Never in recent history have we had the instinctive communal outbursts of jubilation after an election result was announced that we saw yesterday when it became clear–as official as it could be prior to the electors doing their jobs–that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States and Kamala Harris the next vice president. For some these were their top choice all along. For many who felt deep relief what was paramount was not who won but who had lost. Those of us who value inclusivity, care for the poor and marginalized, and other such liberal values, we have been in a state of mourning these past four years. There have been plenty of times previously when we felt disappointment with a particular president and administration. But nothing quite like this. It is the things that made Trump’s presidency different from others that make me worry about what is next.
All of the past presidents during my lifetime have had a commitment to the democratic process. If you weren’t a fan of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush in most cases you nonetheless recognized the legitimacy of the process that led to that individual being president. No longer, it seems, is that being taken for granted. Donald Trump and his supporters are happy to suggest without evidence that the process itself is corrupted and dysfunctional, for no other reason than they are unhappy with the outcome.
As a scholar of religion, I have seen many aspects of this phenomenon before, in other guises. Those who subscribe to biblical inerrancy know in advance that, if archaeology finds something that contradicts to the Bible, something is wrong not in the Bible but with archaeology or with those practicing it. When biologists, geologists, physicists, and other scientists draw conclusions at odds with how young-earth creationists understand Genesis, it is the scientists and/or the way they are doing science that is the problem. Young earth creationists claim that “true science” always agrees with the Bible. That is essentially what we are seeing as large numbers of Trump supporters claim to be patriots committed to the nation and the democratic process, and yet uncritically believe claims that undermine confidence in the outcome of the election, not because of any actual evidence that can withstand scrutiny, but a commitment to the belief that any outcome other than Trump winning means someone cheated or the process itself does not work.
In essence, Trump’s tweets have taken on the status of inerrant scripture for his followers. I would hope that even (and perhaps especially) conservative Christians might realize just how dangerous that is. Fox News is believed uncritically as long as what it says agrees with what Trump is saying. If they push back even a little, the Trumpists know where their ultimate loyalty lies. This is like the pastor who is always believed and treated as reliable, as long as what they say mirrors what the member of the congregation understands to be “what the Bible says.” If they depart from that, even with detailed arguments that take the Bible completely seriously, their standing is called into question.
I am worried about the future in a nation in which so many people are willing to believe seemingly anything (including outlandish conspiracy theories) without evidence, accept allegations of voter fraud without even fact-checking or credentials, and undermine the only thing that one could ever really say was truly great about America, namely our distinctive form of democracy that safeguards of freedom not only for the majority but for all, including minority views. Anything else great about us depends and is built on that foundation.
The Trump presidency and living in Indiana have made me aware that I grew up privileged, not just because of the color of my skin, but also in the sense that I take diversity and equality for granted in a way that, I have been forced to admit, the vast majority of my fellow citizens of the United States do not. For instance, I didn’t really appreciate the significance of the confederate flag until I saw it flying from homes in southern Indiana, and saw it on the news in conjunction with racist words and actions. In my childhood it was just a design on the top of the General Lee, which was the car on The Dukes of Hazzard. In my ignorance and naivete I did not recognize it to be what it must have represented to those who developed the show and to viewers in the south, namely an idolization of someone who had sought to break up the United States in the interest of maintaining slavery.
Recent events have shown that the racism that prevailed throughout the history of the United States is not gone. There may have been victory that preserved the union, but that was followed by what we might call a “civil cold war” that continued the struggle for white supremacy and the predominance of a culture committed to it. That struggle continues. I am in many respects grateful for the Trump presidency for exposing this festering cancer within the culture of the United States. Many of us persuaded ourselves that most of our fellow citizens are basically decent human beings who may be committed to a political party, a religion, and various other identities, but who shared the conviction that a democracy that allows us the freedom to disagree and to win or lose through an electoral process is paramount. Will those who converted to Trumpism in recent years repent and be reconciled to democracy? Will they follow him to the bitter end of the court challenges and lawsuits he is already threatening? Time will tell. In the meantime my eyes are not just on the news and my fellow citizens, but in particular religious leaders who have allowed Trump’s tweets to take on the status of a new inerrant scripture, to see what they will do next.
In short, it is appropriate to feel some relief when we consider that Donald Trump will no longer be in the White House. Even if he does not go willingly, I believe that ultimately Democrats and Republicans will work together to ensure that the result of the democratic process is respected. But the relatively narrow margin by which he lost shows that the ideology that brought him to power and that he fostered with his deceit and misinformation is still with us, and it will take other means than an election to address that deeper issue. That is the work that remains ahead of us.
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