The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the story of Brigham Young tells us about Donald Trump

Long before President Trump, Young used bombastic rhetoric, framed outsiders as a threat — and precipitated violence.

President Trump talks to reporters about the whistleblower case after participating in a ceremonial swearing-in of Labor Secretary Gene Scalia in the Oval Office on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In response to the burgeoning scandal about his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July, President Trump tweeted something remarkable. “I would only do what is right, anyway,” he asserted, “and only do good for the USA!”

Never mind what I’ve done, the tweet implies, however wrong it may seem. You can trust that I know what I’m doing and that it’s all for your good. Believe me.

He isn’t the first leader to use faith as a justification for authority. Years ago, so, too, did Brigham Young, an American who took on the role of a divinely led prophet. How Young wielded power shows us just how dangerous such authority can be.

In the mid-19th century, Young was not only the federally appointed governor of the Utah territory but also the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest of the Mormon groups that traced their origin to Joseph Smith’s claims on divine revelation in the 1830s.

After Smith’s murder in 1844, the LDS community had functioned for three years under the collective direction of a Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Late in 1847, Young pushed the Quorum to re-create the church’s presidential office and to install him in it. “I am the mouthpiece and you are the belly,” he bawled at the members of the Quorum. “If a lot falls on a man to be King — is he not King?” The thin opposition in the Quorum finally relented. From that point, Young could claim singular authority in a church that was already shaped to accept its leaders as divinely appointed and guided.

When the Utah territory was formed in 1850, Young was appointed governor, and he wielded his federally granted authority in the same manner that he wielded his church authority. As the only body of white settlers in the region, the LDS Mormons were called to form the territory’s D.C.-authorized legislature.

Before the agent sent from Washington to supervise a genuine election could arrive, Young placed his roster of legislators before his followers for their pro forma ratification. As faithful LDS Mormons, those legislators felt their job was to approve the governor-prophet’s initiatives. And they did not disappoint: Historian D. Michael Quinn has found that between 1851 and 1855, the lower house of the Utah legislature did not record a single vote of dissension; the upper chamber split only once.

When federally appointed judges arrived to run the territory’s judicial branch, Young both ignored and undermined them. In sermons throughout the territory as the president of the church, Young railed that the judges were corrupt outsiders, sent by Washington to continue its persecution of LDS Mormons. He blended Trump-style verbal assaults — labeling justice William Drummond “proud as a peacock and ignorant as a jack--s” — with personal lawsuits and other legal harassment that made it difficult for the judges to do their jobs.

One after another, judges (and other appointed officers) fled the territory, some of them within weeks of arriving. They reported to Washington that the Utah territory functioned as a religious oligarchy.

In the absence of federal appointees, Young put the circuit courts under the authority of an LDS Mormon judge and appointed one of his church assistants to be the territorial secretary. No wonder, then, that in 1854 no one back East would accept an appointment to replace Young as governor. This fear enabled Young to claim a second term by default, inspiring him to proclaim, “I shall be governor as long as the Lord Almighty wishes me to govern this people.”

Young insisted that because his territorial government operated according to divine direction, it could resist federal oversight. But President Buchanan’s Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson saw the 1857 declaration by the Utah legislature that it would “resist any attempt of Government Officials to set at naught our Territorial Laws,” as a declaration of war.

Anticipating a war, Young rallied his base. “I have come to a decision. … let any people whatever rise up against this people to destroy them, and in the name of Israel’s God I say, lift the sword and slay them.” Shouts of “Amen” followed.

Citing his authority as governor, and “in the name of the People of the United States in the Territory of Utah,” Young issued a proclamation declaring martial law and dictating that “no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, or though, or from this Territory, without a permit from the proper officer.”

While war never came (thanks to the work of a skilled negotiator), Young’s hyperbolic rhetoric, painting outsiders (including the federal government) as a threat and exhorting his followers to defend themselves with violence, had tragic consequences.

Weeks after Young's proclamation, in the high desert of the Utah territory, LDS Mormons murdered more than 100 Arkansas migrants. The mob killed men, women and all but 17 of the smallest children. When ammunition ran low, the Mormons brought death brutally, up close, with knives and rifle butts.

While Young was hundreds of miles away, and there is no concrete proof that he gave an order or otherwise directly partook in the massacre, he was culpable for motivating it. He had cast immigrants and outsiders as existential threats in speeches reminiscent of Trump’s bromides today. When Young shouted that “the murderer, the assassin, the midday plunderer, and highway robber roam unmolested and mingle unquestioned in the society of the rulers of the land,” as he did in 1855, he may as well have told his followers that the United States was sending its rapists and drug dealers across the border.

Many of Young’s followers accepted him as above the law or as leading by divine law. This led them to take seriously such bombastic proclamations of threat, and to see themselves and Young as peculiar defenders of a truth that others couldn’t see. This idea nurtured a siege mentality that precipitated the massacre, which the Mormon perpetrators framed as self-defense.

The tragic consequences of Young’s rhetoric show us the danger of someone believing they alone are able to see what’s right, and deserve unchecked power to pursue it. For years, Trump has clawed for space in which to operate without any check or oversight. In his quest to be the sole arbiter of right and wrong, he has increasingly wielded the rhetoric of religious calling to insinuate that his otherwise inexplicable or problematic actions derive from a divine mystery that only he understands. His rhetoric encourages the worst inclinations in his devotees, and, like Young, he does not appear to have the ability, much less the inclination, to shut up.

Those qualities have created an atmosphere in which violence can escalate quickly — indeed, it has many times in the last three years. And while Trump happily claims unchecked power, he also denies responsibility for the consequences of his words and policies. That is unlikely to change, but it does not mean the rest of us have to play along.

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