What are we doing when we vote? I find myself asking that question as I try to write this third and final post about Trump. People will answer this question in so many different ways. Some will say that we aren’t really doing much of anything when we vote. An individual’s vote just doesn’t matter especially if you live in a state where the decision is all but decided ahead of time. You may still vote because you see it as your civic duty or because you see it as a vaguely fun thing to do, but you believe your vote on Dancing with the Stars actually makes more of a difference. I don’t necessarily buy this cynicism. After all, individual votes add up and collectively send a message. Voting only “doesn’t matter” if you approach the democratic process as a staunch individualist. (I’ll also add that at a local level individual votes matter much more, but these are also the elections that we tend to ignore the most.)
If you hold the position that your vote actually means something, what exactly does it mean? Do you see your vote as a form of protest? Do you see your vote as a form of enthusiastic support? Do you vote for a party, for an individual, or for a specific issue? Do you vote as a Christian who happens to be American or as an American who happens to be Christian? Do you vote pragmatically or do you vote ideologically? Do you vote primarily for your own interests or for the wider interests of community and nation? Are you voting for a person or are you actually voting against another person?
These kinds of questions confuse the effort to make a case for or against any politician but especially someone as polarizing as Trump. For instance, two people could both cast a vote for Trump but for very different reasons. One is enthusiastically voting for him while the other just really hates the idea of a Clinton presidency. One might be voting for the merely pragmatic reason that Trump will nominate justices that support the voter’s agenda. Another might vote for Trump because he represents a certain ideology that they are attracted to. One might vote for Trump because the voter is a Christian. Another person might vote for Trump, and it never dawns on the voter that his faith should have anything to do with it. In other words, our reasons for voting the way that we vote are often complex, messy, and individual. Often, our political fights are the result of assuming that everyone else thinks of voting in the same way that we do.
It’s important that in this third post as I make an evangelical’s case against Trump I articulate my personal belief about “what I’m doing when I’m voting.” I see my vote primarily as an endorsement. My vote is an endorsement of a particular candidate and what he or she stands for. My choice to not vote for a candidate does not necessarily mean I am endorsing the other candidate. This is why I didn’t vote for either candidate in 2016. I couldn’t in good conscience endorse either, so neither one got my vote. I believe no one is entitled to my (or your) vote – especially for President – just because of the color of jersey they are wearing. They need to earn it.
In my last post, I said that the only argument that really works for Trump (or any politician) is a transactional argument. If that’s the case, then articulating the argument against Trump is easy. It says that if the “transactional scales” tip away from Trump for any reason, then he isn’t worthy of my vote. If you’re reading this right now and can’t imagine any scenario where the transactional scales would tip away from Trump, then you are likely committed to him for devotional reasons which I completely reject. No politician is unfireable!
So have the scales tipped against Trump? Obviously, that depends. As I reflect on the accomplishments and policies of Trump’s first term, there are some things that I have liked. There are other things that are troubling to me as a Christian.
For instance, Trump’s handling of the border crisis has left me saddened and at times outraged. Now, I’m not naive. I know that Trump wasn’t the first President to “lock children up in cages” at the border. I also believe that a big part of the President’s job is to protect national sovereignty which includes securing our borders. But I think it is also true that Trump has exacerbated the problem at the border through harsh enforcement policies, shoddy organization, inexcusable rhetoric, and a general lack of human compassion. You could claim that it isn’t the President’s job to show compassion. You may be right on the facts, but I’m not sure that’s a compelling argument for a Christ-follower to make.
I also have deep reservations about Trump’s posture to the world. He ran on a platform in 2016 that “America doesn’t win anymore.” An appropriate platform for 2020 is “America doesn’t lead anymore.” Abandoning the Kurds in Syria is shameful. Regularly attacking our closest allies in public while courting the friendship of dictators is disgraceful. I’ve been told that Trump is a brilliant negotiator. Have we actually seen real evidence of that beyond what Trump trumpets about himself? His bluster doesn’t make anyone safer. It doesn’t lead to stability and peace. It only opens the door for bad actors to expand their influence. Frankly, if a President from the other political party handled himself on the global stage as Trump does, most of the Trump supporters in my life would be blind with rage.
On a related point, as an evangelical I find the bald nationalism that has often characterized the Trump era unacceptable. I understand that a President’s first obligation is to his or her own nation. In fact, I don’t find it all that offensive when a President says “America first.” That’s the job! But there is an important difference between saying “America first” and saying “America only.” I have to add that the political Left has their own problem on this front, but I wouldn’t call their position nationalist. I would call it “statist.” If nationalism says “America only,” statism says “government only.” In our populist era, both worldviews are advancing and both worldviews are contrary to the gospel. They are both forms of idolatry that deserve to be identified and rejected.
I know that some of you reading this might say I’m not being harsh enough. In your mind, Trump has done virtually nothing right. You’d add several other questionable, offensive, or outrageous policy positions to the list. Others of you reading will find ways to tell me I’m completely misguided about these reservations that I have. You could even claim that all of the questionable policies and decisions don’t actually do enough to “tip the scales” against Trump. That’s fine. I can appreciate both of those positions.
But there is one argument that, at least for me, tips the scales against Trump.
