The rise of Donald Trump among some evangelicals is an understandable, even if unsettling phenomenon. The alienation and despair that he has both fostered and exploited is a pervasive feature of some corners of American life. But no one is more susceptible to such hopelessness about our political class than working-class, rural, white evangelicals, who have been tutored more by the grievance and resentment theater of both conservative and evangelical talk radio than by the good news of the Gospel. As Ben Domenech has astutely explained, having lost every culture war such evangelicals are now fighting on the only terrain they have left: political correctness. And Donald Trump is their gift to the world.
I have relatively deep roots in the conservative evangelical world. In 2007, Justin Taylor and Joe Carter let me join with them in endorsing Mike Huckabee. (I have since grown to regret this.) Unlike many of my more moderate peers, I have publicly defended traditional marriage. I have spoken at the Values Voter Summit. When progressive Christian Rachel Held Evans wanted to find a Christian to explain why they are drawn to political conservatism, she kindly invited me. I have written a cover story and a number of other pieces for Christianity Today. I am unswervingly pro-life and will unflinchingly describe the abortion regime as an American genocide. I think Values and Capitalism is among the best programs in the conservative world.
I have also never written about immigration, but my own views are somewhere between Rubio and Cruz. (This must be said, as it has become a litmus test for evangelical conservatives in this campaign.) I am skeptical of the relaxed immigration policies that many countries in Europe have practiced, but also recognize that America isn’t Europe and that we may be able to sustain and assimilate higher percentages of immigrants than countries with tiny land-masses. Ross Douthat’s ten theses on immigration seem enormously sensible to me. Like many Americans, I think blanket amnesty is a bad idea—and I see no way to deport 12 million people. I have friends and neighbors who are both members of the white underclass and are undocumented immigrants, and see regularly firsthand the challenges both sets face in trying to sustain their way of life.
Born of the tribe of Dobson and inducted into the party of Reagan on the eighth day, I have supported every Republican presidential candidate in my lifetime. And never before have I been more ready to dissolve that union.
If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, I will not hesitate in abstaining or voting for a third party in November. And neither should you.
In January, I compared Donald Trump to Sir John Falstaff, whose debauched and degenerate jollity has long intoxicated audiences with the strange brew of repulsion and mirth. Falstaff is larger than life itself: He somehow stands outside morality, even as he stands outside the political order. But Henry, having deliberately shrouded his character in the stench of vice through his close friendship with Falstaff, knows that the friendship cannot endure in the same way when he assumes the throne: “I will banish thee,” he promises Falstaff in the midst of their revelry. They both know it must be true: The legitimacy of Henry’s rule would be imperiled by his close friendship with the lecher.
Trump is a not simply a charlatan, a huckster, a con-man, though he is all of that. He is also shameless. The more outlandish he is, the more he is rewarded with the only currency he cares about: attention. He has none of the checks or balances that make the rest of us mortals weak and irrelevant. He is T.S. Eliot’s ‘Hollow Man’ come to life: He blows wherever the loves of money, fame, and his indulgent fantasies of being a ‘winner’ will take him. As Joe Carter said recently, his penchants for insults betrays an incredibly insecure mentality, the sort that breeds a harsh authoritarianism at the first whiff of power. Nothing else will matter except maintaining the delusion that Trump is a Winner, Baby: the common good be damned.
Such shamelessness is his greatest asset: It is also one of our political order’s most deadly foes. As Eliot Cohen recently argued, Trump’s debased approach to political life signals a “larger moral and cultural collapse.” While ‘political correctness’ may slowly suffocate meaningful debate and dissent, the festering of an environment where outlandish and disgusting ‘rhetoric’ are rewarded with a party’s nomination will only embolden imitators. (Twitter is full of them, and they are terrible.) And we will be the worse for it: The shame that prompts our politicians to try to wiggle out of being called a ‘liar’ is what, in some instances, will actually prevent them from lying.
The lack of trust between the people and our government is a pernicious social disease that has been growing for a long time. But Trump is not so much a cure for our malaise as a more potent dose of the same venom. A political environment in which the truth is openly mocked, spit upon, and dragged through the streets before the cheering crowds places itself in serious jeopardy, as it reduces political relationships to who wields the instruments of power. If Trump, God and heaven forbid it, were actually to win the office, he would have his reward while the rest of us face la guillotine.
