If Donald Trump survives impeachment and wins a second term it will because, to many conservatives, he is something akin to the katechon referred to in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians traditionally, if wrongly, ascribed to Saint Paul.
Katechon is Greek for “one who restrains”. Restrains what? In the epistle, that would be “the lawless one” who is destined to sow misery and mayhem in history’s penultimate act before being overthrown himself with the second coming.
The meaning of this strange passage has long been debated. To early church fathers, the restrainer, oddly, was the Roman Empire in the person of its emperor. The latter, before Constantine, might be no friend of Christians, but so long as he could help postpone the arrival of the Antichrist, it was best to pray for him.
“We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age itself with its menace of hideous suffering, is delayed by the respite which the Roman Empire means for us,” wrote the second century theologian Tertullian.
In like manner, American conservatives and not just the evangelical ones, may harbour severe reservations about Trump on both moral and ideological grounds, but they are sticking by him as their best shield against the Democrats — the Antichrist incarnate.
It’s not just Democratic policies they fear. It’s the Democrats themselves. As conservative pundit Rod Dreher put it in a recent interview with Vox, “At least Trump doesn’t actively hate people like me.”
Were Trump to be convicted by the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence would take his place. A seamless package of orthodox conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, Pence ought to make it easier for the Republican right to let Trump go. Trouble is, he is not the stuff of which great katechons are made.
To hold the forces of darkness at bay, you want a fighter, someone who really knows how to get in the face of the enemy and through sheer brazenness reduce it to helpless, self-defeating rage. And if that’s all you want, Trump’s your man.
Pence, or Dense as they used to call him when he was governor of Indiana, has the charisma and oratorical powers of a used kleenex. Also, he’s a true believer, and that might dampen his enthusiasm for holding off the Antichrist if it meant delaying the Rapture. He’s confident of being among those sucked into the sky on that occasion.
The thing about a katechon, of course (at least per the usage in Thessalonians) is that he or she can only delay the inevitable, not put it off indefinitely. At some point, Tertullian’s moment of “hideous suffering” has to arrive.
The Republican party has been dying for some time. It is hard to remember when the GOP last had a new idea that did not entail exacerbating inequality. To remain competitive, it has had to cheat, relying on gerrymandering and voter suppression. The proof of its diseased state was its capture by a race-baiting nationalist whom most Americans would vote against and whose razor thin margin of victory was helped — as even the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee officially concluded this week — by Russian active measures.
He will be impeached. Polls show the public warming to the idea now that he has convicted himself out of his own mouth of seeking campaign assistance from Ukraine and China. It is almost inconceivable that having launched an impeachment inquiry, the Democrats will balk at drawing up the necessary articles and bringing them to a successful vote in the House.
Will 20 Republican votes then be found in the Senate to remove Trump? Quite possibly if they can look beyond the coming of the Democratic Antichrist to the possibility of rebirth thereafter. Sticking with this katechon is a shortcut to the deadest of dead ends.