Top 5 Ways Trump Undermines the U.S. (and the Rest of America)

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For months and now years, the news has been full of weather disasters. Fires and horrendous mudslides in California; repeated blizzards and “thundersnow” in the Northeast; floods in low-lying areas; bizarre tornadoes in the south and elsewhere; prolonged droughts in the southwest.

And that is just in the United States! This and worse are happening all around the globe.

It all starts to feel routine. It is not. In fact, extreme, bizarre weather events are the leading edge of increasingly erratic climate change, long predicted by nonpolitical climate scientists. You may have noticed, incidentally, that weather forecasts seem increasingly unreliable.

When the bizarre feels normal, we are in deep, deep trouble.

School shootings, gun violence in homes, stores, and businesses?

Bizarre-to-normal. This is what has happened politically, as well. After more than a year of Donald Trump’s occupation of the Oval Office, we lose perspective. Distortion starts to look right. Falsehoods become ho-hum. Outrage fades. Toxic abnormal begins to feel normal—until it’s too late.

We really must take stock.

I clock here the top five ways Donald Trump is undermining the United States—as well as America and much of the rest of the shaky but until now relatively stable world order. Your list may be different; there are other dangers.

I rate these as top five:

1. Undermining credible authority

Trump was very clever indeed in seeing the potential of Twitter combined with adoring crowds which he, a consummate showman, could bewitch. He early saw the political potential in casting doubt on President Obama’s birthplace. Raising questions, sowing doubt, claiming to be unsure of what we in fact are assured of—this is Trump’s way. It is diabolical. (Satan, “Did God really say . . . ?”)

Constantly questioning the news media, government agencies, scientific consensus—even the legitimacy of government itself—does something to us psychologically. We find ourselves accepting a fog of uncertainty. So we are distracted from addressing real issues; immobilized from action. At least until just recently.

Trump’s credibility-undermining has infected three areas, primarily: News media, government agencies, and science.

Any news that seems unfavorable to Trump he labels “fake.” Any government report that seems potentially to question his legitimacy he labels biased. Any science that calls into question his opinions or policies he labels a hoax.

Most consistently of all: Any person or agency who criticizes Trump, he immediately attacks and seeks to destroy. This is a long-standing pattern noted by people who have worked with him over decades.

I thank God we do still have a largely independent news media. Yes, it is often sensationalistic, overly U.S.-focused, and too profit-driven. But it is not under White House control. I am most especially thankful for PBS and NPR, which still take “Public” seriously and are less sensationalistic and nationalistic in their reporting.

This undermining of truth leads to a second danger:

2. Stoking divisions and poisoning civil discourse

Mr. Trump is poisoning the public square. He gained the White House by stoking divisions and stirring up long-simmering resentments. In this he had an immense amount of help—perhaps without fully knowing it—from Russia’s evil cyber warfare, especially through Facebook and Twitter. I expect investigation will eventually show that Russia’s meddling tipped the scale.

The divisions were already there, of course. Throughout the eight Obama years, resentment toward “the other” and “the alien” was simmering and growing. The secret of Trump’s success is that, with Stephen Bannon’s help, he saw this bubbling unrest early. Trump appealed to resentment and fear—to a feeling of victimization.

The problems were real enough. Democrats and many others misperceived the situation. They missed the deep sense of alienation especially on the part of older white Americans, especially in rural and rustbelt areas. Resentment had built against “elites,” media outlets that talked past them, and government programs that seemed to bypass them.

And beneath this, the evil of racism, ready to be exploited.

It is always easier to stoke fear (a potent emotion) than to arouse hope and appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln knew.

The road for Trump had been paved by Fox “News” and some national leaders—especially Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate. Immediately following Barack Obama’s election, McConnell said the top Republican priority would be to undermine Obama; to restrict him to one term, not work with him on the nation’s business. Though Republicans couldn’t stop Obama’s reelection, they succeeded in nurturing resentment and polarization—powerful, but misplaced.

(I refer here to the Republican majority. A number of Republican leaders, like Senator John McCain, showed character and decried this shortsighted polarizing.)

