Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Radicalism that Enables Trump

Human beings are complicated creatures. Many Trump voters are probably more upstanding in their personal character than I am. Yet, as a collective political force, Trumpism represents the barbarian horde at the gate. If they break through, it's not clear our civic institutions can withstand the damage.
The Course of Empire -- Destruction. Thomas Cole. 1836
Trump is the warlord leading this frenzy, but he did not start it.

A growing sense of fragmentation in our society and declining trust in our institutions are broad-based, bipartisan, and long-term phenomena, as Daniel Rogers has shown in his book, Age of Fracture.

But the radical conservative movement (a contradictory phrase) has deliberately catalyzed this disintegration. Stoking fear and paranoia, an alternative media apparatus has joined with radicals in congress to tell Americans that science is a hoax, that academia is a secular cesspool, that mainstream media is too biased to have any use, and that the Democratic Party is trying to destroy the country. Now, in the internecine conflict of the Republican Party, we see the radicals eating their own. There is no natural end point to this orgy of destruction.

Last night on Twitter, Matthew Yglesias wrote, "My guess is that in a Trump administration angry mobs will beat and murder Jews and people of color with impunity."

If you're familiar with Yglesias, you know that he is frequently snarky and ironic. So in this case, I assumed he was joking. He wasn't.

If you're not tuned in to political twitter, you might not be aware of what I'm about to tell you. Jewish journalists and journalists of color are being bombarded daily with genocidal racism from Trump supporters. I won't repeat the depravity here. But these journalists have never experienced anything like this before. It's unprecedented. And Trump's campaign knows full well exactly what is happening. Not only have they declined to discourage it, Trump and his son have retweeted some of these White supremacists.

If you were confronted by thousands of people online saying they want you to die, and the Republican nominee encouraged their behavior, how would you feel about the prospect of him becoming president?

It's easy enough to see how this sense of impunity would migrate from the online world to the real one. As President, Trump would have enormous power, the levers of federal law enforcement at his hands. We know that he is vindictive and cruel, a man ruled by his passions. This is an incredibly dangerous combination. At a time when there is broad understanding that police reform is needed, Trump has called for new oppression, more "tough" policing, and nationwide stop-and-frisk. Trump's language and demeanor is perfectly calibrated to create a culture of impunity, not only for police but for ordinary White citizens. And with his plans to oppress people of color publicly declared, Trump has won the support of law enforcement. So it's not just what Trump would do. It's about the permission structure he would create for thousands of police officers who chafe against current restraints.

A Trump presidency is not an abstraction. It would mean new kinds of oppression, and no prospect of mitigating its existing forms. It would mean more death. But Trump supporters can't see this because their radicalism has produced an alternate reality.

On the far right, the following claims are routinely thought to be true:

Democrats are trying to destroy the country.

Democrats who support a moderate kind of capitalism tempered by a social safety net are actually hard leftists or communists.

Barack Obama has purposely stirred up racial tensions.

Whites face more discrimination than people of color.

Voter fraud is a big problem.

There's a Christian twist on this radicalism too. It's a world where "liberal" is an antonym of "Christian" and you can be "pro-life" without actually supporting policies that would reduce abortions.

This post-truth, post-Christian politics enables Trump. If the other side is trying to destroy the country, the logic goes, then we are justified in burning down their institutions in order to save the country. What about the harm to poor people and racial and religious minorities? For some Trump supporters it's just collateral damage. For others, hurting people of color is precisely the point.

I have not given up hope that there are still people on the fence, and even Trump supporters, who will yet do the right thing and withdraw their support. For those who stay with him, have the courage of your convictions as the White supremacists do! Instead of voting for Trump while saying you take racism and sexism seriously, just admit that you aren't prioritizing these concerns.

I know that abortion looms large for many Christians. But if that's the single issue on which you're voting, go ahead and make that honest case. I still haven't heard anyone make this argument.

If people think that the dim prospect of reducing abortions under a President Trump is more important than all other forms of injustice put together--his racism, his misogyny, his gross ignorance, his intention to commit war crimes, his plans to oppress immigrants and Muslims and promote tougher policing--they should say so. What they must not do is wave all this away and create a fantasy world in which Trump didn't run a racist campaign and revel in his own ignorance and cruelty. If White evangelicals think we should elect a biblical fool to the presidency, they should say so, and they should explain why. What we're getting instead is a Maoist approach to truth, where what is true is whatever lie the party has declared for the day. Trump's campaign isn't racist like there was no famine in the Chinese countryside in 1959.

