Tuesday, March 01, 2016

What disturbs me about Donald Trump

I’ve wrestled for months about whether to write this. Now I’m breaking my own rule to not publicly take sides about candidates in political races (although I’m happy to talk about moral and cultural issues in the political sphere on which the church has something to say; maybe we can file this under culture).

Last summer, I was listening to an interview with Mark Steyn who was talking about a speech Donald Trump gave that afternoon. He noted that Trump is a savvy businessman who has looked at the Republican Party and figured out that it is ripe for a hostile takeover.

They were playing clips of his speech and Steyn was summarizing Trump's shtick as, ‘It’s gonna be great, folks. It’s gonna be fantastic. It’s gonna be huge. Don’t worry about the details. Just vote for me and the trains will run on time again.’ And then Steyn observed, “It’s basically all that strong man, banana republic sort of stuff.”

For those who may not be familiar, a banana republic refers to a stereo-typical politically unstable corrupt socialist country in Latin America, drowning in debt, with a large oppressed working class, dominated by an elite class, and run by a strong-man dictator. That description is becoming eerily familiar. Trump’s solution to this problem is to become the strong man and kick out the Latins. It’s a good solution for Trump, but not so much for the rest of us.

There is plenty not to like about Donald Trump. I don't think he's a racist or a xenophobe or some of the other sensational things he's accused of being. Yet I’ve never seen such an immature personality in American politics. Frankly, he’s disgusting. But that's not the bad part.

The idea that America (much less conservatives) would want a thrice married, repeatedly philandering, perpetually bankrupt casino man who threatens trade wars, vengeance against the press, and massive governmental projects and who seems to believe that belittling and insulting other Americans (particularly women) will make America great again and who can’t even be consistent on his own policies and beliefs from one paragraph to the next in his own speeches as our head of state is perplexing and demoralizing to say the least.

In another era he would have been (and was as recently as five years ago) dismissed as a boob by the voters. What has changed? Trump hasn’t changed so much as we have. We have become frustrated, angry, and desperate. Some of our problems have increased exponentially, particularly our national debt, economic stagnation, and our diminished standing in the world. Like a declining empire, we yearn for the glory days of old to be restored and the normal ways of accomplishing that goal don’t seem to be working.

We want an authoritarian, a strong man. That’s the only solution to the prospect of national ruin. And he's drawing support from across the board. I was shocked to see a libertarian fan of Ron Paul say on FaceBook the other day that it may be time for a strong man as president. And we are willing to overlook his faults if he will deliver on the promised restoration of glory. But it's not his potential presidency that disturbs so much as his candidacy and popularity and how that reflects on us (much like the unnerving messianic campaign of Barack Obama or the child-like hokum heard at the rallies of Bernie Sanders).

I’m not saying that he couldn’t get elected or that he couldn’t even have a good run as president. Ironically, if he is ultimately successful as an outsider taking over the system, it will be because like a good boss, he hires insiders to get the job done. But I fear we will have perhaps been fatally compromised in the process. A leader whose words we cannot trust (because he’s just negotiating) and whose competence we cannot rely upon (because he’ll hire all the smartest people to do the job) and whose behavior is indecent (because that stuff doesn’t matter; he's not the pastor-in-chief) will be the kind of leader we henceforth expect and deserve.

Cecil Rhodes famously said to fellow citizens of an empire on the verge of decline, "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life." I used to think the same thing about being born an American. Now I’m not sure if it matters anymore. What disturbs me about Donald Trump is not so much Donald Trump. He is only a mirror. What disturbs me is the reflection.