To cite this article: Susan Harding & Emily Martin (2021) Trump Time, Prophetic Time and the Time of the Lost Cause, Anthropology Now, 13:1, 30-36, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2021.1903507
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2021.1903507
Susan Harding and Emily Martin
SH: During the COVID-19 lockdown, Emily; her husband, Richard Cone; and I have been streaming TV series and then discussing the episodes via FaceTime three times a week. We’ve watched a variety of historically situated and grimly evocative series, among them Babylon Berlin, Giri/Haji, Small Axe and The Wire. Possibly under their influence, our ongoing side conversations about Trump’s latest atrocity took a sharp turn in early October 2020, when Emily discovered Trump time.
This turn, for me, opened up the possibility of our thinking more seriously about the by-now clichéd notion that Trump and his followers live in an alternate reality. It allowed for shifting the emphasis from alternate– as-in-false to reality-as-in-actual, that is, as an inhabited and sensible world. So I want to begin our conversation by asking Emily, What is Trump time?
EM: Trump time occurred to me while I was watching CSPAN’s coverage of Trump’s return to the White House after he was treated for COVID-19 and recovered. He had just been discharged from Walter Reed Medical Center and flown by helicopter to the lawn on the South Portico of the White House. It was not the usual way to see the president enter the White House, and because it was late in the day, the lawn was darkening in the fading light. Trump descended the helicopter stairs, walked across the shadowy lawn and climbed manfully up the staircase to the brightly lit balcony above. There, he stood at the gold railing, gazed at the crowd in the distance and removed his mask with a flourish. He posed, motionless and unsmiling, for a few minutes, then saluted Marine One as it took off, waved briefly and entered the White House.
It was a drama that demanded interpretation. I felt Trump wanted to be seen as a hero returning from a skirmish with death, and having conquered it, ascended to a transcendent position above us ordinary mortals. The performance had obvious Christian overtones, but what really struck me was that he was occupying a different kind of time, not the ordinary time most people inhabit. And further, his time, “Trump time,” denied the relevance and universal validity of ordinary time.
The experience reminded me of a distinction that Johannes Fabian made in his critique of anthropology’s use of time.1 Anthropological fieldworkers occupy the same kind of time, a coeval time, with their interlocutors. They understand themselves to be affected by the same historical events or present-day forces. But for much of anthropology’s history, when ethnographers left the field, they wrote about their interlocutors and their cultures in the present tense. In doing so, they removed these interlocutors from historical time and portrayed them as if they existed outside of time, in a timeless state of unchanging tradition. Thus their coevalness (contemporaneousness) was denied. In this way, earlier ethnographies created an unbridgeable distance between them and us. We occupied a modern, rapidly changing urban time unfolding into the future, and they lived in a past that had persisted into the present. Different kinds of people occupied different sorts of time.
That’s the effect Trump’s return from his encounter with COVID-19 had on me. It denied our coevalness and placed us in different—and unequal—kinds of time. I want to think more about how the two kinds of time differ, and maybe a good place to, begin is with those Christian overtones of Trump time. Did you sense them when you watched Trump’s return from COVID-19? Was he invoking the story of Jesus’ return from the dead?
SH: I agree that Trump’s performance evoked Jesus’ return from the dead, but he couldn’t overdo such allusions because that narrative spin was contradicted by his constant downplaying of the virus. “Don’t be afraid of it,” he said. “You’re going to beat it. Don’t let it dominate your life.”2 So I don’t think Trump is exactly a Jesus-like figure or would-be Messiah for his evangelical followers. He is more like a divinely anointed prophet or king. More like Moses or David than Jesus. From the beginning of his 2016 campaign, evangelicals talked about Trump as a man sent by God to save America in this moment. He was flawed, to be sure, but many of God’s chosen men have been flawed. So while his ascendance to the White House balcony had innuendos of a Christian-inflected “return from the dead” story, it’s more a “great man of God” story. But it’s no less a story that places Trump and his followers in a different kind of time from the rest of us.