The seriousness of pro-life voters can be measured by the range of solutions we are willing to support. If we can tolerate an ignorant demagogue to advance our anti-abortion politics but cannot tolerate wealth redistribution and health care policies that would reduce the demand for abortions, our politics is not as pro-life as we imagine. Even if you're a single-issue abortion voter, I still think Trump is the wrong choice.

Are you willing to look people of color in the eye and tell them you don't care about them? Because that's what it feels like if you vote for Trump. Are you willing to tell them that they're wrong to be concerned, that you know more about their lives than they do?

There is still time to do the right thing.

(My standard disclaimer: I'm not urging people to vote for Clinton. I'm simply urging Christians not to vote for Trump, and to use our vote, or abstention, to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves).

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Five Takeaways From The First Presidential Debate

Calm before the storm. September 26, 2016.
1) Hillary Clinton made an unprecedented accusation.

Last night, one presidential candidate stood on the debate stage and said of her opponent, "he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior."

This has never happened before. Had this claim been made in any other presidential debate in American history, it would have been completely shocking. It would have dominated the headlines, and pundits of every persuasion would be scratching their heads about such an offensive breach of civility.

But last night, America shrugged. Even Trump's supporters didn't seem too bothered about it. The reason: it's so undeniably true.

2) "Racial divide" is considered objective; "Racial injustice" is considered opinionated

Introducing the portion of the debate on race, moderator Lester Holt said, "Race has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

This is, of course, a less relevant question than how you would fix the causes of the divide. Holt could have simply asked, "What would your administration do to reduce racial discrimination?" but this question would have been a violation of racial norms. As long as we talk about the divide, we can each have our own fanciful notions of who and what is responsible for it.

If you think about other issues, it may be more obvious why this rhetoric of division and healing is strange.

"Americans bitterly disagree about climate change. How are you going to heal the divide?"

"Immigration has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

Notice how these aren't actually questions about climate change or immigration. They're questions about the nation's civic fabric and our ability to get along with one another. And there's a place for those questions! But ordinarily, we ask questions about the issues themselves. Only when it comes to race do we consistently displace the actual issue and turn it into a civic fabric discussion. This is colorblind racial rhetoric in action.

3) We've never seen a liar like this. 

I get it; politicians lie. But we've never seen such brazen contempt for truth from a presidential candidate. Donald Trump is in a class by himself. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to retain the capacity to be shocked by it. We don't yet know the full consequences of this unprecedented behavior. But it is corrosive. I hope Trump supporters will give more thought to what it might mean for our political system to discard any sense of obligation to truth.

4) I'm not sure Trump "lost."

Of course Trump lost the debate by the usual measures of performance. But did he really "lose" in the minds of the people who matter? I don't know. Trump was obviously unfit from day one. What can a candidate who had already disqualified himself do that would cause him to "lose" at this late date?

5) No one will be able to say they didn't know. 

Donald Trump is an ignorant bully. This is a matter of public record. There have been lots of questions about how the race between a flawed but normal nominee and a con man could be this close. Has the media failed to educate the public? Is Hillary Clinton just a horrible candidate? Did the Republican establishment badly miscalculate? As interesting as these questions may be, we spend a lot of time talking about them because we don't want to face what we know deep down: millions of Americans know who Trump is, and they like him for it.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

You Probably Wouldn't Have Supported the Civil Rights Movement

White Americans desperately want to be innocent of any racial wrongdoing. You notice this pretty quickly when you begin to talk about race. Once you look for it, you'll see how often White people are approaching the whole conversation with one goal: establishing their innocence. "My family didn't own slaves. My grandparents immigrated here in the twentieth century. I worked hard for everything I have. Black people have had the same opportunities." Etc.

These kinds of statements tend to be beside the point, and often plainly false. But truth in a literal sense is not the goal of this kind of rhetoric. We use it to claim that we are good, and that we bear no responsibility for racial injustice. We use it to avoid negative feelings. We want to claim innocence not by doing something, but by creating our own reality with our words.

Let's focus on one common trope in the construction of White innocence. It comes in a variety of forms, but the gist of it is this:

I don't support Black Lives Matter, but I would have supported the civil rights movement. 

