Way back in April, Barack Obama told a CBS reporter, “The single most important question I’m asked these days from other world leaders is ‘What’s going on with your elections?’” I don’t rub shoulders with world leaders, but my Canadian friends have been plying me with similar questions. “Why,” they ask “does a singularly horrid man like Donald Trump have a decent shot at the most powerful elected office in the world?”
Is Donald Trump a horrid man?
The 13.4 million people who pulled the lever for the Manhattan developer during the primary season really love the guy. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Trump says. We are beginning to believe him.
The GOP nominee will always be a ratings goldmine, but an anti-Trump consensus has taken hold within the mainstream media. There is no longer the slightest pretense of journalistic objectivity. Reporters interview Trump the way prosecutors browbeat a hostile witness.
The editorial board of the Washington Post recently called Trump “uniquely unqualified” to be president and a “unique threat to American democracy.” The Houston Chronicle, after endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012, endorsed Hillary Clinton 100 days before the election because her opponent is “a danger to the Republic.”
Journalists have concluded that Trump has joined the likes of segregationist Strom Thurmond and the red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy on a short list of national embarrassments.
Conservative publications started backing away from Trump long before he secured the nomination. In a January editorial, the conservative National Review dismissed the Republican front-runner as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”
After decrying Trump’s “pornographic politics” George Will walked away from the Republican Party. When Trump dismissed Will as an “over-rated pundit,” Will just shrugged. “He has an advantage on me,” the columnist admitted “because he can say everything he knows about any subject in 140 characters and I can’t.”
David Brooks accuses Trump of abandoning “the Judeo-Christian aspirations that have always represented America’s highest moral ideals: toward love, charity, humility, goodness, faith, temperance and gentleness.” Ross Douthat, another moderately conservative New York Times columnist, is horrified by “the race-baiting, the conspiracy theorizing, the flirtations with violence, and the pathological lying” on display in the Trump campaign.
Pundits like Will, Brooks and Douthat believe the Reagan revolution will be doomed by demographic reality if it fails to embrace culturally conservative Hispanics, African Americans and Asians. Moderate conservatives aren’t primarily concerned about the wall Trump wants to build on the southern border; they are horrified to see the Republican nominee pouring gasoline on a firewall of antipathy that separates the Republican Party from non-white America.
But this is precisely why Trump could kill a man on Fifth Avenue without losing support: he isn’t blowing a racist and xenophobic dog whistle; he’s saying what the lily white denizens of corner bars and small town coffee shops have been saying for years and they love him for it. Why settle for hints and insinuations when there’s a candidate out there who leaves nothing to the imagination? Why compromise if you don’t have to?
An anti-Trump revolt is also building on the religious right. Russell Moore, the moral voice of the Southern Baptist Convention, wears his disdain for Trump on his sleeve. “This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country,” Moore said in a New York Times op-ed. “There are not-so-coded messages denouncing African Americans and immigrants; concern about racial justice and national unity is derided as ‘political correctness.’”
Even R. Albert Mohler, a reliable champion of all things conservative, regards Trump as a bridge too far. “His entire mode of life has been something that has been at odds with American evangelical conviction and character,” the president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says.
Mohler and Moore realize that 78 percent of white evangelicals say they plan to vote for Trump in November. “We’re having to face the fact,” says Mohler, “that, evidently, theologically-defined — defined by commitment to core evangelical values — there aren’t so many millions of us as we thought.”
Mohler is right. Trump’s popularity suggests there are fewer ideological conservatives and orthodox evangelical Christians than anyone imagined. A candidate like Trump exposes the demons lurking in the shadows of American culture. Russell Moore’s crusade to overcome his denomination’s historic ties to white supremacy will be an uphill slog.
“And this is the judgment,” we read in John’s Gospel, “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” In the 2016 election this gracious phenomenon has been reversed. As Trumpian gloom envelopes the landscape, millions of principled conservatives are fleeing to the light. They just aren’t sure where to find it.
Few disaffected conservatives, political or religious, are planning to go over to the dark side and vote for Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee is as almost as unpopular, particularly in conservative circles, as her Republican counterpart. Few on the right want their names associated with a woman who is regularly denounced as “pure evil.”
But it matters little if conservatives stay home on November 8 or write in Billy Graham as a protest vote: Hillary benefits either way and everyone knows it. The choice is between compromise and catastrophe.
But it isn’t representatives of the “broad conservative ideological consensus” who are unhappy with their political options.
The Democratic Convention in Philadelphia was a meticulously choreographed tour de force, but the catcalls, boos and anti-Hillary chants couldn’t be silenced completely. Millions of people on the far left, Millennials prominent among them, are eager to tell the world how much they despise Hillary. They could vote for Bernie without compromising their convictions. Compromise is Hillary’s middle name. How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-ee?
