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The Costs of Reconciling with the Irreconcilable

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I write as President Donald Trump’s legal team has begun its defense of his recent impeachment in a trial in the United States Senate. Perhaps “reaction” rather than defense would be a better word to describe that effort, such as it is, to respond to the recently concluded presentation of the House articles of impeachment. Two points in this controversy now seem incontrovertible. First, I use the term “reaction,” as it is plain that neither Trump nor his attorneys can or will seek to address the facts of the articles of impeachment that he corruptly and illegally sought to bribe a foreign government official in an attempt to influence the 2020 election and that he systematically has sought to obstruct the House of Representatives investigation into those efforts. As such, Trump is not offering a defense of his behavior in any reasoned understanding of that term. The facts, as laid out by House leaders, appear unassailable and Trump and his team have offered nothing of substance to date to suggest otherwise. Indeed, the leak of the text of Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s forthcoming book has provided direct evidence that Trump personally directed the bribery effort in the hope of securing possible electoral gain.[1]

For the record, here are the concluding remarks of the House Lead Impeachment Manager, Congressman Adam Schiff, to his legislative colleagues in the Senate, many of whose GOP members were seen completing crossword puzzles or playing with toys to pass the time, refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of what was occurring:

If right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the Framers were. It doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. It doesn’t matter how well written the oath of impartiality is.  If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost.  If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost. The Framers couldn’t protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter. And you know that what he did was not right. That’s what they do in the old country, that Col. Vindman’s father came from. Or the old country that my great-grandfather came from. Or the old countries that your ancestors came from, or maybe you came from. But, here, right is supposed to matter. It’s what’s made us the greatest nation on earth. No Constitution can protect us if right doesn’t matter anymore. And you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to. This is why, if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters. Right matters. And the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.[2]

Second, what Trump offers instead, and Republican Senators have thus far embraced, was captured neatly by the president’s Tweet on the morning of the start of his attorneys’ formal opportunity to answer the charges:

Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democratic Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC![3]

Little need be said about this sophomoric rhetoric or its complete lack of any relationship either to the facts at hand or to reality, except to say that it represents a calculated attempt to divert attention from an effort to lie and to mislead the American people and thereafter to obstruct an investigation into a well-established misuse of his office. Rather than address that profound Constitutional concern, Trump has sought instead, in typically cruel fashion, to turn the entire matter into the equivalent of a playground spat, only this time one seeking sanction to exercise unaccountable and anti-democratic power on grounds of partisanship, power and lies, rather than who will gain first use of a teeter-totter or slide. I cannot think of any adult I know who would or has described even individuals they hold in contempt in the terms Trump, despite his high office, has chosen routinely to employ to describe other elected American government officials on his public social media accounts and at campaign rallies. Nevertheless, thus far, he has been supported lockstep by a GOP-controlled Senate that journalists and pundits daily report is doing so because its members fear the ire of Trump’s “base” in future primary elections if they do not. As such, the enduring question of the unfolding fiasco in the Senate becomes, what would cause an American citizen to support such patent lies and lawlessness and to embrace a narrative of events that at once both trivializes their individual role in governance and accepts any claim of its nominal leaders, no matter how lawless, vicious or absurd?

This question, more than any other, gnaws at me each day as I consider the Republican Party’s descent to a quest for power for its own sake under the tutelage of a man now patently guilty of indefensible and illegal actions and just as clearly unfit for the office he occupies. In past essays I have sought to understand how many Americans, a share of whom support Trump, have adopted the deep story that has underpinned his ascent to power and, as they have done so, have evidenced a collective willingness to embrace obvious lies and demagoguery in its name.[4] That narrative has to do with individuals, whose lives and sense of themselves have been upended by rapid economic and social globalization, adopting a story to account for those changes that blames targeted groups for their perceived woes. That narrative also finds those  who adopt it believing that they must appear at the top of the social hierarchy in their local communities. Not surprisingly, given this reality, Trump and the GOP have argued that refugees and minorities should be blamed for trends that have little relation to either. More, the Republicans and their current leader have also suggested that the Democratic Party should be loathed and delegitimated as too willing to accord these “unworthy groups” governmental support. I have also argued previously that to this account, the Republican Party has added an assault on governance per se for several decades. And now, as Schiff remarked, it has officially embraced a leader who routinely attacks the rule of law and the very possibility of principle and truth. This poisonous stew has resulted in the scenario the nation confronts in its current impeachment crisis, in which its President and his Party are denying reality, are lying and are disparaging all claims on behalf of law and accountability in an effort to maintain power.