People believe this with sincerity. But they're almost certainly wrong. Maybe you're one of these people. You praise the civil rights movement but find yourself opposed to the current movement. Let's treat your claim not as something that needs to be true for your emotional well-being, but as something that can be investigated historically. It might be uncomfortable at first. But the truth can set you free.

First, if you're around 70 years of age or above, there isn't anything theoretical about this. You were an adult at the height of the civil rights movement. What did you do?

But most of us are younger. So let's use our imaginations informed by what we know about the historical context of the time.
A normal headlines from the 1960s. Would you have joined the "law and order" chorus?
Most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Why do you think you would have been willing to go against the grain and possibly lose relationships with friends or family members?

Even more than they do today, White and Black Americans lived in separate worlds. What about your White small town, rural area, or segregated urban neighborhood would have given you a connection to African Americans or sympathy for their goals? Why do you think you would have been concerned about this issue at all?

Dr. King was a radical traveling protestor. Violence ensued nearly everywhere he launched a campaign. Why would you have believed his statements instead of the statements of the police and other authorities?
Cleveland Sellers, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael
Most White Americans thought African Americans had all the opportunities they needed. Why would you have thought any differently? Why would you have thought protests were necessary?

The riots of the 1960s were on a vast and deadly scale far beyond anything we've seen in this century. Why wouldn't you have blamed the riots on the movement? 

Dr. King laid the ultimate blame for the rioting at the feet of White America. Would you have agreed with him?
Looting in Philadelphia, 1964.
Wouldn't you have been concerned about the anti-White and anti-police rhetoric of the Nation of Islam?

What about the Black Power movement would have appealed to you?

Wouldn't you have been concerned about Dr. King's communist associations?

The FBI said Dr. King was a dangerous agitator. Wouldn't you have considered the FBI a reliable source of information?

Would you have been bothered by Dr. King's radical critique of capitalism?

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act dramatically expanded federal power and reduced the rights of the states. Would you have supported the expansion of federal government power the civil rights movement demanded?

You might think that you would have been stirred to action by the videos of protestors being attacked with dogs and firehoses, or by the death of the four little girls in the church bombing. Perhaps. But I suppose it's fair to ask, how did Tamir's murder move you? You saw that on video too. How did the Charleston church shooting move you?

We could go on for a long time. I think you get the point. There have always been reasons to stand on the side of White supremacy. What most White Americans saw and understood of the civil rights movement was disorder, violence, and unreasonable demands. It was not as simple or clear as you imagine it. The measure of our goodwill is not what we might have done in a movement that is safely in the past. The question is what we will do now in a society that is segregated and unequal.

If you don't agree with the proposition that racial oppression in 2016 is real, you can continue on with your innocence-making project. But you won't be free. You'll be forced to believe lies. For your own protection you'll make up fantasies about your own country. You won't understand the world you live in. That's a miserable way to live.

The truth shall set you free.

See, Christians don't go looking for racial innocence. We believe that there is "none righteous, not one." So our connection to evil doesn't surprise us. We're not surprised that we've passively benefited from unjust systems, or that we have racist ideas. We don't need to approach racial controversies solving for our innocence; Jesus has taken care of that. We are freed to look for truth and stand with the oppressed. We are free to support Black Lives Matter, as everyone should.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why I'm Still An Evangelical In The Age Of Trump

Part of me thinks if you're a real evangelical you don't need to write about why you still are one. But my path has been winding. For the past decade, whether or not I was an evangelical might depend on the day you asked me, or what I had for dessert the night before. As I've grown older and begun to raise my children, I've grown into my identity. When your children begin to ask you questions, you find you have to answer them one way or another. It turns out that I am still an evangelical. 

It is through evangelicalism that I encountered Jesus and cast what little faith I have into the proposition that he will rescue me from myself. For me, "sinner saved by grace" is not an old-fashioned Sunday school tale. It is the basic claim that shapes every day of my life. Without it, I would live somewhere else, do different work, and have a different kind of family. Without it, I wouldn't know what to do.

There is something wonderful and hard to explain about the rootedness of believing in supernatural religion. I am a person of my time, of course, but I'm also of another time. I can read words written hundreds or thousands of years ago and feel an instant connection. They trusted in Jesus, too, I say to myself, and their experience seems so similar to mine because, after all, Jesus is alive. This foolishness rescues me from the soul-crushing materialism of this confused era. Evangelicalism is not the only place I might have discovered these things, it's just where I did discover them. And so I owe something to it.

