What do conservatives really want?
Why do good people put their faith in a man who has brought so much misery to so many?
Why do good people put their faith in a man who has brought so much misery to so many?
Here’s a bit of a foreshadow: this is a rather long and meandering piece, based on a thought that’s been eating at my mind for a long time. It’s easy to blame 70 million voters for being horrible people or sheeple who are following the mortal inhabited body of Satan. It’s a cop-out, I think. It’s a lot harder to really endeavor to understand what’s going on, and here I hope to give it some space.
There’s a real impulse among those who are quick to tell me they’ve always known the kind of person Donald Trump is. These folks are liberal with their “I told you so’s” even if they are not liberal in their politics. I don’t have to be told. I’ve written probably 100,000 words on Trump over the last six years, and the vast majority of them paint the same picture we’ve all seen. But I’ve also seen the flashes of intuition in the man that attract so many despite his manifest maleficence.
Let me get to the point. Years of being “good citizens,” serving the nation in war, getting a job, having a family, buying a house, and paying for an ever-hungry government dominated by well-educated, well-connected liberals (even when conservatives controlled both houses of Congress and the White House), has made an entire generation of Americans cynical of every institution. Banks, Wall Street, big corporations, unions, and politics have fused into a single institution bordering on conspiracy, as in “The Man.”
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I’m talking primarily about white, middle-class Americans, particularly Christians, but not always, who identify with the need for strength, structure, and discipline (though many times they lack all of those, personally). Donald Trump has always had his hand on the pulse of this audience, from his conspicuous consumption, trophy brides, to his you-can-get-rich pitches. In Trump’s acceptance speech for his 2016 GOP nomination, he crowed:
Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.
That is why Hillary Clinton’s message is that things will never change. My message is that things have to change – and they have to change right now. Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned.
I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
I AM YOUR VOICE.
Certainly, the “system” is rigged in many ways. The white people Trump was speaking to (and they were listening) were learning the lesson of a hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and servitude that the Black community has internalized and carried. As the Boomers and GenXers aged, many of the good paying jobs they might have gotten, those jobs “are just not going to come back,” as Barack Obama said not two months before Trump gave his speech. Obama made Trump’s point for him.
Trump was president for four years. During that time, did he deliver for the people he said were neglected, ignored, and abandoned?
Not really, but that doesn’t matter, because he never changed his message, and it’s not based on delivering. It’s based on values. This Brookings Institute study on “the forgotten Americans” from 2018 is incisive in its picturesque descriptions of what Americans wanted from Trump. They don’t blame the “system” for their own ills, despite a deep mistrust of the “system.”
As one participant put it, “I don’t trust anybody to take care of me but me.” Another said, “there’s an awful lot of personal responsibility that is lacking in a lot of people.” And still another: “I don’t think you’re a product of your environment. I think that you make your own environment.”
Yet. to them, government is not the answer or even a source of encouragement to fix things.
As one person put it, “Usually when government gets involved, it screws things up.” After being reminded of the government’s budget deficit, one 33-year-old foreclosure specialist from St. Louis said, “Can we send them back to high school finance class?”
“The elite,” and the class of people in Washington D.C. are blamed as the source and the defenders of the dysfunction, incompetence, and outright theft they see going on and affecting their community and their lives. A good part of Trump’s allure has always been his outsider status in the D.C. crowd. “Draining the swamp” has been an effective message for Trump.
But after all he did with the 2020 election, how can people still defend him, never mind want to vote him back into office?
It’s called cognitive dissonance: The ability of the human mind to hold two contradictory thoughts as truth at the same time. That ability is what allows the dieter to eat a donut because “it’s just one,” or the cheating husband to justify an affair. It’s what allows the preacher to groom teens, or the televangelist to seek “special” massages while refusing to turn over his phone to those seeking accountability from him.
Cognitive dissonance is the impulse that the institution must be saved at all costs, so we must cover up the crimes to protect it, though the crimes themselves should be exposed in the name of integrity to protect the institution. How many companies, how many universities, how many ministries, how many politicians have fallen into this trap? Too many to count. It’s a human foible, and part of what makes us gloriously imperfect.
The argument is that Trump did more to expose and embarrass the liberal media and their fellow travelers in their coverage bias, spoonfed conspiracies and incestuous work relationships than any president in modern history. Therefore, look at all the “good” he’s done—when the “good” is merely to boost the biases of his intended audience. They believe Trump more than they believe the media, even if it’s Trump-friendly media, even if Trump is telling bald lies that everyone knows are lies.