By 2016, President Barack Obama had become the symbol of the other, the stranger. Obama: the Incarnate Alien. This is still how he is seen by Trump supporters. Hence the visceral hatred against Obama that I sensed among people who otherwise are kind, gentle Christians. In the presidential campaign, resentment against him and immigrants and Muslims could then easily be transferred to Hillary Clinton.

Thus 2016 was tailor-made for Donald Trump. He instinctively perceived this as did no one else. Trump sealed his victory by assuring evangelical Christians that they were the persecuted minority, and that only he could defend them and “Make America great again.®” To most evangelicals, “great” meant white, Protestant, middle-class, 1950s-prosperous, and unquestioningly patriotic.

Evangelicals fell for it. They had seen their cultural and political power slipping after the big changes of the Sixties. (See Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America [Simon & Schuster, 2016].) In the April 2018 Atlantic magazine, Wheaton College alum Michael Gerson explains:

As a result [of these cultural shifts], the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religions demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated. (Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic [April 2018], 48.)

This self-perception would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous. Early Christians were a real persecuted minority. But instead of angry and adversarial, they were joyful and winsome. Seeing much more deeply than today’s evangelicals, the first Christians leavened the Roman Empire rather than seeking protection from aliens and enemies. They trusted in the Lord. Really.

Since the 2016 election, most of Trump’s tweets and policy decisions have stoked more division and resentment, not less. Some of this seems intentional. His strategy is to keep his opponents and even supporters off balance by saying and doing contradictory things. But mostly this is character flaw, the fruit of ego without moral convictions.

3. Undermining our independent judiciary

Trump is doing what partisan radicals have long wanted: Filling the courts with judges committed to political ideology rather than to Constitutional jurisprudence and equal justice under law.

Amid the flurry of other news and pseudo-news, Trump’s judicial appointments have gone mostly unnoticed by the public. Trump has appointed an unprecedented number of judges, partly because Republicans held up dozens of appointments during the Obama years. These judges will shape legal decisions for decades, since most of these are lifetime appointments. Overwhelmingly they are white males.

Isn’t this a good thing, actually? Understandably, conservative Christians want conservative judges. But biblical conservatism and ideological political conservatism are poles apart. Two very different kinds of faith.

Trump is appointing judges who have been approved by the Federalist Society (founded in 1982). This is an organization of libertarians and political conservatives that aims to restrict America’s legal system to an “originalist” and “textualist” interpretation of the Constitution.

Originalism is a theory. It holds that the Constitution’s meaning is fixed once-for-all. All interpretations, to be valid, must be consistent with the Constitution’s original meaning or original intent.

Sounds good. But this is a delusion for several reasons. First of all, original meaning and intent are often disputed, and have been from the beginning. That’s why the Constitution established a Supreme Court. Second, U.S. society is constantly changing. Trying to apply original meaning in a vastly changed context opens the door to a vast amount of subjective opinion.

J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a federal judge in Virginia often mentioned for the Supreme Court (and a Republican) has written an astute critique of originalism and other theories of Constitutional interpretation. The problem with all such theories, Wilkinson says, is that they become smokescreens for unwarranted judicial activism, even by judges who decry judicial activism. Wilkinson writes:

For all its virtues, originalism has failed to deliver on its promise of restraint. Activism still characterizes many a judicial decision, and originalist judges have been among the worst offenders. They may sincerely strive to discover and apply the Constitution’s original understanding, but somehow personal preferences and original understandings seemingly manage to converge. The fault lies with the theory itself. Originalism, like any constitutional theory, is incapable of constraining judges on its own. And instead of recognizing this flaw, originalism provides cover for significant judicial misadventures. The result is too often a new breed of judicial activism masquerading as humble obedience to the Constitution (Wilkinson, Cosmic Constitutional Theory [Oxford, 2012], 46).

In practice, “originalism” turns out to be a fuzzy concept. Many key terms and concepts in the Constitution, such as equality, are undefined. The Constitution is a wonderful compromise document with much intentionally vague language, so its meaning was debated from Day One. Add to this the fact that word meanings and even concepts change over time as culture changes. Many framers of the Constitution never intended racial equality, let along gender equality. How far back shall we go?

