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These Be Thy Gods
As you may know, I have an interest in the American presidency as a cult and in the president as an object of idolatry. I am writing a book about the subject. So I was amused when Donald Trump’s perfervid votaries at that ghastly clown show down in Orlando actually went so far as to set up a golden idol of the man for public veneration — I’m starting to feel like they are trolling me personally, but it’ll be a funny footnote in the book.
Of course, the Trump idol was fake gold, and it was made in Mexico — which is to say, it was only four bankruptcy proceedings away from being the Trumpiest thing imaginable. When the alien archeologists sift through the ruins of our civilization at some time in the future, I hope they discover the golden Trump idol, which may help them to understand where we went wrong as a species.
Trump presents himself as an outsider, but, in truth, he always fit in pretty well in Washington, D.C., a city that is packed to the rafters with elderly mediocrities who had rich parents. Trump’s godlike conception of the presidency is bipartisan Washington orthodoxy, and his nationalist/neo-mercantilist views are a lot more like Joe Biden’s than anybody in either camp would care to admit.
Even the Caligula-by-way-of-Versace frescoed ceilings in Trump’s noncy Manhattan apartment have their Washington equivalent. I refer, of course, to The Apotheosis of George Washington, painted on the inside of the Capitol dome by Constantino Brumidi, who honed his pious craft for years in the service of Pope Gregory XVI. Like the golden idol of Trump, The Apotheosis of George Washington expresses in immediate visual form precisely what is wrong — what is worst — in our political culture.
I understand that, because of the events of January 6, I am not supposed to talk about how much I detest Washington, our nation’s hideous capital city, and that I am especially expected to avoid vituperation against the Capitol itself. It surely is bad form to keep making jokes about my desire to endow an architecture scholarship in memory of General Robert Ross, the British commander who burned Washington in 1814. But there is an ideology and, indeed, a theology in the monumental ugliness of Washington, and it is worth understanding.
George Washington was venerated during his own lifetime and immediately thereafter with religious language, particularly with pagan religious imagery. And so it is in that sense appropriate that his apotheosis is depicted on the Capitol, under the dome of which Christian worship services were conducted in the early days of the republic. Those services were Protestant in character, but Brumidi’s work is entirely Catholic in its aesthetic sensibility, in part inspired by the Apotheosis of St. Genevieve at the Panthéon in Paris.
But there is some political tension in the choice of site. The Capitol is the seat of legislative power, but it is the executive, not any lawmaker, who is elevated to the heavens there. S. D. Wyeth, a chronicler of the “federal city” in the 19th century, described the work shortly after its completion:
Washington, the Saviour of his Country, apotheosized, appears seated in majesty. On his right is the Goddess of Liberty, and on his left is a winged idealization of Victory and Fame — sounding a trumpet, and in triumph displaying the victor’s palm.
Before the three, forming a semicircle, are thirteen female figures. The head of each is crowned with a star. They hold up a ribbon banner on which is inscribed, E Pluribus Unum.
These figures represent the thirteen sister States of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island — the original British colonies — that fought, and bled, and conquered — winning freedom, and the right to sing and shout the glad “morning hymn” announcing the coming dawn of man’s Millennial Day.
This should if nothing else help to establish that the cultic character of this and other images is not the result of the 21st-century reader projecting his contemporary secular mindset back onto what was only an affectation of artistic style that was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Man’s Millennial Day” is a Christian or pseudo-Christian apocalyptic religious proposition, not an extract from the conventional democratic discourse. Others read even more into the work than Wyeth did, for example noting that the goddesses representing the Confederate states then at war with the Union have their backs turned to Washington. Here, the identity of the founding father with the nation itself is once again reiterated: To turn one’s back on the United States of America is not only to reject a political arrangement but to reject a deity — treason, yes, but also apostasy.
The scene surrounding Brumidi’s Washington is a very American mix of the pagan, the democratic, and the commercial: Ceres is mounted atop a McCormick mechanical reaper; Venus grips the transatlantic telegraph cable; Vulcan labors alongside Charles Thomas, who managed the production of the Capitol’s iron dome; Minerva holds court with Benjamin Franklin and S. F. B. Morse; Mercury passes off a bag of gold to Revolutionary financier Robert Morris. The six surrounding tableaus represent the totality of national life as Brumidi conceptualized it: War, Agriculture, Mechanics, Commerce, Marine, and Arts and Sciences.
Above it all presides grim-faced George Washington as commander in chief — as god of war — his military uniform draped in imperial purple, gripping a sword. Constitutionally, George Washington had no authority in the Capitol, which is the domain of the legislative branch — because the president is not a member of Congress, if he even wishes to address the legislators, he requires an invitation. When George Washington actually was serving as president, Congress was quick to remind him of the executive’s limitations, for instance by ritually cutting him down to size in the matter of the treaty with the Muscogee Nation and rejecting his nominee for a position at the Port of Savannah when he failed to consult with Georgia’s senators beforehand. Washington the president vowed never to return to the Capitol and instead conducted all his business with Congress in writing.
Washington the god soars high above it all.