Bernie called for “a political revolution”; Hillary did not. In fact, as Ezra Klein argues, Hillary is a big-tent moderate who wants to give everyone, political enemies included, a seat at the table.
Clinton’s willingness to listen explains why the Democratic establishment embraced her candidacy from the get-go. She’s been building intense relationships with potential supporters for decades and now it’s paying off.
But, as Klein notes, there is a downside to Hillary’s penchant for listening. Her health care reform proposals in the early 1990s were clunky and confusing because Clinton provided something for everybody. Predictably, no one was happy.
Clinton has always had her thumb on the pulse of the American zeitgeist and she goes spectacularly wrong when the zeitgeist goes wrong. The 1994 crime bill, which Hillary supported, did unspeakable damage because everybody at the policy table, the NAACP included, was slurping down the tough-on-crime Kool-Aid.
Similarly, Clinton supported the invasion of Iraq because popular opinion was clearly on the president’s side.
Hillary’s “y’all come” leadership style only works when everybody has a seat at the table. But what happens if principled voices on the right and the left refuse, on principle, to join the conversation?
Full disclosure. I felt “the Bern” and voted for Sanders in the Texas primary. “I’m voting for Bernie in the primary and Hillary in the general,” I said at the time.
I’m a card-carrying liberal Democrat, but I’ve never been a fan of revolution. As a boy I agreed with John Lennon’s line: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”
Historically, revolutionaries (regardless of ideology) think they can usher in Nirvana by silencing the counterrevolutionary voices of their opponents. First you demonize, then you destroy.
This has been a very strange election. I didn’t expect to see the myth of American greatness, once the rallying cry of Reagan revolutionaries, co-opted by Democrats. There is a slight different in tone, of course. America is no longer great because she is a holy nation, chosen of God; America is great because she is good.
But is America good? Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton’s critics on far left seem to think so.
Donald Trump sees America the way C.S. Lewis saw the land of Narnia: always winter and never Christmas. Only this time, the golden-maned Christ-figure who breaks the spell is an aging reality TV star. “America was great, America is fallen, America will be restored (by me)”— that’s the message.
The radical left has a slightly different mantra. America was never great, they claim, and they can tell you why in mind-numbing detail. Liberal identity politics is rooted in a Manichean distinction between oppressors and the oppressed.
For proponents of gay rights, homophobia is America’s original sin.
For the Black Lives Matter movement, the villain is white privilege.
Critics of U.S. immigration policy train the spotlight on decades of American imperialism/colonialism in Latin America.
If the plight of the Palestinians is your issue, the evil resides is America’s knee-jerk support for Israel.
For feminists, “patriarchy” is the root of oppression; for Muslims it’s “Islamophobia”; for Occupy Wall Street and the environmentalist it’s rampant capitalism.
It is commonly agreed on the left that homophobia, white privilege, imperialism, Islamophobia, capitalism and patriarchy are mutually reinforcing evils that define America. To be guilty of one is to be guilty of all. You stand for the oppressor or the oppressed and there is no middle ground. This is why a natural-born compromiser like Hillary Clinton looks like the enemy.
When voices on the right deride “political correctness” they are rejecting the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy in all its manifestations. America is no longer great, they suggest, because people who “hate America” have commandeered the microphone. They can’t wait to see their hero silence these traitors to the American Way with a snarling “You’re fired!”
This attitude is particularly pronounced among white males without a college degree. In a recent New York Times article Nate Cohn suggests, “No liberal arts college class on ‘power, privilege and hierarchy’ will tell you that white working-class men have become a disadvantaged group.” But that’s how they see themselves, and Trump panders to this perception.
Can we critique the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy while admitting that opponents of patriarchy, white privilege, homophobia, Islamophobia, capitalism and imperialism have legitimate concerns?
We can, and we must.
There is plenty of greatness and goodness in America; why else are millions of people desperate to come here?
But we are a fallen people. The oppressions lamented by the radical left are real and they must be unmasked. We have made great progress as a people, but as Martin Luther King told the preachers of Birmingham: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
The political revolution sparked by Bernie Sanders won’t gain traction until America’s critics on the left get a seat at the table.
No individual or group can have the table to themselves, of course. When supporters of the marginalized, the private sector, the military establishment and voices from across the political spectrum are forced to interact the dialogue is bound to be awkward and inelegant. The results won’t be inspiring, but they can be real.
We can dream of silencing our ideological opposites if we like, but in America they are with us always. A national conversation sponsored by Hillary Clinton won’t usher in the Kingdom of God; but if everyone demands and receives a seat at the table, the arc of the moral universe might bend a degree or two in the direction of justice. This side of the Millennium, that’s as good as it gets.