Reflection on the US Presidential Election

 Fr. Jim Bacik
Many people in the United States and around the world are still trying to make sense out of the 2016 presidential election. Although the significance of this unprecedented election will become clear only over time, it is possible to group some early responses under five general headings.
True Trump Believers.
During the campaign Donald Trump was perceived by some as an apocalyptic messiah who alone could save the nation from some final collapse. He would build a great wall that would keep out those foreigners threatening our country. In fighting the ominous threat of terrorism, he knew more about ISIS than the generals and had a secret plan for defeating them. The true believers are personally loyal to Trump and tend to support his decisions even if they disagree with them. They cling to the conviction that President Trump will make America great again.
Some of the loyalists have taken Trump’s striking statements literally, for example, building a wall, and expect him to fulfil this pledge. Others have interpreted such comments more symbolically and will not be upset if no wall appears.
Republicans for Trump.
Now that Trump has won the presidency, he has gained the support of most Republicans. They see him as an ally in achieving some of their goals: moving the Supreme Court in a more conservative direction; repealing and replacing the Affordable Health Care Act; making the Hyde Amendment permanent law; defunding Planned Parenthood; and defending religious liberty.
At the same time, some Republicans are worried because they are not sure of Trump’s position on some issues, including climate change. Since the election, he has indicated to the New York Times that there might be some connection between global warming and human activity. A few Republicans committed to exposing global warming as a hoax have expressed concern over Trump’s meeting with Al Gore, who is passionate on the issue and over his close relationship to his daughter, Ivanka, who has reportedly expressed interest in making climate change one of her primary issues.
On the other hand, Trump has appointed an outspoken climate change denier, Myron Ebell, to head the EPA. There are other positions of Trump which are clearly at odds with Paul Ryan and most Republicans: for example, his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership highly favoured by the Speaker. Time will tell whether some apparent differences on issues such as health care, balanced budget, and infrastructure spending are real and whether they are subject to compromise by Trump and Congress.
Reluctant Trump Supporters.
Some citizens voted for Trump as the lesser of two evils, judging that Senator Clinton was an even worse choice based on perceived character defects and policy issues, for some Catholics especially on abortion.
Others supported him for various reasons despite his xenophobic, misogynistic, and bigoted rhetoric. They were attracted by his articulation of their pain and anger at being ignored and demeaned by the elite establishment of both parties.
Around 80% of white evangelicals, who traditionally support family values, voted for Trump despite his three marriages, well publicized affairs, and crude comments about women. The reluctant Trump supporters are hoping he moderates his language as president and actually improves the lot of those who feel left behind.
Critics of Trump.
After the surprising electoral victory of Donald Trump, some of his critics are expecting dire consequences for the country. The conservative Catholic commentator, Andrew Sullivan, for example, believes the election “has changed the core nature of the country forever.” Trump, “a supremely talented demagogue,” who created “an authoritarian cult” with “neofascist rhetoric” now “controls everything from here on forward.”
According to Sullivan, Trump has “destroyed the GOP,” “humiliated the elites,” “embarrassed the pollsters” and “avenged Obama.” Sullivan predicts the new president will instil fear in opponents, intimidate Muslin-Americans, encourage torture, blame others for his failures, turn media institutions into scapegoats, demolish rival politicians, and vilify uncooperative foreign countries.
He does recognize that Trump cannot actually do some of the things he promised, such as build a massive wall that Mexico pays for and deport millions of illegal immigrants. Sullivan concludes his pessimistic analysis by urging citizens to counter Donald Trump’s threats by supporting and preserving our core institutions: the courts, the rules of war, the free press, the Department of Justice, the research centres and the universities.
Not many citizens share this whole apocalyptic vision of Andrew Sullivan, but he does give voice to those who believe the election threatens important traditions in American life, such as civil discourse, presidential decorum, respect for the free press, welcoming of immigrants, and the search for common ground, as well as to those worried that recent progress on global warming and nuclear containment will be reversed.
Stephen Pope, professor of theological ethics at Boston College, also advocates resistance to the “Trump movement.” He laments the silence of the American bishops on some of Trump’s more outrageous statements on immigrants and Muslims.
He notes that 60% of white Catholics voted for a man who displayed contempt for Christian virtues, such as compassion, forgiveness, humility, and fidelity, and who made proposals directly contrary to the values affirmed by Catholic social teaching, including the intrinsic dignity of every person, the solidarity of all people and stewardship for the environment.
Pope warns against “a cheap reconciliation” that ignores justice, reminding us that there was no reconciliation between John Paul II and the communists, between Bonhoeffer and the Nazis, between Romero and the Salvadoran oligarchy, and between King and the KKK. These great moral leaders “spoke the truth to power, witnessed to God’s solidarity with the poor, defended human rights, insisted on justice, and called their opponents to conversion.” Their courageous approach should be our own “if the incoming administration attempts to realize Trump’s worst instincts.” At the same time, Stephen Pope insists that Trump opponents should treat his supporters justly, listening with compassion “to better understand their concerns and aspirations.” None of us has a monopoly on the truth or loves with perfect purity of heart. With our first allegiance to Christ, “we must all repent, exercise humility and honestly admit our own blind spots.” This sets the stage for honest dialogue with Trump supporters on fair treatment of all, leading eventually to reconciliation. But Stephen Pope’s main point remains: “Now is the time for justice, not reconciliation.”
