May 5, 2016

Regarding Trump

Thanks to Trump, it’s rather heartbreaking to be anywhere on the conservative range of the political spectrum.

Donald Trump

Much has been written, and more will continue to be written, about Donald Trump’s surprising, improbable, and frightening ascendancy in the Republican party. Here are some of the better pieces out there regarding Trump, and what his triumph harbingers, not just for Republicans and conservatives, but for American politics in general.

Mere Orthodoxy’s Matthew Lee Anderson ponders the personal implications of Trump’s candidacy, and the implications for American evangelical Christians (emphasis mine).

Whether the apotheosis of Trump is a betrayal of the Republican party, or a clarification of its inner core, does not matter. That the party has left any semblance of conservative principles outside its gates is clear enough, and damning. Such principles are not only of an economic or legislative type, but encompass the indispensability of virtue and the health of soft social institutions for our common good. It is only within such a hollow core that Trump could possibly arise: The absence may be one that we are all complicit in, but that does not entail that we should vote to perpetuate it.

But what will ‘the evangelicals’ do, those institutions and individuals who have made party politics the vehicle of their moral vision? Here is, perhaps, the only silver lining I can find to this sad affair. The rise of Trump is the death blow to any pretenses, any illusions about where the convictions of those conservative Christians involved in politics at our highest levels lie. We face the prospect of a great untethering of the evangelical witness from the Republican party, a prospect that every Christian — including, and especially, those like me who have claimed the Republican name — should meet with joy and gladness.

The restoration of the evangelical witness in American political life must begin with the expunging of the failed forms of influence-seeking that have gripped us, and with a reinvigoration of the proper theological basis of our activity. The reality that “the party” will now turn its attention — is already turning its attention — to demanding fealty for Donald Trump from those whom he has openly and flagrantly mocked is a trumpet blast loud enough to awake even the Religious Right from the deathly slumbers of its partisan captivity, a captivity it has embraced to its own demise.

I think I’ve linked to it before, but Alan Noble’s piece on how Trump happened, and what the post-Trump conservative movement needs to do to survive, is still worthwhile reading.

So let me say this again, because it is absolutely critical: Trump’s rise to political prominence is in large part the result of a failure on the part of mainstream conservatives to clean their own house—a failure that has led to a movement of conservatives, driven chiefly by paranoia and powerlessness, who latch on to the only candidate willing to fully pander to their fears. Which means that the way we fix this mess is not primarily by defeating Trump (although we pray for that, too!), but by beginning the hard work of showing a better way forward.

But this “better way forward” can’t just be for “us.” Conservative evangelical politics must reflect a desire for the good of all people. A politics for the good of our neighbors does not require us to turn a blind eye to problems in the name of standing up to “political correctness.” We don’t need worse vision; we need much better vision.

[…]

What is needed, then, is an intentional effort by conservative evangelical institutions to offer a better, truer, more just vision of our country. Conservative evangelicals need to holistically display this vision and teach the ways it can be pursued, not merely in our policies or think-tanks, but in all of our rhetoric: on our radio shows, in our campaigns, through our slogans. That vision must be defined not by the conservation of cultural Christianity, but through the active promotion of the good life for all citizens, the opportunity to flourish within communities, the unrolling of justice and uprooting of discrimination, and national humility.

Andrew Sullivan has (thankfully) returned from a long absence with a new and sobering column for The New Yorker that examines the current state of our democracy. (Spoiler alert: It could be better.) It’s a long piece, so pour yourself a warm beverage and find a comfortable chair, but it’s worth it.

Trump, we now know, had been considering running for president for decades. Those who didn’t see him coming — or kept treating him as a joke — had not yet absorbed the precedents of Obama and Palin or the power of the new wide-open system to change the rules of the political game. Trump was as underrated for all of 2015 as Obama was in 2007 — and for the same reasons. He intuitively grasped the vanishing authority of American political and media elites, and he had long fashioned a public persona perfectly attuned to blast past them.

Despite his immense wealth and inherited privilege, Trump had always cultivated a common touch. He did not hide his wealth in the late-20th century — he flaunted it in a way that connected with the masses. He lived the rich man’s life most working men dreamed of — endless glamour and women, for example — without sacrificing a way of talking about the world that would not be out of place on the construction sites he regularly toured. His was a cult of democratic aspiration. His 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, promised its readers a path to instant success; his appearances on “The Howard Stern Show” cemented his appeal. His friendship with Vince McMahon offered him an early entrée into the world of professional wrestling, with its fusion of sports and fantasy. He was a macho media superstar.

[…]

Trump assiduously cultivated this image and took to reality television as a natural. Each week, for 14 seasons of The Apprentice, he would look someone in the eye and tell them, “You’re fired!” The conversation most humane bosses fear to have with an employee was something Trump clearly relished, and the cruelty became entertainment. In retrospect, it is clear he was training — both himself and his viewers. If you want to understand why a figure so widely disliked nonetheless powers toward the election as if he were approaching a reality-TV-show finale, look no further. His television tactics, as applied to presidential debates, wiped out rivals used to a different game. And all our reality-TV training has conditioned us to hope he’ll win — or at least stay in the game till the final round. In such a shame-free media environment, the assholes often win. In the end, you support them because they’re assholes.

And finally, Bonnie Kristian explains Trump’s rise as the culmination of American civil religion (emphasis mine).

But for all the headlines the Trumpvangelicals have snagged, their vehement support is ably matched by the strident opposition to Trump found among millions of American Christians of all stripes, many of them (like me) appalled that such blatant pandering and brash prurience is, well, working on our fellow travelers in the faith. Nearly a year into this misadventure, it is still tempting to ask: How is this happening? How is the heir of the Moral Majority endorsing a twice-divorced former strip club owner? How is Trump so appealing to what is supposed to be a Christian nation?

And it is in precisely that last phrase — “Christian nation” — the answer may be found: America’s entrenched, pseudo-Christian civil religion is the primary culprit here. President Trump is the due result of our theologically vacant imperial cult, which in the guise of orthodoxy worships only the power of the state.

Granted, the connection may not be immediately obvious, particularly in light of the harsh critiques Trump has received from many prominent Christians, as well as his own dime-store costume faith.

These surface obstacles obscure the deeper fit. Trump’s extravagant self-deification, his demands of personal allegiance, and his obsession with unique national and personal greatness all flow naturally out of a civil religion which co-opts Christianity to cast an aura of divine approval on Washington. Indeed, Trump fancies himself a modern Caesar, tinged with divinity and cloaked in gold. Our civil religion gives him just the theological resource he needs.

As for myself, I’m firmly in the #NeverTrump camp, but I don’t say that proudly or defiantly. It’s always been a bit difficult to throw my lot in with the country’s conservative movement, for a number of reasons. Thanks to Trump, however, it’s rather heartbreaking to be anywhere on the conservative range of the political spectrum right now. Not, mind you, because I think conservative values and ideals are wrong, but because there’s so little institutional integrity or self-respect backing them up.

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