Let’s start with a non-moralizing observation. Donald Trump believes he is above the law, that he as president is unimpeachable.
As a political tactic, the goal is to delegitimize the impeachment process, since the Republicans seem to believe impeachment by Congress is inevitable. Trump isn’t playing well with the Republicans vis-a-vis this political strategy (thus his tweets), but he’s got such big coat-tails their only choice seems to still be to attempt to ride them.
As a Trumpian tactic, everything falls in line with his typical pattern of accusing everyone except himself of all the failures of which he himself is actually guilty.
But the claim has larger constitutional and theological implications.
Trump seems to be furthering (although whether this is a political theory move on his part, or whether it is simply breath-taking narcissism) the unitary executive theory.
The unitary executive theory in its most sweeping form argues that the president possesses the power to control the entire executive branch. The traditional understanding of this, until recently, has been that unitary power applied specifically to executive action within the executive branch itself.
More recently however we are being asked concerning executive authority, as we were asked during the Nixon administration: “Is the president allowed to depart from the law?” Or: “Is the president granted the authority to disregard legal restraints?”
Donald Trump appears to have his personal answer to this question. He believes he is allowed to depart from the law (although he’ll always deny actually breaking any laws… he can’t break them because he thinks he is above them). He believes he can disregard legal restraints. He’s illustrated this in his personal life long before taking office. Just look at the very long list of legal complaints (and now even settlements) against him.
Or remember when Donald Trump said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still get elected?
Donald Trump believes he personally, and now in constitutional perspective as president, is above the law. That he alone can decide the state of exception. He even gets to break the fourth wall as his tweets drive congressional proceedings.
There’s a theological concept for this. “Sovereign is he who decides the state of exception.” That’s Carl Schmitt. Carl Schmitt the conservative German jurist, constitutional and political theorist, who believed his political theory (articulated most succinctly in Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty) supported the Nazis.
Carl Schmitt believed all political theories were secularized theological ones. Just as God performs miracles which are the state of exception in the world (so only the sovereign God can perform them) so too the one who decides the state of the exception is sovereign (like God).Which is to say, in our present moment, Donald Trump.
People of all faith, but Christians in particular, may want to ask themselves: “Do you believe Donald Trump is sovereign like God, or do you believe he is subject to our constitution and laws?”
If I were to put the most “don’t bear false witness” spin on the speech (and tweets) of Donald Trump, I’d go for the psychoanalytical approach. His narcissism drives him to perceive all truth by how he feels and sees things, so in this sense he can only self-define the truth out of that narcissism. He shapes all truth to his ego.
Regardless, in reality we have a president who lies with abandon. Over 10,000 times since taking office. Donald Trump has also been surrounded by a large of group of men now all convicted of fraud, lies, and other felonies.
Of course, because Trump distorts the truth so regularly (constantly) to his own brand of truth, he accuses others of being soft on crime, of truth-tellers as being fake, as everyone other than himself as the “swamp.”
The attacks are themselves a strategy. By attacking with lies, it forces everyone else into a defensive posture, attempting to speak the truth simply to clarify the normal perception of reality.
As a pastor and preacher, my biggest concern with all of the lies is quite simple: I am concerned it is driving us as a national culture to ask that most relativizing of all questions asked by Pilate of Jesus…
What is truth?
As a pastor in the progressive tradition, I’m not afraid to ask truth questions of texts and doctrines. We need to take claims in Scripture and in sermons as they come to us (not confusing things written as myth as fact, for example), and we need to test all doctrines or faith claims.
But once everything is a lie, once everything is a political tactic (which is where we’re at with Trump and to a large degree all the Republicans still supporting him), then we’re in Pilate territory.
For Trump and these Republicans, there is no truth. There is only political calculus. In a sense, there is only sheer force, just attack and will to power.
In the midst of such power, in the midst of such lying, we can be reminded that the power that aligned itself against Christ was precisely the “father of lies.”
To succumb to a world of lies, to use distortions of truth in the pursuit of power and privilege, these are precisely the opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who is truth.
That a significant portion of American Christianity has aligned itself with this president means not only that they have aligned themselves with a political strategy detrimental to our democracy, it also means they have aligned themselves with someone so untruthful he is making it difficult to hear and trust the gospel.
It remains to be seen whether our “democracy” will decide this president is unimpeachable. But the verdict is already in on whether he and his minions are impeccable.