Many evangelical Christians think about current events in relation to the End Times and the second coming of Christ. They pore over the news looking for signs that align with their particular reading of Bible prophecy and its key texts in the Book of Revelation and the Old Testament. There has bee plenty of fodder recently for this kind of thinking (the coronavirus epidemic, the West Coast fires last summer, the political turmoil). But instead of fostering a sense that the end is near, if not upon us, there’s a lull in what might be called mainstream Bible prophecy speculation. Trump is the major preoccupation now, and QAnon has stepped up as the source of most creativity and revelation about future events.3
QAnon is Christian in some ways, but not in others. There is a lot of overlap—many QAnoners are Christians and many Christians, above all charismatics, follow QAnon. And their hermeneutic practices echo those of Bible prophecy. It could be that QAnon is an emerging charismatic sect, but for the time being I think it makes more sense to think of QAnon as a conjuncture of discrepant discourses. Christianity, New Age, gun rights, white supremacy, militant masculinity, antigovernment, antiabortion rights, anti-Semitism, multiple forms of sexual panic and any and all conspiracy theories mingle freely in QAnon. Supernaturalist Christianity comes closest to being a lingua franca, but it is not required. Q and Q’s bakers (the leading interpreters of Q drops or “breadcrumbs”) are the sources of many of QAnon’s prophetic predictions, and they resonate with like-minded Christians.4 QAnon is Bible prophecy unleashed from the Bible and its authorized Bible teachers. It’s a hybrid secular Christian practice.
EM: This helps me understand the mix of voices among the insurrectionists who invaded the Senate chamber. The crowd seemed to include people with many different motivations. There was the guy who insisted they were only there for a PR event, alongside a group rifling through papers in senators’ desks, alongside the horned shaman chanting on the balcony, alongside the cop who said he was there to protect the Senate chamber, the “most sacredist place.” Your point that Christianity served as something close to a lingua franca was borne out by what happened when the shaman stood behind the Speaker’s chair on the dais, removed his horns and began to preach. At that signal, all the different members of the crowd gathered in front of the dais like a congregation in a church, heads bowed and hands raised. Some were even kneeling and all of them said “Amen” together at appropriate points in the shaman’s sermon.
If anyone hoped this event on Jan. 6 would topple the U.S. government and keep Trump in office, they were to be disappointed. If Trump’s call to the crowd to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” was a prophecy that the crowd would start a revolution, then, for the moment, the prophecy failed. I wondered what Leon Festinger, author of the classic sociology text When Prophecy Fails, would say?5 When this prophecy failed, would they abandon their cause? Would that happen because, as Festinger theorized, the cognitive dissonance involved would be unbearable? Or would they revise their prophecies and move on?
SH: Both. As Festinger and his coauthors put it, when prophecy fails, believers experience cognitive dissonance from the experience of disconfirmation, and they show that, while some believers abandon their faith as a result, others persist. But I think their framework makes it hard to understand the recuperative capacity of prophetic movements. Prophecies are less a set of firm beliefs than a supple interpretive practice. Followers constantly harmonize the discrepancies and carry on in heady anticipation of bringing an inevitable, if not entirely knowable, future into the present. Festinger et al. described the way many followers of William Miller fell away from his movement in the mid-19th century after his prophecies about Jesus returning failed. The authors noted that some believers persisted, but they didn’t mention that one group among them started receiving new visions and within two decades had founded the Seventh-day Church, which now has more than 20 million members worldwide.
Current events are redolent with potential meaning to Trump’s followers, who pore over his words and deeds, the rich corpus of Bible prophecies and QAnon drops and breadcrumb trails. Their prophetic time is an unfolding of a “history of the future” that is in the process of becoming true. Q drops declined after the November election, and the inauguration of Joe Biden was a great blow to the expectations of QAnon followers, but I doubt we’ve heard the last of the movement. If a remnant could wrangle the tattered prophecies and free-ranging conspiracy theories, it might reemerge as a new Christian sect, or perhaps establish itself as an enduring faction or ideology of the Republican Party.6
At the moment, I think Trump’s retreat is as much an issue for QAnon’s future as are failed prophecies. In the wake of January’s disappointments, some of Trump’s faithful followers now predict that he will be inaugurated on March 4, which was inauguration day until 1933, when FDR changed it.7 Failing this, QAnon might have to de-center Trump to survive.