While evangelicals have gravitated to Trump precisely because of his repudiation of the ‘political correctness’ of our day, the brutal irony is that he is its final triumph, its consummation and perfection, its heroic champion…even down to his followers’ technique of shaming and silencing dissenters on Twitter. The reduction of politics to power and the assertion that argument is a cover for bigotry finds its completion in the devil-may-care spectacle that is the Trump campaign. He has persuaded even those who claim for themselves the name of the Gospel that nothing matters besides being told the warm and comforting truth that We Can Be Winners, that the truth is dispensable provided our needs are satisfactorily met. The irrelevancy of truth for the sake of power-relations in Trump’s campaign has transposed ‘political correctness’ into a new, contrarian key: Trump has not left it behind so much as co-opted it for his ends–at least until its purpose is served.
And those who support Trump will be most likely to lose out if he eventually wins. So it has often been for those who have bought into his lies. From Trump’s casinos to Trump University, like the prosperity preachers he emulates Trump has preyed upon the very people he claims to love and support. And why would a President Trump be any different? We have been given no reason why the Newly Converted Conservative Trump will be any better for America than the liberal Hillary Clinton. And no reason can be given because none exists outside of Trump’s most solemn word, a word that his history suggests is as valuable as the degrees from his University. For those drawn to Trump’s policies, on what reasonable basis would you expect him to not sell you out? Because the fearsome power of the Republican Establishment will hold him to account? The same Republican establishment that is now bending to kiss the ring?
T.S. Eliot was not wrong about much, but he was about this: The world may end, but it will not be with a whimper, except from the conservative Republicans who have decided Trump is their only hope for the relevance and influence they crave.
There is no conservative argument for Trump. Conservatives once held that virtue and character are essential requirements for a just society, and that a stable marriage and family is among the best way to nurture those virtues. Those virtues, we contended, were essential for ensuring that the market not only operated efficiently, but stayed within its appropriate boundaries. The conservative movement once believed that religion was central to our social fabric, that not everyone had to be religious but that it needed to be afforded due respect and even reverence. Turning religion into a political prop would only cheapen it, and eventually corrode it. The political virtues that conservatives once cared about—temperance and restraint—are now treated (by ‘conservatives’) as the stuff of compromisers and weaklings: “Damn your concern for principles and prudence: We shall have our riots in the streets!”
My depiction of ‘conservatism’ is, admittedly, both nostalgic and not policy-specific. But it gestures at a set of intuitions which have helped me maintain my ties to a party that I have frequently found myself in disagreement with. I have always been happy to be an idealist: Chesterton taught me that it is the only path toward reform. Still, if the Republican party has become so detached from the conservatism that I depicted that it is willing to allow Trump to bear its mantle, it deserves the violent death that it currently faces.
It would be easy to look upon Trump and see him as an outlier in American life. But the Trumpian disregard for the truth and virtue is a cancer that has beset us all: Trump is a candidate for our time, a fitting judgment upon us who magnifies our sins and our vices. He may be a caricature; but he is a parody of us, a morality tale whose meaning we should heed.
But there is a difference between acknowledging the degraded political character of our age and joining with the Visigoths while they tear down the Roman monuments. That the Babylonians were God’s instrument for judgment does not mean the Israelites should have cleaned their swords. If the gods have released the Kraken upon us, shall we join him for tea and crumpets?
The Republican Party Establishment—may they rest in peace—has been leaning toward doing just that. Having failed to even try to stop him, they will now tell us that we are obligated to support him in November. At the moment when Falstaff must be banished, Chris Christie pledged his fealty—and was rewarded most handsomely for it. Hugh Hewitt has begun banging the unity drum. I have long admired him, though he has oft been tempted to prioritize the party over principle.
More will unquestionably come, with cries of “The Court, The Court, The Court!” So the wholesale repudiation of conservative principles by the party pledged to defend them will proceed, washed down by the smooth pragmatic consequentialism that has placed its principles on the altar of urgency. That the party of Lincoln would demand that we support Donald Trump suggests there is no one who might rise the ranks to whom such individuals would say ‘no.’ One might think that such unprincipled weakness is partly what has undermined our country’s respect for the party and given us….Donald Trump. The party leadership has not learned its lesson, but they will have their reward in full: a weekend stay at Mar-a-Lago, which should keep them warm and cozy in their infamy.