The problem is that all court cases are decided by human beings who have their own prejudices and agendas, not all of which are conscious or admitted. Originalism opens a wide door to ideology and personal preference and prejudice.

Many promoters of originalism are in fact libertarians who by conviction believe courts should not promote equality, social justice, or environmental protection.

Here it turns out that theory and ideology come down to the same thing. If you are wedded to a theory, you have been captured by ideology. This means in turn that you are not open to any evidence, no matter how strong, that conflicts with your theory. This is ideology. Research shows that the stronger the evidence against a theory, the more fixed it becomes in the minds of those who hold it.

“Originalism” has become a code word for conservative political ideology. By definition, originalism and textualism tend to exclude concern about environmental protection, civil rights, and federal government involvement in things like healthcare and regulation of business in order to protect the public.

Trump recently tweeted that Republicans “must always hold the Supreme Court.” Fellow citizens, this is an unconstitutional sentiment. Courts are to uphold impartial justice. What the United States needs is not ideologues but judges in the best historic sense of that term.

4. Upsetting the world order by switching from long-range, long-established diplomacy to me-first business tactics

Mr. Trump’s whole mindset is win/lose rather than win/win. This is a longstanding pattern, evident in his business operations. The “art of the deal” is about gaining advantage over adversaries, not about seeking common cause or common good.

Such an approach has no concept of common good, civic virtue, or what the U.S. Constitution calls “the general welfare.” This me-first attitude is the hallmark of all authoritarian leaders—most obviously today in people like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Unfortunately, there are many others globally.

This is why the United States desperately needs wise leaders who know how to enhance national interest by enhancing global wellbeing. Politically, economically, environmentally, and socially.

The fallacy of putting the federal government in the hands of businessmen is that the United States is not a business. Smart business leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett know this.

On the global stage, many observers decry the decline of democracy and the rise of tyrants. This flourishing of tyrants reverses a trend seen for two or three decades. Given this challenge, prudent U.S. leadership, working with broader-minded leaders around the world, could help swing the pendulum back toward democratic reform. Belligerent, impulsive, and poorly-informed leadership leads toward conflict and increasing likelihood of disastrous war.

Mr. Trump’s actions since taking office raise doubts that he actually believes in democracy. His admiration for tyrants and de facto dictators such as Vladimir Putin is alarming. Trump gives the impression that he would rather not be bothered by things like laws, courts, government regulations, or even Congress itself. This may be the most serious threat he poses to U.S. constitutional democracy, with its checks and balances.

5. Undermining environmental protection and positive efforts toward managing and directing climate change

Around the world, all well-informed leaders recognize the fact and dangers of global climate change. In the U.S. however environmental issues have been so polluted by political ideology and shortsighted economic self-interest that people who consider climate change a myth have risen to national leadership, with very little public outcry.

Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is steadily dismantling environmental safeguard after safeguard. A recent headline notes, “E.P.A. prepares to roll back rules requiring cars to be cleaner and more efficient.” Pruitt has scrubbed the EPA website of references to climate change and ditched dozens of online resources for helping local governments deal with it.

Mike Pompeo, the new U.S. Secretary of State-designate, thinks climate change is a hoax. He says making climate a major policy concern is “ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable.”

And so on and on. This the most dangerous thing the current Administration is doing, for three reasons. First, it means people will be more and more vulnerable to climate change and extreme “weather events.” Second, it critically sets back actions that need to be taken now (years ago, in fact) to mitigate changes that are already happening. Third, climate change is an ecological issue in every sense. It affects everything else, literally. As global climate patterns (air and sea, especially) become more and more disrupted and less and less predictable, every other social, political, economic, and spiritual issue becomes more complex and more acute.

The Issues are the Issue

Christians who support Trump say the key issue is not character but policy. Jerry Falwell Jr. said recently on CNN that he supports Trump not for his personal life, but “for the issues.” A friend recently wrote: “Conservative Evangelicals voted for Trump IN SPITE OF HIS BELIEFS AND PAST. He was the alternative to Hillary (YIKES) and his political promises for the future, including a conservative [Supreme Court Justice], were the main reasons I voted for him! GO TRUMP!”

Such wedding of political ideology with the gospel of Jesus Christ is flatly unbiblical. True on the right; true on the left.