As I have thought about Trump’s “base,” always pointed up as the electoral rationale for the moral bankruptcy just described, I have become especially interested in why members of the largest group within that number, so-called Evangelicals, continue to support Trump in light of the many obvious contradictions evident in their choice to do so. Indeed, despite an ongoing debate among interested scholars concerning what it means to be an Evangelical Christian today, 81% of individuals self-identifying as such said they had supported Trump in exit polls in 2016 and close to that percentage continue to support him today.[5] This is true despite his racism, public misogyny, serial marriages, continuous lies and his past complete lack of interest in policy positions (or well-known embrace of opposed claims) that he now suggests are critical to him that are of interest to members of this group. All of this is well known and all of it contradicts the publicly professed beliefs of Evangelicals. I have remarked on this situation previously and it certainly highlights the apparent hypocrisy of members of this group and especially, of its leaders. But I am now convinced that this is not the entire story, not least because it cannot explain why individuals are willing to torture their avowed beliefs to continue to support an individual who embodies none of them.

My recent research has highlighted three specific attributes of this group particularly that help to explain why so many of its members seem willing to rationalize anything this President does.[6] All of these are rooted in the history of evangelicalism and its present lack of a firm theological foundation. I cannot do justice to these matters here, but will outline them in the hopes that, together with the backdrop of ongoing neoliberalism and the deep story, readers can gain a fairly complete description of why Evangelicals have continued to support Trump despite his often abhorrent and aberrant behavior and impeachment.

First, evangelicalism arose in opposition to orthodoxy and church authority; that is, in contradistinction to institutionalism. Those professing this view emphasized and continue to assert the appropriateness of individually mediated religious experience and capacity to choose (or ignore) beliefs when these are contradictory or in conflict. Since personal revelation and power to select on the basis of emotional claims, especially, are the watchwords of this body of believers, their worldviews are especially consonant with consumerism, i.e., “church shopping,” and individualism—unfettered private capacity to adopt a teaching or belief on whatever basis one desires.  As such, this perspective makes it easy for many Evangelicals to pick which views they choose to hold and why. This is how many of this number today can profess abiding confidence in Trump and the GOP’s moral bankruptcy and likewise support pastors and churches that preach a “Prosperity Theology” and/or promise to help them undergo individualized redemptorist experiences.[7]

Second, since evangelicalism is not supported by any widely accepted canon or orthodoxy as a movement, it has long been conjoined to various nationalist claims to fill that vacancy. As such, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins and Robert Jeffress, among other prominent evangelical leaders today, speak as often to politics and policy predilections and nation and nationhood as they do to religious beliefs. That is, the relative vacuity of its roots in theological terms has joined evangelicalism and nationalism at the hip. Realizing this, Trump has professed repeatedly during his tenure in office that he would pursue policy aims that those supporting evangelical political organizations would like to see enacted.

Finally, those professing a belief in being Born Again as the central core of their religious belief and experience have long coalesced behind those they hoped could help them attain that peak experience and protect them from whatever they perceived as threatening their view of the nation (built on a particular strand of errant mythology of America as shining Christian earthly eschaton), almost always an assumed assault by members of other religions, ethnicities or racial groups. But this tendency to support “strong-men” (they are almost all men), whether Josh Harris, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker or others, has often resulted in the revelation that these individuals have had feet of clay; that is, they have proven morally corrupt and patently hypocritical or worse.[8] Nonetheless, that fact has not stopped Evangelicals from aligning themselves with those they wish to believe will protect them against what they perceive to be the perils of ongoing secularization, globalization or government action that undermine their ways of knowing. Demagogues, political and spiritual, have seized on this propensity for their own purposes, and the persistent and continuing revelations of many of their leaders as charlatans have thus far not overcome the competing desire among Evangelicals for protection and an anchoring of belief. To gain these, this population has been willing repeatedly to rationalize virtually anything and any behavior.

