Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

The Return of the King

The enchantments of a rising illiberalism.

Philip S. Gorski

Stéphane Bernard as Père Ubu from Ubu Roi (ou presque) by Alfred Jarry, 2017, Théâtre National Populaire, France, photograph by Christian Ganet; Christian Ganet/ArtComPress/Bridgeman Images.

On his daily podcast, the conservative commentator and #NeverTrumper Charlie Sykes often refers to Donald Trump as “the orange god-king” and to the former president’s fervent MAGA following as a “cult.” The jibe may be intended for laughs, but it hints at a deeper truth: The neoauthoritarian leaders of the present era have more than a little in common with the divine kings of the ancient world, and the enchanted worldviews of those who follow Donald Trump and others like him often verge on premodern magical thinking. In this respect, Trump and Trumpism are but one example of a global phenomenon, with similar figures and their similarly devout followers everywhere from Russia, Hungary, and Turkey to Brazil, the Philippines, and—possibly, with its own special characteristics—the new-old Middle Kingdom of the People’s Republic of China.

In the American context, these phenomena are usually attributed to populist ideology, racial backlash, or Christian nationalism. Such explanations are not wrong, but they are incomplete. They cannot explain certain puzzling features of the MAGA movement that are also evident outside the American context, including the outlandish behavior of the political leaders, the swirl of conspiracy theories that often surrounds them, or the lack of any clear policy platform. Nor do those explanations account for the enthralling worldviews of the new authoritarian movements, which mix religion, magic, conspiracy, and popular culture in a toxic stew.

Historical anthropology and cultural sociology can help us here by placing neoauthoritarianism in a much deeper and wider historical and cultural context, one extending far beyond modernity and well outside the “West.”11xOn the differences between immanent and transcendent forms of religion, and the affinity between immanent religion and divine kingship, see especially Alan Strathern, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2019) and A. Azfar Moin and Alan Strathern eds., Sacred Kingship in World History: Between Transcendence and Immanence (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2022). With the insights of those disciplines, we are able to see the peculiar features of this authoritarianism as quite real modern-day reincarnations—or possibly recrudescences—of the ancient tradition of divine kingship. Moreover, they help us understand the cultural precondition for the return of this tradition: namely, the rise of neoimmanentist worldviews, which hold that the world is imbued with the mystery and power of the sacred, and the concomitant decline of transcendent worldviews, which hold the sacred to be wholly other and beyond. In our postliberal era, the disenchanting principles of modern liberalism—including trust in science, reason, and objective fact—have themselves been disenchanted.

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