But when as a young adult I found out that my faith tradition was broken, I wanted to push it away, reject it. Easier said than done.

Many of us have complicated but ultimately unbreakable bonds with the things that form us. Families, countries, religions, a landscape or a city. There are certain things that are a part of you and you love them with all the frustration and familiarity with which you love yourself. So when I tried to disown evangelicalism, it didn't take. I find that my very best and very worst qualities are tangled together in this evangelical inheritance.

I've found in evangelicalism the harshest judgments and most unexpected acts of grace. I've seen the worst kinds of complacency and the most life-giving zeal. I've found guilt and shame, and soul-restoring peace. I've found infuriating anti-intellectualism and humble scholarship of the first order. I've even found racism and anti-racism.

To many readers this may all sound vaguely strange, possibly even interesting, but disconnected from what they know of evangelicalism. The elephant in the room with us is the "Christian" Right. Many Americans know evangelicalism primarily as a political movement. So it may surprise some people to learn that evangelicals are spending far more time and money working on things like poverty, racism, health care, and education than they are in trying to elect Republicans. World Vision, for example, is an evangelical aid organization with a budget that by itself dwarfs all the activities of the "Christian" Right in the United States. And don't forget the thousands of organizations that are doing exceptional work in every city across the country. They're helping kids, rebuilding communities, fighting poverty, providing health care, and offering college scholarships to students of color.
John Perkins, founder of the CCDA. A hero within evangelicalism, virtually unknown without
From the outside, evangelicalism has looked like a political juggernaut. From the inside, it has looked like a religious movement that treats partisan politics as a sideshow. I don't know quite how to reconcile these competing visions. But communities are always more complicated than they appear from the outside.

An old friend and mentor of mine, himself an evangelical, recently told me that he believes many of the "evangelicals" showing up in polls supporting Donald Trump are cultural evangelicals in the South who are not actually committed Christians. There seemed to be an element of truth in this, especially in the primaries when the data showed regular church attendees were less likely to support Trump. And anecdotally, this seems right even now. It's hard to find Christians in my circles who support Trump. But I don't think that's the story the data is telling now. Though some of us are associated with evangelical communities in which voting for Trump is unthinkable, we have to face the fact that the large majority of church-going White evangelicals are going to vote for him.

This is the culminating act of political self-destruction in a 40 year campaign of harmful politics. When I think of the "Christian" Right, I'm inclined to repurpose a line from Frederick Douglass' first autobiography: "between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference..." Indeed. Despite all the good done by evangelicals in local communities, the dominant political expression of American evangelicalism is hateful and selfish, and unworthy to be called Christian.

This politics is very public. It's what people see, and it's what they associate with evangelicalism. So to all the readers who don't have any particular connection to evangelicalism but know it through its politics: you're right to be offended. I hope, in some small way, it might matter to you to know that millions of evangelicals are offended too.

And we're not just offended. We're bewildered. Evangelical support for Trump is a fascinating and confusing phenomenon because he is a living negation of the values we claim to hold. He embodies with eerie precision the opposite of the qualities we're taught to revere in our savior. Christ's servant's spirit, his humility, his boundary-crossing love, his wrath for oppressors--it's not just that Trump fails to live up to these qualities, as we all do. It's that he's unusually hostile to them.

Evangelicals should not be under the illusion that they will have any credibility to speak to my generation after vocally supporting Trump. I can understand an evangelical quietly and sorrowfully pulling the lever for Donald Trump. I really can. But open advocacy is something else. To this day, I still haven't seen an honest evangelical case for Trump. I'd like to see the case made.

I do not want to offend Trump supporters. But I do want them to be aware that their politics hurts real people, including my neighbors. These folks have names. They're flesh and blood. Supporting Trump hurts them, and I still can't see how it helps anybody else. It's all downside.