I do not despair at the prospects of President Trump: If that is the judgment upon us, then I will meet it with as much good cheer and confidence as I can muster. What tempts me to despair is the number of otherwise sensible people who will capitulate to the shameless huckster to preserve the shreds of their power. Yes, the Supreme Court is important. But if the Republic is in such dire shape that we have to vote for a chronic liar who has knows how to distance himself just enough from the racist underbelly of American life to hold it together, then we should just honestly acknowledge that she is already mortally wounded. This election is about “saving the country,” Hewitt cries, as though all it will take is three Supreme Court justices and a much stronger navy. If the country is imperiled, it is so because of the rot within–the rot that Trump’s overtly race-baiting politics has brought to the surface, and which the Vichy Republicans are currently planning to make terms with.
Besides, Trump’s promises to appoint conservative justices are worth what, exactly? More or less than the Trump University degree? That the next President may appoint three Supreme Court justices is not an argument for voting for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Given Trump’s penchant for telling people what they want to hear for the sake of his own advancement, we need some argument independent of his own words that he will suddenly become trustworthy when he is in office. The entire history of his character bears witness against it.
But I am not convinced it has come to that, because I think there are enough decent, clear-headed men and women left in this country that Donald Trump will never be President. Would that there were more of them within the Party’s leadership.
Trump is the candidate Republicans deserve. But I will not be complicit in their folly. With Erick Erickson, I will never vote for Donald J. Trump. He has neither the character nor the principles to commend him to the office. That this even has to be said is indictment of the world enough. It is an age of high folly when banally obvious truths have to be uttered by ordinary men and women.
The right response now to Donald Trump by any conservative is Erickson’s and Ben Sasse’s: We shall fight on Super Tuesday, we shall fight on the plains of Ohio, we shall fight in Florida, we shall fight with the cheer of knowing we are in the right, we shall fight on the floor of the convention, we shall never join with him. The Republican party may die, but conservatism and its principles will go on and be renewed without it. #NeverTrump. Not now, not ever.
But to that I would add that I may never support a candidate who endorses him, either. Offering support to Trump is such a gross error in judgment that I will be highly skeptical of any politician who lends their aid to place him in the White House. The party simply isn’t worth it. It never was, and as long as it continues to embrace the myth that the Party Matters Above All, it never will be. The only meaningful way to defeat Trumpism permanently is to offer a better politics, a politics rooted in integrity and character and concern for our neighbor, a politics that takes seriously the concerns of Trump’s followers without capitulating to their leader. Such a politics can win the respect of a majority of the country only if it breaks with Trump himself, and ignores the browbeating about the Court that the Vichy Republicans (like Hewitt) will offer until November 11th.
For evangelicals, the decision should be easy. Sadly, for many who are already supporting Trump, it is not. We have Bible verses clearly indicting Trump’s behavior, and in the strongest possible terms. I mean, look at the list from Proverbs about what the Lord hates: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue… a false witness that pours out lies…” Accepting Trump because he announces that we can be warm and filled completely divorces our political commitments from our interest in the Gospel. This is the time to recognize what you have wrought, and repent: The hour draws nigh, but it is not too late. Shamelessness is not courage. Defeating political correctness through wickedness is not a victory for the truth. The enemy of our enemy is not always our friend. If we feed the beast, he will someday grow strong enough to turn on us. And that day will come: Trump’s history of being blown by every wind and wave of sentiment virtually guarantees it.
For those evangelicals who are seized by despair at our political order and interested in burning it to the ground, consider instead voting for someone with the firmness of principles and character that will guarantee that when he arrives, he will not lose sight of his mission. C.S. Lewis once said he would rather play cards with an atheist who never cheated over a Christian who didn’t care. In the same way, disaffected evangelicals should prefer someone with a moral center over the hollow core of a B-grade celebrity. In other words, lend your support to Bernie Sanders: You’ll have as much of a chance of overturning our political order, having your interests represented, and passing pro-life policies as you will with Donald Trump. And he at least has the advantage of being a decent human being.
There is no world in which I would vote for Bernie Sanders. But I would consider it before I would ever consider voting for Donald Trump. And Republicans who expect us to fall in line come November should know that among evangelicals who have voted with them in the past, I am not alone.
Feature image via: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/8567825104