Some who voted against Trump are especially fearful that his rhetoric has created a climate that encourages enmity toward various groups, including Muslims, Hispanics, blacks, disabled and women.
Former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Diaz, reports a post-election conversation with his collegiate son who was looking for advice in comforting his Hispanic friends, extremely agitated by the prospect of deportation and the break-up of their families. Deeply moved by his son’s request, Diaz assured him that “enough voices would rise in our country and stand in solidarity to oppose any unjust actions by Trump.” Despite his reassuring words, Diaz himself continues to worry that Trump’s rhetoric has produced “widespread” fear in our country among various groups: Hispanics concerned about deportation; African-Americans fearful racial tensions will multiply; women apprehensive that sexual harassment and abuse will increase; Muslims afraid of religious profiling and terrorist stereotyping.
Time will reveal how widespread and realistic such fears are. In the meantime, Christians are called to lead the way in opposing all bias and prejudice and in promoting human rights based on the intrinsic worth and fundamental dignity of every human being. Individuals can multiply their influence by participating in local and national groups that promote civil and human rights, perhaps starting with parish social justice committees.
Those Engaging Trump.
A more positive response to the Trump movement, one inspired by Pope Francis, is to promote grass roots movements based on moral principles. Francis recently insisted that the future of humanity does not lie solely with great leaders but “is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”
The pope has proposed a vision of a just and humane society that critics can use to challenge Donald Trump’s view at important points. Instead of Trump’s America First theme, the papal vision sees the United States playing a leading role in creating a workable family of nations; instead of building a wall, Francis advocates building bridges between nations; instead of a ban on Muslim immigrants, the pope wants the U.S. to accept more refugees; instead of limiting relations to Cuba, Francis wants to expand them; instead of allowing the spread of nuclear weapons, Francis favours adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; instead of tax cuts for the rich, the papal vision advocates a more equitable distribution of wealth; instead of repealing the Affordable Care Act, Francis supports universal health care. These stark contrasts lack nuance and presume that President Trump’s actual policies will approximate his campaign rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is clear that Pope Francis offers a worldview that challenges the thrust of the Trump movement.
In terms of long-term consequences, the most important dialogue between Trump and Francis is on global warming. The pope’s encyclical Laudato Si accepts the scientific consensus and makes the case for a comprehensive approach to the problem. Signals from the Trump camp are mixed but there are signs that he may be open to moving beyond his earlier positon that global warming is a hoax.
Here is where a grassroots movement could make a difference, spearheaded by parish education programs around the country. The American bishops have produced an excellent study guide to facilitate parish- based small group discussions of Laudato Si, which includes all the materials a facilitator would need to run an effective meeting. Success of the movement depends on parishioners encouraging their pastors to adopt this officially sanctioned program.
Politically, there may be room for cooperation between President Trump and Congressional Democrats. Although some democratic senators have expressed total opposition to everything Trump stands for, Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer, has outlined a more nuanced approach, which sets barriers against policies that trample on Democratic values but cooperates on other issues. This means, for instance, opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the dismantling of Dodd-Frank with its regulations on the financial services industry. On the other hand, Schumer envisions possible cooperation on some of Trump’s campaign issues: governmental spending on infrastructure projects repairing roads, bridges and railways; punishing companies that move overseas; paid maternity leaves; improving trade agreements; and ending lucrative tax breaks for hedge fund managers.
The political situation following the election of Donald Trump is complex and evolving. We are a deeply polarized country in need of dialogue and reconciliation. The faith communities can play a constructive role in this process by bringing a moral dimension into the public debate on political, economic and cultural issues.
Our Catholic Church, for example, has a highly developed body of social teaching that provides a moral framework for constructive debate in the public forum. Christian discipleship calls for responsible citizenship.
Patriotism is a virtue. We have a moral obligation to vote intelligently. Public policies must protect and enhance the dignity and worth of every individual, especially the most vulnerable. Catholic social teaching insists on proper “preferential option for the poor,” which directs attention to the most vulnerable but excludes no one from God’s loving care. We are social creatures who need healthy communities to flourish, especially supportive families. Meaningful work enables us to develop our talents and contribute to the common good. Working to create a more just society is the essential foundation for establishing peace in the world.
As Pope Francis has taught us, we have an ethical obligation to care for our common home, this marvellous earth, God’s gift to us. These religious and moral principles, generally shared by people of good will, provide a perspective for developing policies that can bring people together to promote the common good.