First, some context. If you aren’t an evangelical, this is going to sound weird to you, but we evangelicals have been engaged in a steady culture war for over a hundred years now. I have some definite opinions on the culture war, which I won’t elaborate upon now. Instead, I’ll try to offer a quick summary. Basically, this is a conflict being waged not just to win souls for the gospel but to save the soul of a culture. Because of various peculiarities of American history and society, this culture war has typically been an American phenomenon. There have been many fronts in this war, but the two of most significance are media and politics. This culture war was a contributing factor to evangelical support for the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the creation of the March for Life. It also was a contributing factor to the evangelical version of cancel culture in the 1990’s. The culture war led to boycotts of Murphy Brown, Harry Potter, and “secular” music as well as support for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The tide in the culture war turned in the new millennium. Republican candidates like George Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were disappointments to evangelicals to some degree or another. Meanwhile the culture was taking massive steps away from evangelical values especially in regards to issues like marriage. The 2000’s have not been good to evangelicals and the culture war. Then along comes Trump.
Trump is a walking, talking middle finger. He is Tony Stark with a worse haircut. He was the perfect person at the perfect time to exploit fissures that had long been forming in our culture. (Cracked Magazine may have provided the best explanation for Trump that I’ve seen.) Imagine you live in Middle America. You haven’t seen any of the burgeoning economy and innovation flaunted by cities on the coasts. All you’ve seen is your town hollowed out, opioid addiction, crumbling institutions, and a stagnant economy. Now imagine being lectured incessantly by celebrities, affluent elites, and ivory tower institutions about how you are the problem with America. You are deplorable. You cling to your religion and your guns. You’re a backward, bigoted, white-supremacist. Your jobs have no value, and your traditional religious values are out of place in modern life. Imagine turning on the Oscars to see another starlet in a gown that costs more than you’ll make in a year tell you how you need to be better. Imagine being a middle-aged person in a middle-America town and being told that if you just learned how to code, you could have a future. Now imagine that you are given the opportunity to flash everyone a giant middle finger in a voting booth. I don’t want to be unfair. I know this characterization doesn’t describe all or even most evangelicals who voted for Trump, but I think it does describe many of them. I can’t even say that I blame them. It is a sentiment that I understand. But maybe we should also recognize that Trump’s presidency does not signal our triumph in the culture war, but our final defeat.
The first national election I voted in was 1996. I cast my vote for Bob Dole in part because my evangelical elders told me that character matters. Character isn’t inconsequential for any of us – especially when it comes to those people making decisions at the highest levels of government. Character and actions are not easily separated. I believed that Bill Clinton’s character had rendered him unfit for office. I must have missed the evangelical memo that character was no longer allowed to matter in presidential elections.
I know all of the arguments that are made in defense of Trump’s character. “The media is just out to get him.” “He’s just a New York businessman, and that’s just how they are.” “He’s really not that bad. After all, we need a fighter at this point in our history.” “We aren’t electing a Pope. We’re electing a President, so it doesn’t really matter.” “Sure, Trump says cringey things, but have you heard the other guys?” I’m going to be honest. All of these arguments ring hollow to me. Can’t you imagine Democrats in the 1990s using the same justifications for Clinton?
I also know that Trump’s character gets in the way of an honest assessment of his effectiveness as President. Some of his policies might be regarded in a completely different way if his rhetoric didn’t poison the public perception of him. He has done many of the same type of things that Obama did, but he’s just nastier and less refined in the way he talks about them. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that there is a steady disconnect between character and action. A person of bad character may be counted on to continue to make upright decisions. I’m unwilling to make that assumption. Eventually character dictates action. I believe we are observing evidence of that in Trump’s presidency.
Speaking only for myself, I consider Trump to be a dangerous narcissist. He has drained the swamp but has replaced it with a bevy of yes-men whose only major qualification seems to be their ability to consistently agree with Trump even when it borders on criminality. I find leaders who are unwilling or unable to recognize their own mistakes to be dangerous. I find leaders who consistently claim they are under attack by anyone who questions them to be insecure. I find leaders who use their position to promote their own greatness while punching down in demeaning and hostile ways to be disgusting. I find the way that Trump talks about those who are different from him in either race, gender, or nationality to be disturbing. Trump’s version of “America First” is indistinguishable from “Trump First.” I have not observed even a modicum of humility or self-reflection in his leadership. He is not solely responsible for the divisiveness and coarseness of our culture, but I am idealistic enough to believe that one of the functions of a President is to work towards national unity. The division, suspicion, and animosity that he has encouraged towards cultural institutions like the media and intelligence agencies will continue to bear poisonous fruit for years to come. I just don’t understand how the same people who told us to boycott Murphy Brown and the Simpsons because they were leading to cultural degradation are now saying that we are obligated to lend our unblinking endorsement to someone like Donald Trump. It is hypocritical. The problem with trading in your ideals in order to win is that eventually the ideals are forced to change in order to keeping winning. For these reasons, there is good reason to question whether Donald Trump deserves the endorsement of my vote.
I’ve gone longer than I intended. I’m sure that some might think I’ve said too much. Other’s might think I haven’t said nearly enough. All I’ve tried to do over these last couple of posts is lay out the case for and against Trump, which probably means that I’ve made everyone mad. What I’ve identified is there are good arguments to be made for and against him. There are also bad arguments to be made for and against him. If I’ve helped to convince you of some things, I’m glad. But if all I’ve done is to help you think about some things a little more deeply and critically, then that is enough. I hope that in all things we remember that as followers of Jesus we are not obligated to vote for any political candidate, but we are obligated to love and accept one another even and especially in our political disagreements.