science we had a least one chapter on Creationism (good) vs. Evolution (bad). We had Bible class, too – each semester we’d study a different Biblical era or branch of theology. History class had readings straight out of Focus on the Family or the Heritage Foundation. We’d see how God’s plan wove together the various strands of events until the twentieth century when it all descended into Culture Wars. The only class that didn’t relate everything back to God was math, but god, I hated math.

For us, the culture wars were still in full swing and looking worse than ever. Those wars were political too. We thanked God in 2000 for Bush’s victory (one of my earliest memories). For us, Bush was not the literal agent of God in the White House. But he was a humble, God-fearing man whose victory was part of a (His ^) grand design. So the daily ridicule hurled at Bush by the World was seen as a sort of spiritual warfare. For most liberals, I don’t think it was as simple as Bush is stupid so he’s an Evangelical so he prays in the White House. But far too often the anti-Bush hysteria got jumbled into something pretty close. We thought Bush could give us another godly and triumphal decade like Reagan had. Instead, we watched the project of the Moral Majority irrevocably crumble. What started out as a campaign to bring America back to its godly foundations somehow ended up in Wall Street/Main Street meltdown and Near East quagmires. I started drifting toward the left; I think a lot of those around me started equating democracy with calluses.

This first time I ever heard about Trump in a political context was in a ninth grade English class. Our teacher was fresh out of Christian college where he’d majored in Biblical Greek and Hebrew before leveraging those linguistic skills to help us pick apart how English sentences functioned. He represented a growing trend – millennial Evangelicals who have a burgeoning interest in arcane theological matters (Calvisnism, anyone?) and who want to break the link between neo-conservatism and Fundamentalism. Back then, he was excited by something new called the Tea Party, a grassroots conservative movement by the people. I liked him personally but got bad vibes from his politics. Even worse, he told us half-approvingly of how Donald Trump, the famed TV star and businessman, was challenging political correctness to ask, “Hey, is Obama really even American?”  I don’t know how many of my classmates would remember now, but for me that first impression of Citizen Trump was lasting.

Skepticism of Obama, along with the scars of the Bush years, seemed to be pushing evangelicals toward political quietism. After all, our nation’s culture seemed to be in the late stages of terminal decadence. What did the American Dream amount to in this World other than the pursuit of Money Weed and Pussy? We’d tried to fight against that, tried to offer an alternative Dream of Bible-believing conservatism that would lead our country to prosperity. But the opposition had been too strong. We’d been drowned out by a hysterical chorus of hissing and shrieks. Somewhere along the way, in struggle between two dreams, we’d lost our way. I fell out of the fight.

But you can’t escape your roots; you can only grow out from them. After-hours I’d indulge in non-curricular reading. I started with bad boys like Nietzsche, Byron, and Kerouac, whatever would defy my handlers the most (had they known what I was reading). But that anti-Christ fervor, initially a breath of fresh, over time mellowed subtly into a what felt like a higher calling to Culture. Over the next few years, I thought I had shed the constraints of fundamentalism, but I’d really only changed on the outside. I suppose I replaced the dogma of my past with a commitment to a vague humanism and agnostic spirituality. In my own way I’m still a believer. And I have to stay on guard against an intolerant evangelizing of my newfound tolerance. (In nightmares sometimes, I follow my new objects of reverence to some kind of fundamentalist Neo-Platonism.)

When Trump began to reconstitute all the traditional Republican sectors of support, I half-kidded myself that my old compatriots, the Evangelicals, would never stoop so low. But virtually all of them did. On my Facebook feed, and in the movements of mind among the few saints I still kept in contact with, I witnessed Evangelicals’ capitulation to all the worst of what they’d warned me against. I was pissed. Sure in my head of my own righteousness:  “I knew they were phonies the whole time! I knew the whole holier-than-thou routine was just a cover for junk conservatism! I’ve kept true to the faith, I’ve rejected our culture’s moral rot!”

Not that I-was-rightism amounts to much of a political program. Thinking back now, it’s pretty clear that my opposition to Trump has always been more cultural than political — a kind of a priori objection to his reality TV past. With that, his gleeful dissembling suggests a profound solipsism and nihilism. I realized a week before the election exactly why Trump’s candidacy left me in such despair. Forget MAGA, or America First, or any of that garbage. Trump’s philosophy was precisely that of the Roman emperors of old: Power is the only meaning in life. That, combined with a cancerous entertainment industry, had succeeded in duping the public intro swallowing four years of the Great Lie. To me, Trump’s real, subliminal campaign slogan was “God is Dead.” I’d expected to find Evangelicals crowding around in solidarity, rushing with me to aid the Resistance. Instead, they deserted the field.

Trump, in the best case scenario, is much more hideous than anything the Left projected on Bush back in the Good Old Days. I hesitate to speak for all Evangelicals (‘cuz I never went all in), but let me suggest those with long memories have gone with Trump to give the Left the monster it deserved. If that’s a stretch, what seems undeniable is the contradiction between the World and (okay, you’re not allowed to say this) low-brow religion is so fraught that evangelicals have been driven to such despair that they’re willing to make a sort of Mephistophelian deal with the very Whore of Babylon. I can’t pinpoint all the reasons for the great betrayal, but I know the crisis of culture that Trump represents extends beyond evangelicals. We’ve all been watching too long.

For me, though, there’s nothing general about that crisis. It’s personal. No man becomes estranged from his childhood without enduring a kind of perpetual adolescence. I’d like to be able to look back, but now every time I try I just see a sickening orange glow. Was it there from the beginning? If not, where did we go wrong? As much as I protest, my lot will always be in part with the Evangelicals. And I’d like to be able to talk again someday soon.