Donald Trump left the White House today. His chaotic, dysfunctional administration is gone.
Americans – including 50 percent of Catholics – voted for Joe Biden because they wanted some semblance of normalcy and stability after the dysfunction and turmoil of the Trump era. But America, post-Trump, is in a different place in 2021 than what the country was when Trump became the 45th president of the United States in January 2017.
We’ve seen a dramatic change in the Republican Party’s base, which can now be described as nationalist in its outlook and isolationist in its attitude, suspicious of international treaties, free trade agreements, longstanding military alliances, even liberal democracy. Future aspiring Republican presidential nominees may have to court voters who expect their standard-bearer to be an ardently partisan strongman who is dismissive of democratic norms, hostile to the free press and resistant to change, especially for demographics that show the United States will be a majority nonwhite nation by 2050.
Extremist elements – long sidelined and effectively ignored – have been emboldened. Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, fascist gangs like the Proud Boys, unapologetic racists and bigots, far-right separatist militias and other anti-democratic forces march in the streets, attend mass rallies and storm state capitols. They will even invade the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of a democratic election.
We’re in a bad way, as an old Army sergeant of mine used to say when his squad did not behave as if it were fit-to-fight.
Sadly, Christians bear a lot of responsibility for our sorry national state of affairs. People who profess to follow Jesus Christ and read his Word fed into Trump’s anti-democratic impulses, tickling his ears with flattery and spreading his lies that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” and that (nonexistent) widespread voter fraud was to blame for Biden’s victory.
Baptized Catholics spread blatant propaganda on Fox News, OANN and Newsmax. Some used the platform of Christian media to advance false narratives and twist facts, essentially sowing and watering the seeds for insurrection and violent extremism while debasing themselves into being dishonest political surrogates for temporal powers.
And for what? A bigger paycheck? A nicer house? More Twitter followers? Being invited to the right cocktail parties in Washington D.C. or midtown Manhattan? To borrow from Robert Bolt’s Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for a primetime gig on Fox News?
If absolute power corrupts, then ambition can surely anesthetize the conscience and cripple perspective.
Some high-profile Catholics know that their actions helped make possible the sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A few of them have taken to Twitter to call for a new civil tone and national unity after months of stoking the flames of sedition. What they really want to do is change the topic to avoid taking responsibility for their words and actions. Their calls to now put aside partisanship are really smokescreens to evade consequences.
This all raises difficult questions about what political reconciliation looks like. Can you have a rapprochement with Americans who don’t apologize or acknowledge their role in trying to get a democratic election overturned? Can political dialogue be successful with someone who tried to disenfranchise you, or who sees you as a literal second-class citizen because of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, or your political affiliation?
In normal times, after an election was decided, we would talk about putting aside the campaign speeches and coming back together as a country. To use a sports analogy, think of how in the NFL, football players pray with one another at midfield after four quarters where they basically tried to rip each others’ heads off. When the final whistle blows, you shake hands and move on, until the next time.
But now, the game is never over. American politics has become less a forum for solving problems peacefully and more of a meanspirited rhetorical warfare fought on the digital battlefields of cable television, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The enemy is increasingly dehumanized because real-life conversations rarely happen. Those trends go back decades, but Trump accelerated them the way an arsonist pours gasoline on a fire.
The theme for today’s inauguration of the Biden-Harris Administration is “America United.” Biden will lay out a vision of healing the soul of America while thousands of National Guardsmen and Secret Service personnel guard the Capitol grounds against the possibility of more extremist violence from Trump’s supporters.
Trump is gone, but his coarsening legacy on our politics will be felt for quite some time. Catholics – on the political left and right – have some important decisions to make as how they will shape this next critical chapter of American history. We can have political disagreements, but we can at least get serious and recommit ourselves to some basic rules about how our democratic republic is going to be governed. Or, we can continue to let personal self-interest and careerism poison our collective body politic.
The ball is in our court. Now what?