As individuals, we carry around certain assumptions about how the world works. They’re often unconscious until we drag them into the light. Similarly, our entire culture seems to have some subconscious ideas, and one of them might help explain one of the most unusual things about Trump’s ascendancy.
The concept of the Protestant work ethic is strong in American society (and turns out to be a real, testable thing). The basic idea – at least, the part that is important here – is that material success is a sign of spiritual success.
That’s not really what the theology involved says – it requires a believe in predestination, for example, which I don’t think is particularly widespread – but the concept as summarized above does seem to be real. For example, unemployment is more emotionally damaging in majority Protestant countries than elsewhere.
It doesn’t matter whether you are Protestant or not; the subconscious cultural idea (again, deriving from, but separate from the actual doctrine) impacts everyone in that society to some degree.
This implies that not only is a lack of success seen as a spiritual and moral failure, but that success (or at least, the impression of it) is seen as a spiritual and moral success.
And that brings us back to Trump. When the 60 Minutes interview aired, this image (or ones just like it) were all over the place:
Many (including myself) saw those golden thrones and thought “out of touch” or something like this:
But what we didn’t think about then – and apparently haven’t thought about yet – is that the very thing that seemed inappropriate and out of touch may have struck a subconscious nerve with a non-trivial number of Americans. That these very trappings of ostentatious wealth communicated moral authority and rightness at an unconscious level.
This would go a long way toward explaining why some religious leaders fell all over themselves trying to justify and rationalize away the ways that Trump’s words and actions didn’t and don’t meet their faith tradition’s rules.
Because it’s easier to rationalize away one person’s actions than to imply that a deep, nearly unconscious belief in the Protestant Work Ethic and the related Horatio Alger “bootstrapping” myth is flat out wrong.