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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well, I’ve waited for years to properly see the madness that lies in the heart of a billionaire so I’m tuning in to everything I can on Trump while he’s under the microscope. So far, it’s been entertaining to say the least.
    So Catholics and white evangelicals ushered in this era in the United States. I think we have the Vatican and its feeble attempts to rally world wide support (through online channels) to blame for this.
    Christianity is about delivering a message to people through actions not words. The Vatican relies on an antiquated system of reaching an audience with scripture by people who live in a completely different world (male celibate) who are too afraid to shake the status quo. I don’t think I can paint a more bleak picture.
    I have a tendency to listen to people like Edward Snowden and Aaron Schwartz (RIP) for a proper analysis of the current situation. They see things from a perspective that is fresh, relevant to the digital age in which we live, and from a “persecuted” point of view. They might be somewhat anarchistic/communistic in the way they approach things, but I think that might be the true essence of the Christianity that was formed over 2000 years ago (one true King not to be overthrown).
    The truth is that King Trump is starting his presidency from a point of weakness. He is vulnerable to intrusion from outside influence which could end up hijacking his presidency, if it hasn’t already as scary as that sounds (Russia).
    He is at obvious odds with himself and that will carry through in his ability to foster relationship with others – he won’t listen to defiance or anyone frank for that matter.
    Sadly, he will never know friend from foe because of his megalomania.
    The good news is that Trump is nothing more than a figure head of a machination (hierarchy) which controls nothing. It keeps the general populace distracted with disaster and chaos and creates the illusion that “it’a all in their hands” when in fact, when we look at the power of human intuition, it’s so easily overcome. It’s a responsibility that belongs to us all no matter who is in power.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    The scenes of chaos in US airports today, only a few days into this presidency, indicate that all of the above is out of date: Trump cannot last much longer.

  3. Chris McDonnell says:

    We all have a responsibility to respond to this difficult and dangerous situation. I wrote these few lines the day the Executive Order was signed
    you can’t come in,
    I’ve signed
    a piece of paper.
    Go back home
    and wait your turn
    and my decision.”
    No matter
    what you find
    when you return,
    whether your bed
    and chair remain,
    wait in front of breakfast plates
    for armed enquiry of your presence,
    sent for your removal
    to another place of safety,
    chosen by those whose actions
    you protested by your arrival
    at our border.
    The Order has been signed
    and a history of promised
    words of welcome
    lost in the dust and noise
    of rhetoric.
    Failing to recognise your sightless fears,
    blurring eyes through your falling tears,
    I say again,
    “No, you can’t come in.”

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Chris @3 – this is the type of work that would make a very interesting voice-over to video. I hope you write like this often as it is very captivating. Story telling at its finest.

  5. Chris McDonnell says:

    Thanks for your comment, much appreciated.
    I am past the time of street protest, valuable though that is as we have seen in recent days, but words can also be powerful and important.
    When Pinochet’s troops raided the house of Pablo Neruda looking for weapons, he told them ‘you will find nothing more dangerous here than poetry’.
    We must not stop writing, on this or other matters of conscience. And that includes voicing our concern for the future of our Church. The ACP site gives us that precious option for which I for one am grateful.

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