Next year, on Halloween, we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the reformation. And there’s a chance we will be celebrating it with a new leader equally iconoclastic: Donald Trump.
St. Martin’s Cathedral is tall and gothic. The whole structure is made from dark red brick, massive windows, and pointed spires. Once it was the largest cathedral in the Netherlands. But much of it has collapsed. Today, only the most impressive structures remain including the large stone edifice known as the Dom Tower. Inside the building, above the altar, there’s this ornate relief sculpture of eight figures, the details still fresh as when it was first made. The figures converse around a throne and seem to be reading out of a large book. Above, as if looking down from heaven, another figure oversees the scene. It seems to be a depiction of God’s promise in Matthew: where two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be also.
But there is something peculiar, even haunting, about this particular relief. Starkly white above the golden robes, the faces have all been chiseled out. It is clear they had once been there, but now only the rough and uneven stone remains. The removal took place during the iconoclasm (image-breaking) of the reformation. The reformation was not just a time where literacy expanded, it was also a time where art was destroyed, particularly art that had become sacred to the Catholic church. Perhaps over ninety percent of medieval art disappeared. Stain glass was broken, sculptures reduced to rubble, and paintings burned. And why? Because they had become too sacred—so sacred that a lot of people felt they were replacing more important things, like God. The threat was not the images themselves, but the reverence they had obtained.
Leaders like John Calvin encouraged riots across all of Europe. It’s not hard to image the weeping of faithful Catholics as their precious images, heirlooms, and treasures inherited the wind. And it’s not even hard to imagine the exhilaration of being involved in the destruction. It must have felt exciting because it allowed people to stand up against an authority that had tried to become above contestation.
I have already made the comparison explicit. Trump is constantly iconoclastic and the way some love and others hate him is reminiscent of the iconoclasm of the reformation. To Trump supporters it’s a step forward. Of course he’s not breaking physical images. Instead he attacks liberal values and ignores political correctness. He’s bombastic, unrefined, and ugly. And though he seems to lie a lot, he also seems more honest than Hillary in one way: he says whatever he thinks even if it’s not what his party wants him to say. And his fans love him for it.
His iconoclastic political incorrectness includes, but is certainly not limited to, his statements to women, his claims about Muslims entering the country, his ideas on immigration, and his disrespect for multi-cultural sentiments in general. His existence and success is a threat to the sacred cows of liberalism. And for liberals who have commissioned, painted, and created these cows, it’s pretty hard to see the work ignored, mocked, and desecrated. And so they cannot help but see Trump and his supporters as anything but ignoramuses.
Liberals and many conservatives watch in horror as sacred edifices and political icons come crashing down—or at least they can imagine it happening if Trump wins. These are holy images, sacred images, images above contestation. The horrified onlookers sound a lot like Catholics during the reformation exclaiming that there could be no possible excuse for such careless image-breaking. It’s not just ignorant but unholy, sacrilegious, and evil. Such destruction could be nothing but a step backwards. But then again, we don’t generally view the reformation as a step backwards (though in many ways we should).
It might help to consider that the reason this destruction seems thrilling to Trump supporters might not be because the images are bad, poorly made, or without value. The simplest example is that most Trump supporters don’t have anything against woman (many of them are women), and yet many of them are not turned off by Trump’s comments. And I suppose most of the rioters in the reformation could have actually appreciated the art they were destroying. They probably liked the colors, were impressed with the mastery, and appreciated the eloquence.
It is likewise believable to me that many Trump supporters could find value in many of the liberal values they mock. I assume they could express appreciation for many immigrants, gain respect for Islam, and even admit some value in political correctness itself. But that would not necessarily stop the image-breaking. Because their image-breaking is not about the “art” itself, but the sanctity it has obtained. The fact that opposing opinions are treated as blasphemy rather than disagreement.
Seeing Trump as an iconoclast also explains why so many people don’t just dislike Trump, but hate him. It’s interesting how much Trump haters almost seem religious in their indignation (a term I don’t use condescendingly but descriptively). Trump haters believe that the images he breaks are sacrosanct. The values he threatens are not a kid’s meal toy. Instead they sit up front, at the very altar, and if you chip off their faces, you’re not just ruining the art, you’re probably going to hell.