Trump’s lies live comfortably in his supporters’ minds with the truth that the “other side” lies too. What they can’t get past is that two lies don’t cancel each other out, and cognitive dissonance never ends well for those believing it, nor does it end well for those who distribute it wholesale or sell it retail. The GOP is full of both, and Trump has a seemingly never-ending supply.
Every lie about the “rigged” system that Trump spouts, from the 2020 election to global trade, to global warming, China, and even coronavirus is buttressed by the internal biases of his audience. I get that and I see the flashes of his appeal, the siren song of fear that those who have will lose it all, and those who don’t deserve it will get it by stealing it. “It” being some kind of birthright, or the reward for service, hard work, and playing by someone else’s rules. Trump promised to deliver “it” or at least keep “it” from being stolen. (It doesn’t matter what “it” is to the individual, only the chanted slogans matter—if you want to know what that means, go to a self-help conference run by one of the gurus.)
If you want to see someone who rejected the Christian ideal, you’ll have to visit a grave. Richard Wayne Mullins is buried in Hollansburg, Ohio. He died, at 41 years old, as one of the most celebrated and prolific Christian music artists in the 20th century, doing what he loved, and at the time of his death, he earned no more than the average laborer working wage in America. This was by his own choice. All Mullins’ record and performance profits were paid to a group of church elders, who meticulously recorded his income, paid Mullins his salary, and donated the rest to charity.
Mullins gave up the world of Christian Contemporary Music in Nashville to live among the Navajo and teach music. In 1997, a few months before a traffic accident claimed his life, he told an audience “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you.” He added:
Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.
In a 1996 interview, when asked if he moved to a Native American reservation and lived in a small hovel there because God called him to convert the residents, he replied simply: “no. I think I just got tired of a White, Evangelical, middle class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos. I'm teaching music.”
Rich Mullins was a prophet who was called home before he could see with his own eyes the fruit of his own prophecy. Those words sting, and with the fresh scandals (we have a short memory for scandals in the church), and overall abandonment of all tenets of the faith for a political Jesus, a Trumpy Jesus, a great white hope American Jesus, I am cut to the heart with a need to repent.
It’s inconvenient and difficult to have cognitive dissonance pierced by one truth’s obliteration of its opposite bedfellow reposing in one’s mind. This country cannot be saved by Donald Trump. Whether you think he should be punished for crimes against the nation, or violating laws that any other American (except, perhaps anyone having the surname “Clinton”) would be prosecuted for, or not, you cannot hold in your mind the thought that only a Christian morality and salvific experience can bring make America “great” again, and also that Donald Trump is the voice of that experience.
Try as you might, you are either left with Trump alone, and a loveless marriage at that, or you embrace Christ and reject the swine who trample His pearls. Upon embracing Christ, you’re free to forgive Trump (and I think we should, once his influence is rejected).
This has been the problem I’ve had with the current mode of what Democrats are doing. By going scorched earth on Trump and his supporters, they are driving people who desperately need to be relieved of their cognitive dissonance to embrace it more tightly, and in so doing, abandoning any trappings of real faith for the false hope of Trump.
If Jesus is the King of the World, then it really doesn’t matter if Trump wins an election or if he doesn’t. If the world is going to be made right by the return of the King, then it really doesn’t matter who rules on earth before He comes, because His coming is not dependent on anything we do. Our duty is to the Gospel. But on the other hand, we do need to be good stewards of what we’re given. The problem here is cognitive dissonance. It’s easy for Christians (especially, white, evangelical Christians going to mainly white, evangelical churches) to believe that our duty to “live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you” is compatible with our duty to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
When we really live that way, we find that the great white, Trumpy Jesus doesn’t look so bad, because our neighbor is a great guy who doesn’t lie, doesn’t smoke, isn’t a drunk, doesn’t cheat on his wife or his taxes, and is good to his kids. Cognitive dissonance takes effort to reject. It takes repentance and prayer.
The allure of Trump isn’t because Trumpy people are bad, though clearly some are. It’s because all are imperfect and need God more than we need politics, or greatness, or power, or comfort. But that’s a hard message to preach. We should all be more like Rich Mullins.