So how does a candidate running on an anti-Christian platform win over Christian voters? By appealing to their idols. In the end, Trump's allure cannot be understood apart from White evangelicals' investments in race and patriotism. What I wrote at the beginning of the summer still holds true:
Many White evangelicals are prepared to vote for Trump because they're heirs to a cultural and theological tradition that binds race and nation to faith. Trump may not offer a clean-cut portrait of Christian character, but he is surprisingly forthright in his White nationalism. It is a mistake to assume that Trump's irreligious persona doesn't carry a religious message. To make America great again, to restore America's racial hierarchy--these are religious goals of an idolatrous people.
This, too, is part of my inheritance. Part of what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus is not to run away from my community of faith. It would have been easier in a way to leave evangelicalism and cast stones from the outside. It is harder to stay, confront my own racism, and seek reformation of my community from the inside. But I think that's what I'm supposed to do.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The classic civil rights narrative pits violent white segregationists against dignified black protestors. It implicitly asks, are you with Bull Connor, or are you with the good people? This self-serving question teaches us to forget about the moderate majority that defeated the civil rights movement. It tells us to forget the bipartisan nationwide consensus that demanded the preservation of segregated neighborhoods and schools. It's a story that establishes our innocence.
Selma, 1965. Quick! Can you guess who the good characters are?
It’s like the boy who asked his grandpa, “Which were you in, the Klan or the FBI?” His grandfather replied, “I was just in Georgia.” This little anecdote reminds us that the story of the civil rights movement’s defeat is not one of Klan terrorism or rogue policeman. It is a story of ordinary people invested in ordinary things. Good homes and schools for their children, a future for their grandkids. Maybe they didn’t think too much about the civil rights movement. Maybe they were just in Georgia. 

Over time, it became easier to tell the story with sharp contrasts and careful embellishments. Of course you weren’t with Bull Connor. And that meant you were one of the good folks.

Now Hillary Clinton and many liberals would have us draw again from this well. Her controversial comments revealed over the weekend invite us to take sides, in effect asking, “Are you with Donald Trump and his deplorables, or are you with the good people?” 

This question might win an election. But it won’t produce justice and freedom for the people who need it most. 

The problem with Clinton’s remarks is not so much that they unfairly accused Trump’s supporters, but that they unfairly absolved the rest of us. In Clinton’s world, half of Trump’s supporters are irredeemable, the other half have succumbed to their economic frustrations, and those of us who have not felt the allure of Trumpism are, presumably, free from the prejudices and backwardness of a fading and reactionary White America. 

In this unwarranted claim of innocence we can begin to see why Donald Trump’s racism is so insidious. Trump doesn’t just embolden racists and create a hostile climate for people of color. His racism dramatically lowers the bar, confuses the issue, and misdirects attention on questions of racial justice. It invites people who are invested in exclusionary lifestyles to imagine that their opposition to a racist puts them on the side of justice. 

“I may oppose the low-income housing development in my neighborhood, but Donald Trump offends me.” 

I may not want poor school districts to get more state funding than wealthy ones, but I’m not voting for Trump.”

“I may not support Black Lives Matter but I’m voting for Clinton.”

“See how innocent I am?”

Clinton’s comments meet the bar of technical truth: the polling does show higher levels of prejudice among Trump supporters. But her dismissive contempt displayed none of the Christian conviction that being deplorable is one of the few things we all have in common. More practically, her words denied the messy realities of translation from personal lives to political expressions. How many of the donors in the room to hear Clinton’s remarks live in gated communities and send their children to private schools, carefully insulating themselves from the poor? Voting for Clinton will not redeem their selfish choices. Meanwhile, how many of Trump’s “deplorables” support his racist campaign even as they stand ready to give the shirt off their back to their poor neighbors? Life is complicated. 

The way some liberal writers have rushed to defend Clinton, you’d think she made some grand statement about social justice. No, she didn’t. She’s just trying to win an election. And it’s important that she does so! But on the other side of November 8th we’ll still face the deeper problem: ordinary people invested in ordinary things, manning the ramparts of a segregated and unequal society so that their children might have a better life. 

It sounds to me like Hillary Clinton’s comments conjured a much more comforting story. You don’t have to think about the hard stuff of power—school district lines, zoning laws, tax rates, the criminal justice system. You don’t have to think about how the laws and systems that need to change implicate all of us and have bipartisan support. You don’t have to think about how ordinary people like you might try to divest from the status quo. Indeed, like her, you might want to grab all you can get while you have the chance. Temperance is such an old-fashioned virtue. But make sure you display your general aura of cosmopolitan tolerance now and then. Happily, you can perform it on the cheap this year: just vote against Trump. 

We must defeat Trump. He has revealed himself as a cruel and ignorant man who dreams of oppression. But when this dirty task is done and Trump has lost, those who seek justice should not assume that we have an ally in the White House, or that we need to look any further than ourselves to find something deplorable.