EM: The connections you make between Christian/Q and Trump time bring out for me the secularity of our kind of time and our commitment to science. They also point to the slippage between Trump time as Trump enacts it and what his followers do with it.
Trump’s followers engage in futuristic interpretations of many of his public acts, but his performances are, for Trump, all about the present. Trump time is episodic instead of linear and continuous, and this is something that Trump has claimed since the beginning of his term in office. He told his top advisors over and over to “think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”9 Once an episode is finished and released, it stands on its own. Episodes do not accumulate, cannot be compared, and evidence from one episode cannot be used to impugn a future episode.
Trump time can’t look to the past. As his White House physician Conley explained when he refused to say when Trump was last negative for COVID, “I don’t want to go back.”9 Numerous news programs expressed outrage that this information was not made public because of the obvious public health implications. The public needed to know these things: When did Trump become infectious, and who might he have infected? In response to persistent questioning, White House Deputy Communications Director Brian Morgenstern told reporters, “We’re not asking to go back through a bunch of records and look backward.”10
Science absolutely requires the ability to compare past events to subsequent events in order to understand cause and effect as they unfold over time. In Trump time, there are only a series of isolated present moments, and, as such, it denies the secular time of science.11 The episodic nature of his public words and deeds is what makes them seem so empty to many people, including us, but perhaps it’s also what makes them so resonant to his Christian and QAnon followers. His performances are like Q drops, and the job of his faithful followers is to figure out what they mean. It’s they who make Trump time about the future.
SH: Yes! And the future Trump’s followers are projecting is also, like Trump’s present, a denial of secular liberal time, which projects an open-ended, contingent, progressive future. The futures of his Christian and QAnon followers are regressive in the sense that they are mortgaged to fantasy pasts. That brings up Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again.” It may sound like another empty slogan, but, at the very least, it sounds like a call to his followers in the present to make the past into the future, while they fill in any blanks in the record.
The MAGA slogan, one of the lynchpins that hold Trump’s base together, makes me think of the time of the lost cause, or in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s terms, “the culture of defeat.”12 This mode of inhabiting time is certainly saturated with Christian tropes but has a rich secular Western history as well. It’s a narrative frame and sensibility that gathers up a people after defeat in wars—such as the Germans after WWI or the South after the Civil War—and remakes them into a nation with a redemptive mission. Here and now, American white masculinist Christianity was defeated by an equality and diversity crazed secular liberal nation during mid-20th century, and the victims have converted their losses into a bottomless source of fuel for their righteous comeback.
Victors may write history, but the vanquished may own the future in ways victors never can. So the people who inhabit prophetic time or the time of a lost cause survive failed prophecies and further defeats by deploying them to bring about future visions and victories.
Fabian described the way that anthropological writing, by portraying non-Western peoples as if they lived only in the present tense, denied them a past. He also showed how confining them to the present denied them a future. Modernity, science, and the West were in charge of the future. If Trump time is a collaborative outcome of his presentist performances and his followers’ powerful projects to bring forth futures out of imagined pasts, does it not also deny us a past and future?
EM: This brings up the question of power. The denial of coevalness that Fabian described was characteristic of an earlier period in anthropology when the discipline played a mostly unexamined part in a larger Western colonizing project. Anthropologists who studied non-Western societies needed the resources of colonizing officials and in return might provide ethnographic information that would help further colonizing projects. Contemporary anthropology is committed to critiquing its own role in the unequal power exerted by colonizing nations, including our own, as well as to collaborating with marginalized peoples. But Trump time is a project that marginalizes people like us. What does that do to our will to collaborate and critique?
SH: Groups such as QAnon and Christian white supremacist militias reveal the limits of anthropology-as-usual, even in its most progressive forms. Mere empathy and inclusion, which motivate so much anthropological writing about marginalized groups, are, for me, out of the question. Understanding the forces that marginalized the militant groups in Trump’s base still makes sense, but I don’t think simply critiquing those forces does, especially now that the militants have acquired so much power. There is still value in knowing as much as we can about them, and we need to learn continuously how to think about and to take seriously reality as they understand it. But, instead of accepting their ongoingness, can we, should we, bend our skills toward debilitating or dismantling—or building the forces that would debilitate or dismantle—their worlds?
