by Berry Friesen
The candidacy of Donald Trump has riled our society like none since George Wallace ran for president nearly fifty years ago. Peacemakers have work to do. How might we help people regain perspective?
For starters, let’s briefly review why we’re so upset.
Trump ran a demagogic campaign, especially during the Republican primaries when he grabbed loads of free publicity by making offensive, inflammatory statements about women, Muslims and Mexicans. He promised draconian action against illegal immigrants and showed no sympathy for victims of murderous police violence. Trump’s approach caused his popularity to soar, even among devout Christians. This has been deeply disorienting; an important moral tether in our society seems to have given way.
During his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Trump toned down the inflammatory rhetoric, but remained rude and reckless in his comments. A 2005 tape recording revealed him bragging about conduct that in most jurisdictions is a crime. When women came forward to speak of his insolent sexual advances, we believed them.
The media was almost unanimous in its opposition to his candidacy and the polls predicted he would lose. Thus, we have experienced his victory as a surprise, even a shock.
Many Hispanics, African-Americans and Muslims have experienced Trump’s words as personal attacks. Women victimized by sexual aggression perceive his success to have normalized predatory behavior. For many of these folks, Trump’s electoral win feels like a betrayal.
Since the election, the frequency of bigoted behavior has reportedly increased, suggesting that bigotry has been legitimized by Trump’s election.
None of this can be explained away, nor should we try to discount it. So what can we say or do that encourages people rather than making them more afraid and discouraged? Here are six observations and one suggestion to consider.
- Most people did not vote for Trump; in fact, only about 27 percent of the electorate did. His views aren’t as widely held as is often assumed. Most folks we meet in a typical day did not vote for him.
- Political science has long taught us that people tend to vote not so much for a person as for a party. So in this election, people who identity as Republican were highly likely to vote for Trump, no matter how poorly they regarded him. This is “normal” political behavior and not evidence of bigotry.
- People identify with a political party because of principles that tend to be enduring. For many Republicans, the pro-life position is fundamental; they are willing to overlook a candidate’s flaws in order to support the pro-life cause. Democrats behave in a similar way around other principles.
The pro-life example also is useful in reflecting on the moral outrage many feel over Trump’s win. For those who regard abortion to be an act of homicide, elevating a pro-choice candidate to the presidency is an outrage. “He’s not my president” is a response many such folks have voiced over the years.
- Back in July, Hyon S. Chu pointed out that the wealthy Democrats running the Clinton campaign were committing lots of time and money to issues such as “reproductive rights, gun control, atheism, sexism, racism, and who gets to go to which bathroom.” After citing Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs, Chu pointed out that diversity, racism and sexism tend to get attention when one has the basics of life covered. “If you are not middle-class-plus or above (as most of the country isn’t), you simply do not have the luxury to constantly debate these issues. You are still stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, living paycheck-to-paycheck, concerned about basic life needs such as paying rent, or putting food on the table.”
Both political parties practice a corrosive “identity politics.” The Republican Party has long positioned itself to attract voters unhappy about African-American and Hispanic advances; the Democrat Party has long sought to portray itself as the party for women and for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities.
Why do I call this politics “corrosive?” Because it has divided and separated us from one another while leaving a huge swath of the electorate neglected and without a home: working class voters living paycheck-to-paycheck. Many who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted for Trump in this election for the simple reason that Trump alone paid attention to their core concerns.
- Hillary Clinton was a scary candidate too, arguably more scary than Trump. She is a committed imperialist who cloaks U.S. aggression in a smug illusion of moral superiority. She bears heavy responsibility for the devastating wars in Libya and Syria. She voiced much hostility toward Russia and was committed to a plan in Syria that was likely to bring about a direct U.S. military confrontation with Russia. She recklessly blamed Russia for interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign.
- In Acts 25, when the Apostle Paul faced the prospect of being placed in the custody of his Jewish accusers back in Jerusalem, he appealed to Caesar. Who in particular? Nero, a thoroughly debauched man who had murdered his mother and brother.
My point is that we should not be scandalized by the fact that a man such as Trump has been chosen to lead today’s empire. Running an empire has long been a cruel and tawdry enterprise; the core question has always been whether you and I will invest ourselves in such a project.
As Mennonite peace activists, we would do well to recognize that the practice of identity politics also increasingly characterizes our work. That is, we specialize in this or that justice-related agenda related to a specific identity group and neglect cross-cutting concerns such as militarism, unending war, economic injustice and climate change.
Though engaged fully by the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., Martin Luther King was unwilling to ignore the behavior of the American Empire in the world. He was convinced of the connection between the violence and racism here at home and the violence and racism over there. It all was of one piece.
So as we do our part to help the broader church respond to the ascendency of Donald Trump, let us also examine ourselves and our work. How can we work together and thereby better mobilize our congregations and conferences in working for peace?
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at http://www.bible-and-empire.net