In this context, it is clear that Washington is something more than “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” and by no means “first among equals.” Primus inter pares had been a sufficient dignity for Augustus and Constantine, but after his apotheosis, George Washington was something more, a spiritual king who established the president as the central dramatic figure in American life. With his sword and his military regalia, Washington is the commander in chief who calls to mind the Romans’ word for that position: imperator, from which our word “emperor” is derived.
As such, it was inevitable that Washington should develop divine powers, which he did in the context of his mythology. While Brumidi was hard at work on his Apotheosis of Washington, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Amid the inevitable emotional outpouring for the national martyr were works of art in the now-familiar style, including a carte de visite by an unknown artist depicting the apotheosis of President Lincoln, who is welcomed to the hereafter not by winged Fame or Minerva but by George Washington himself, in the role of deity, who embraces Lincoln while crowning him with laurel. It’s a political picture that suggests both the communion of democratic saints and an apostolic presidential succession.
It is, to my mind and to the minds of all sane people, much easier to understand the quasi-religious veneration of George Washington than it is to understand the popular cult of Donald Trump. But the principle is the same, and the error is the same. Idolatry is idolatry, even when it is Washington above the altar. There will never be order in our political culture until the presidency is put in its proper place — which is not God’s place.
That Being Said . . .
The great theme of Trump’s CPAC speech was that he and his critics do not belong in the same political party, that they cannot be in effective coalition because they simply are not on the same team. In that, if in nothing else, I wholeheartedly agree with Trump. I have had several earsful in the past few months on the subject of building bridges between conservatives and the Trump element, repairing relations, burying hatchets, etc. But no one has yet been able to explain to me why that would be in fact desirable. And the only attempts at an explanation I have heard have gone, roughly: “Biden socialism Harris Ocasio-Cortez apocalypse now.” All of which convinces me that a skull is a perfectly fine place to bury a hatchet.
(Oh, yes, a metaphorical hatchet, you ridiculous ninnies.)
Words About Words
In his Comanches: The History of a People, T. R. Fehrenbach offers one of the most forlorn sentences in English: “Any history of the People, no matter who writes it, must suffer from the fact that records were kept only by the People’s enemies.”
The Comanche were so little esteemed by their conquerors that no real effort was made to study their culture until the 1930s, long after traditional Comanche life had been liquidated in the main and deformed in what little bit survived. Their story is mostly lost to history, but they loom large in American mythology, even if Anglo America’s impression of them is as hazy as Elizabeth Warren’s notional Cherokee ancestry. That’s a funny little tic of American culture: The Indians are, as a matter of popular culture, whatever we need them to be at any given time. We speak of a vague “Native American” spirituality in much the same way Hillary Rodham Clinton invoked mythical “African” proverbs. The Americas and Africa are big places.
Growing up in what had once been Comanche country in West Texas, schoolboys consistently were taught two things about the Comanche: that Quanah Parker had a white mother, and that the word “Comanche” means “enemy.” That’s a pretty bad-ass thing to name your people, but “Comanche” is not what the Comanche called themselves: As Rehrenbach wrote in his 1973 book, their autonym was something that might transliterated as “Nermernah,” meaning simply “people,” human beings:
The other Amerindians of the North American heartland did not call them People; each tribe reserved that term for itself. The Cheyennes called them Shishin-ohts-hit-ahn-ah-oh in their own sonorous language, “Snake People.” The Athapaskan-speaking tribes called them Idahi. The Siouan-speaking peoples of the western river valleys knew them as Pah-dooh-kah or Pádoucas. The mountain Utes, close cousins who had become alienated through the centuries, called them Koh-mats: “Those Against Us,” “Enemy.” Like most Amerindian peoples, the Nermernuh had many names, their own and those they acquired secondhand from enemies.
That Ute name, Koh-mats (or, in other accounts, kɨmantsi) was adopted by the Spanish and eventually came into English as “Comanche.”
There were and are many American peoples whose name for their own community is “people.” Native Languages of the Americas offers a page full of examples: Alnombak (“people”), Anishinaabe (“original people”), Dene Tha (“true people”), Hinonoeino (“our people”), Dunne-Za (“real people”), Sahnish (“original people”), Schitsu’umsh (“the people found here”), etc.
And if you are familiar with the (pretty awesome) Mongolian folk-metal band the Hu, their name is not just a cheeky homophone for Pete Townshend’s old gang: Hu means both “people” and, in context, “Mongolian” or “us.” And like the American peoples, the Mongolians have neighbors who are known as “not us,” or “those who do not speak our language.” (Cf. Kwakwaka’wakw, “speakers of our language,” a people of British Columbia.) There is something permanent in that — in us and them.
Do modern Americans harbor such notions? Ask “We the People.”
By request, a reminder about compose and comprise. To compose something is to put it together. And so the parts compose the whole. To comprise is to include, and so the whole comprises the parts. Two violinists, a violist, and a cellist together compose a string quartet; a string quartet comprises two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. (The violist’s therapist is not formally counted among the members of the quartet.) It is never comprised of — just as you wouldn’t write “included of.” The book comprises twelve chapters of varying quality. These 17,508 islands compose Indonesia. Indonesia is composed of 17,508 islands. Indonesia comprises 17,508 islands.
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I understand that there are scholarly objections to the King James Version, but, for poetry, it remains the standard:
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.
And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel.
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