EM: I share the urge to dismantle them. You are right that there is a dilemma for anthropology here. But is there a case to be made for keeping anthropology’s role as translator of assumptions their reality depends upon, since they do not often articulate their assumptions openly? I have in mind assumptions such as males are naturally dominant over females, or white people are naturally superior to all others. So maybe a job for anthropologists could be vividly describing the consequences of the reality Trump’s followers inhabit and, more important, describing the consequences of a different reality based on altogether different assumptions—a reality where women aren’t denigrated, borders aren’t militarized and racialization becomes a thing of the past.
- Johaness Fabian, Time and the Other: HowAnthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014 ).
- See video in “Donald Trump Makes Dramatic Return to White House After Coronavirus Treatment,” Daily Telegraph, October 5, 2020,
- Ruth Graham, “Christian Prophets Are on the Rise. What Happens When They Are Wrong?” New York Times, February 12, 2021, https://www. nytimes.com/2021/02/11/us/christian-prophetspredictions.html.
- “QAnon: The Search for Q,” Vice TV, https://www.vicetv.com/en_us/show/qanon-the-search-forq. On conspiracy theorizing in evangelical churches, see Aaron Earls, “Half of U.S. Protestant Pastors Hear Conspiracy Theories in Their Churchs,” Christianity Today, January 27, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/january/half-of-us-protestant-pastors-hear-conspiracytheories-in-t.html.
- Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Eastford, CT: Martino, 2011 ).
- Candida Moss, “How a New Religion Could Rise From the Ashes of QAnon” The Atlantic, Jan. 21, 2021, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-anew-religion-could-rise-from-the-ashes-of-qanon.
- Ewan Palmer, “Why QAnon Followers Think Donald Trump Will Be Sworn Back in on March 4,” Newsweek, February 8, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/qanon-march-trump-president-1567525.
- Maggie Haberman, G. Thrush, and P. Baker, “Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation,” New York Times, December 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/09/us/politics/donald-trump-president.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosam&stream=top-stories.
- CSPAN, October 5, 2020.
- Steve Benen, “The One Question Trump Won’t Answer About His Viral Infection,” October 9, 2020, https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/one-question-trump-wont-answer-about-his-viral-infection-n1242699. Although measuring differences between one time and another is not allowed, because each episode stands on its own, each episode is in one way exactly like an episode in a TV series. CNN’s news coverage of Trump’s reentry to the White House continued to film the action as Trump ordered the film crew and a photographer “to reshoot his entrance into the White House . . . he is not wearing a mask while he is walking into the White House where other people are shooting this and redoing his entrance to make sure that they can capture it in the way that the President wants them to” (Kaitlan Collins, CNN, Erin Burnett Outfront, October 5, 2020). The science-based public health risk that the president posed to others because he was unmasked, and had recently been hospitalized for COVID, could be ignored while he perfected the TV coverage of his reincarnation.
- MSNBC, Live with Hallie Jackson, October 9, 2020, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/video-msnbcs-hallie-jackson-presses-whitehouse-deputy-press-secretary-on-trumps-lastnegative-covid-19-test-for-over-5-minutes/ar-BB19RS86.
- Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery(New York: St. Martins Press, 2004).
Susan Harding is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has worked in Spain and the United States on agrarian reform, social movements, narrative politics, the Christian Right and secularizing practices. She is the author of The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2000) and Remaking Ibieca: Rural Life in Aragon under Franco (University of North Carolina Press, 1984). Her current project, The Book of Secular America, examines several mid-20th century de facto secularizing movements and projects.
Emily Martin is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at New York University. Her ethnographic projects have ranged from the anthropology of health and medicine to the history of the experimental method and the concept of data in experimental psychology. Her books include The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction (Beacon Press, 1987), Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture From the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS (Beacon Press, 1994) and Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (Princeton University Press, 2007). Her current project will appear in Experiments of the Mind: From the Cognitive Psychology Lab to the World of Facebook and Twitter, from Princeton University Press in 2021.