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Can There Be Mercy in Trump’s America?

May 21st, 2018 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

Early last week our president, when responding to a sheriff’s comment about a member of a violent immigrant gang, said that:

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.

The Twitter “conversation” that followed was predictably lame. The president’s critics reacted to tweets that did not show the remarks in context and did not try, as far as I could tell, to get context before commenting on them.

When the context came out, Trump’s supporters were similarly lame and predictable, acting as if this just proved that Trump’s remarks were fine because he was specifically talking about MS-13.1

Of course, even if we give the president of the benefit of the doubt, despite having no reason to do so, to callously dismiss members of a gang as “animals” does suggest a real devaluing of the human individual, a sense in which that person has become exempt from the call to ordinary human kindness because they have committed horrible acts. And yes, I know Scripture speaks in these ways sometimes, though that seems a dubious argument to me if for no other reason than Scripture speaks about sinful people in other ways and our president does not.

For many on the right, there can be no mercy for the gang member. Of course, the specific case here is almost a red herring. There is a considerable number of American “conservatives,” including our current president, who would also say there can be no mercy for the immigrant.

Days after that, the New York Times ran a profile of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson. The sneering tone of the piece makes the author’s intent clear with the inevitable result being a boring repeat performance of the Cathy Newman interview. The progressive readers already inclined to dislike Peterson were validated in their hatred for him while conservative readers with any sympathy for Peterson at all found themselves rallying to the flag. Having read 12 Rules for Life, I’m inclined to broadly agree with Charlie’s review, though I’d hedge on a few points. But even I found myself wanting to defend Peterson and his fans at certain points while reading that profile.

In this case, the logic of the left seems to be that there can be no mercy for the disillusioned white male. Indeed, simply seeing the phrase “disillusioned white male” seems to trigger some of Peterson’s critics.

To be sure, we should be careful in how we distinguish between the challenges facing those the right hates vs the challenges facing those hated by the left. Disillusioned young white men are not going to be deported and separated from their families. They are less likely to be sexually assaulted as well. These are, of course, the reason that many on the left cue up their tiny violins when young white men express anger or frustration over their place in society. Relative to the worst-case-scenario risks facing non-white Americans or American women, the visceral risks facing many young white men are small.

All that being said, it should not be that controversial to note that there are real challenges facing young white men in America and particularly young white men without a college degree. It was way back in 2010, after all, that Hanna Rosin first wrote of “the end of men” for The Atlantic, paying particular attention the harder economic realities facing men, particularly men who are not cut out for college and, in the past, would have found steady farm or industrial work. In 2011 Newsweek reported on the decline of the middle-aged white man in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

Today, young men generally make less money than they did in the past and diminished economic opportunity will, in many cases, coincide with other academic and psychological struggles too. The working class white family is struggling too. The white non-marital birthrate in 1965 was 3.4%. In 2014 it was 35.7%. Depression and mental health struggles are becoming more common as well. Suicide is the biggest killer of UK men under age 45. In the US, white middle-aged men account for 70% of the suicides each year. You can sum up much of the dysfunction by reading this feature, American Void, published in the Washington Postwhich took a close look at the home neighborhood of Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black Americans at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC.

To be sure, you can think Peterson himself is not the answer for the many disillusioned white men in the US and Canada. That’s fine. I’ve already said I’m in that group and the fact that we published such a critical review of his book should make it clear that I’m not calling for unambiguous praise of all things Jordan Peterson. But what does disturb me is the sneering indifference I see on the left to the sort of person that finds Peterson’s work attractive. It strikes me, yet again, as being something that overlaps in several ways with the right’s more obvious bigotries.

What the two share is an indifference to the suffering of a large group of people. In 2016 we had the obvious racism and misogyny that stood behind the Trump campaign—they’re all rapists, “Trump that bitch,” etc.—existing alongside Secretary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” the “irredeemables.” And what worries me about this is that, if anything, I see the divide becoming sharper rather than blunter two years into the Trump presidency. This probably shouldn’t surprise me, and yet even so it grieves me.

One of the lines Matt has used on several occasions and that I’ve borrowed and repeated myself is that one of the great—and perhaps the greatest—political questions of our era is whether there can be mercy in the debate over same-sex marriage. Sadly, I fear the sharpening on same-sex marriage and religious liberty in the immediate aftermath of Obergefell was simply a forecast of where our politics more generally would go.

Today the vital question facing us is not of mercy in a debate over a single issue, even if it is admittedly an issue that touches all of life, such as marriage. It is, simply, the question of mercy for people unlike ourselves, for people who do not look like us or believe things that we ourselves reject. And with each passing week, the answer to that question seems to become clearer: In Trump’s America, there can be no mercy.

Mercy, of course, is quite similar to grace. In mercy, we are spared from receiving something which is deserved whereas grace is receiving something we do not deserve. There is a word Christianity has for a world where grace is absent and it may well apply in a similar way to a world devoid of mercy. That word is “Hell.”

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).