On Trump and Trumpism

Like many Americans, I’ve spent an inordinate proportion of the past two years thinking about Donald Trump. I’ve written more about the 2016 Presidential election than about any other political event in my lifetime. 

Recently, someone said he thought I was a Trump supporter. That surprised me, but on reflection it’s understandable. My writing on Trump has been fragmentary, and probably inconsistent at a number of points. This essay is an effort to sum up Trump, so far.

Many have reduced Trump to a one-dimensional cartoon villain, but he has some impressive qualities. He has an uncanny ability to recognize and respond to people’s fears and hopes. He’s much cannier than many are willing to admit. He can be funny, especially when engaging in that most American of pastimes, skewering the pompous and the self-important. 

Marco Rubio made fun of his small hands, but he’s given a large middle finger to progressives who think they know best. It’s no surprise that this delights millions of Americans tired of being smirked down to.

His ability to withstand intense hatred is remarkable. The material hasn’t been invented to describe his resilience to scandal; when it’s invented, it’ll be called Trumplon, and he’ll be selling it.

He flaws are glaring, more obvious and certainly more reported on than his strengths. I have described Trump as a Girardian “scapegoater” (here and here), a man who is nearly (not entirely) incapable of admitting fault or wrong, and who therefore lodges blame with everyone else. His skin is dangerously thin for the most powerful man in the world. In this he is eerily similar to the early Obama. Obama toughened with time. We can pray that Trump does too.

As Scott Peck has argued, evil people are those who avoid the pain of rebuke and self-examination. From what I can see in his public behavior, Trump is a prominent citizen of Peck’s “people of the lie.” 

Trump’s tweets are an almost daily display of his immaturity, his inability to let things go. Insulting, even crude, language can be put to moral uses, but Trump uses goads to deflect stingers from his fragile ego.

There is something totalitarian about the cultural effects of this character flaw. Every joke, every editorial, every news story, every conversation comes back to Trump. He’s turned American politics into a reality show and we can’t look away. Even when we look the other way, we’d find ourselves looking at Trump.

Over the past two years, I’ve been less focused on Trump the man than on the meaning of his sudden rise. Trump is a symptom, but of what? The answer isn’t yet clear.

On the side of policy and political discourse, there are reasons for worry. Trumpism is tribalist, and Trump plays white identity politics with the same brio and skill that Al Sharpton plays black identity politics. 

Trump’s unabashed patriotism is a breath of fresh air, but American nationalism has long had a near-idolatrous edge. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, and other Americans are the nearest neighbors for American Christians. The U.S. can be a force for good and godliness in the world. But even in the best of circumstances “America First” is not a Christian slogan or outlook. Whoever occupies the White House, it’s “kingdom first.”

Our immigration policies need reform, but hammer-handed travel bans and barriers are more symbol than substance. Inevitably, he’s already moved toward the center on immigration. The U.S. will be the loser if Trump actually implements the protectionist program he’s advocated. “America First” might introduce some realism into foreign policy, but Trump seems inclined to perpetuate the adventurism of the past several decades.

The day after Trump was elected, I wrote that I was “relieved.” I still am. It’s the relief of having a President less likely to trample on religious freedom. It’s the relief of having a President who will select Justices who will defend unborn babies. 

Christians have been praying for a champion who will resist hostile cultural and institutional forces. Trump is no one’s first pick for that position, but the living God is full of jocular surprise.

Will my relief be vindicated by events? Who knows? Nobody knows what damage any of the several dozen political storms might inflict, and we certainly don’t know when the next Black Swan will come sailing by, or what kind of Swan he will be—economic catastrophe, war, unexpected prosperity. 

What Trump tells us about America isn’t clear either. In some ways, Trumpism revives old-fashioned Americanism, with all its glory and gore. 

It might signal a growing discontent with liberalism’s dream of purposeless freedom. “Making America Great” isn’t a very high-minded national aim, but at least it is a national aim, something that transcends the pursuit of individual self-fulfillment. It’s too early to tell if Trump’s election is an epochal shift or a blip.

None of this amounts to an endorsement of Trump or Trumpism. We shouldn’t be bullied into a binary choice—Trump is the sea beast of the Apocalypse, the fascist destroyer of American democracy or Trump is America’s savior. He’s neither, and we’ll begin to have sane national discourse when we can see his presidency in three dimensions.

Nor is this an attempt to say the last word, or even my last word, about Trump. Impatience is one of the evils of contemporary political discourse. We want to draw sharp boundaries, and we want to do it now. That’s foolish. 

And it’s unChristian. Christians are supposed to wait for the end of things—the end of all things, and the end of particular things. Don’t pull up the tares before the harvest. Impatience isn’t a Christian virtue, even if it stokes Twitter stats. 

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