While much more might be said—including the fact that a share of this group may simply have absolutized one policy preference or another and elected to accept any behavior that might secure it—this accounting suggests the complex factors animating the most important constituency in Trump’s “base.”  But while they may be a large part of why the GOP Senate looks set to countenance attacks on the rule-of-law and the Constitution, thankfully, these motivations do not attach to all Americans. And, indeed, a majority of this country’s citizens now believe Trump should be removed from office.[9] Many more believe that Republican senators should permit witnesses in the current impeachment trial, something that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far steadfastly refused to do. Moreover, none of what is today animating Evangelicals, a minority in the United States, albeit an outsized group in the Republican Party, is new. Nor is the sort of demagogic corruption now on prominent display in the Trump administration novel in historical terms.

I remain hopeful, therefore, that regardless of the outcome of the present trial and the daily revealed and abiding cynicism of current GOP Senators and leaders, the facts concerning Trump will continue to come out and they will, as now, show him and those around him to be conductors of an empty and consistently corrupt and cruel charade. In turn, one may hope that the majority of Americans will set a new and corrective course later this year to restore respect for the Constitution, a modicum of civility and a belief in office holding as more than an opportunity to reward self and friends and punish real or perceived enemies. In this sense, all may not be lost as Congressman Schiff fears should the Senate act on partisan grounds as predicted and fail to convict Trump. Instead, the current impeachment has clearly revealed Trump and the GOP’s corruption for what it is. While Evangelicals may continue to rationalize it for their own historically understandable, if deeply lamentable reasons, there is hope the polity writ large will reject Trump and the perversion of democratic principles he represents in November.

Notes

[1] Editorial Board, “Surprise, Mr. President, John Bolton has the Goods,” The New York Times, January 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/opinion/john-bolton-book-trump.html.

[2] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay, “Emotional Schiff Speech Goes Viral, Delighting the Left and Enraging the Right,” The New York Times, January 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/us/politics/adam-schiff-closing-remarks.html, Accessed January 24, 2020. 

[3] Trump Donald J @Real Donald Trump, January 25, 2020, https://www.mediaite.com/trump/trump-fires-up-nickname-machine-including-new-one-for-aoc-as-trial-day-5-gets-underway/ Accessed January 25, 2020. 

[4] Stephenson, Max, “The Enduring Power and Danger of the ‘Deep Story,’” Tidings, October 1, 2019, https://ipg.vt.edu/DirectorsCorner/Tidings/Tidings101519.html, Accessed January 27, 2020; Stephenson, Max, “ Evangelicals, Demographic and Economic Change and Injustice,” Soundings, October 7, 2020,  https://ipg.vt.edu/DirectorsCorner/Soundings/Soundings100719.html, Accessed January 27, 2020.

[5] French, David, “Evangelicals Are Supporting Trump out of Fear, Not Faith,” Time, June 17, 2019, https://time.com/5615617/why-evangelicals-support-trump/, Accessed January 25, 2020; Bailey, Sarah Pulliam, “White Evangelicals Voted Overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, Exit Polls Show,” The Washington Post, November 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/, Accessed January 26, 2020.

[6] This section draws on themes from two recent works by historians: Hindmarsh, Bruce. The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018; and Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishers, 2018.

[7] Bowler, Kate. “I’m a Scholar of the ‘Prosperity Gospel.’ It Took Cancer to Show Me I was in its Grip,” Vox, March 12, 2018, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/3/12/17109306/prosperity-gospel-good-evil-cancer-fate-theology-theodicy, Accessed January 26, 2020.

[8] Allen, Mike. “Josh Harris, Fallen Evangelical Mega-Pastor: ‘I excommunicated Myself,’” Axios, November 3, 2019, https://www.axios.com/josh-harris-evangelical-pastor-excommunicated-64674ffd-4e09-458a-8697-3d207100e11e.html, Accessed January 28, 2020.

CNN, June 24, 2009, “Five Virtuous Figures Caught Pants Down,” https://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/06/24/mf.virtuous.figures.cheat/, Accessed January 25, 2020.  

[9] Choi, Matthew. “Most Americans Want Trump Removed from Office by Senate,” Politico, January 20, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/20/trump-poll-impeachment-101245, Accessed January 25, 2020; Langer, Gary. “66% Call for Witnesses in Trump’s Impeachment Trial: Poll,” ABC News, January 24, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/66-call-witnesses-trumps-impeachment-trial-poll/story?id=68509143, Accessed January 25, 2020.   

Publication Date

February 3, 2020

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