In fact “the issues” are the real issue—politically, morally, and theologically. I am concerned both about personal character and public policy. In Trump’s case, the two can’t be separated.

In sum: Donald Trump is harming U.S. democracy in five ways: Undermining credible authority, stoking divisions, politicizing the judiciary, upsetting the world’s fragile balance of power, and destroying environmental protection.

The crisis is worse than it looks, and the cancer is growing.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Please keep political screeds off of your site. This has nothing to do with the Gospel or Wesleyan faith and practice. This is just embarrassing. If the author truly doesn’t understand that theologically conservative Christians can amiably hold differing political views for valid, consistent, and sincere reasons, then I feel very sorry for him indeed. Also, if the author truly feels this level of animosity towards American political conservatives and politically conservative viewpoints, I would suggest that he make an effort to meet and gain an understanding of those outside of his own politically liberal echo chamber.

    • Thanks so much, Paul. I appreciate your making your views known.
      Most of my friends are “American political conservatives,” as you call them.
      Actually this blog does have a very great deal to do with the Gospel and Wesleyan faith and practice. See especially my books “Salvation Means Creation Healed” and “Models of the Kingdom,” where I show the connection, and also E. Stanley Jones’ early books. If you read Michael Gerson’s article in “The Atlantic,” you will know what I mean.
      In any case, Donald Trump is not a political conservative. That is part of the problem.
      Shalom —

    • Thanks so much, Fred. Always good to hear from you.

      Could you specify which political view or views, specifically, you disagree with, and why you think it “stinks”?

      If you don’t see the connection between my books and my “political point of view” (as you call it), it is possible you didn’t read my books very thoroughly. But I won’t judge that.

      Every book I have published has very significant political implications, though mostly I don’t spell them out in detail.

      Thanks again,

      Howard

  2. Could anyone (perhaps someone who shares Paul W and Fred Wibert’s distaste for Christian authors whose critical analysis does not affirm the tone and policies of our current president), please explain to me (a lifelong evangelical from the Bible belt and holiness church tradition) what Mr. Trump is helping to “conserve” for so-called political conservatives? Which values, virtues, concerns, passions, affections, loyalties, or ambitions of New Testament Christianity does his administration model, sustain, encourage, or enhance? Please tell me our highest elected officials do not get a life-time free pass on character, conversation and conduct, regardless of how contrary to biblical teachings, if they only proclaim they carry a certain political party’s card in the pocket, or align with singular political ideologies shared by a conservative bandwidth of Christians like myself.

    • Thanks, Duane — that’s helpful and thoughtful.

      You raise a critical question. Many would answer with these two words: “abortion” and “homosexuality.” (On the second, I’ve made my very conservative views clear in my book on Homosexuality and the Church.)

      As to abortion, there are two key flaws. First, neither the President, Congress, or the Supreme Court are likely to change the moral calculus that leads folks to abortion. This is not fundamentally a legal or government matter. The issue stirs emotions, however, so vested economic and political interests constantly appeal to it to get Christians to vote for their agenda, which mostly has nothing whatsoever to do with abortion.

      Second, research shows that abortions actually decrease when there is good healthcare available. So the rate of abortion more likely falls under a more progressive Administration than under a more reactive one which tightens the budget by restricting benefits for the poor, disabled, and other marginalized people.

      Few conservative U.S. Christians I know pay attention to God’s covenant with the earth (Gen. 9), the biblical mandate for justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, and for the biblical virtues that John Wesley constantly referred to as “justice, mercy, and truth.” This constrasts with my many Evangelical friends in the UK, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Australia who have developed a theology of the Kingdom of God that draws out contemporary political implications.

      U.S. Evangelicals need a major theological/ethical reformation and a turning away from political idolatry. For this I pray almost daily.

      An added irony: My view of biblical inspiration and authority is way more conservative and “literal” than that of many folks who support an ideological right-wing agenda — or a left-wing one, for that matter. I believe we should take Jesus’ teachings very seriously indeed, demonstrating this by our discipleship, stewardship, and politics.

  3. I can’t speak for Fred, but it is clear that you have ether missed or misunderstood my main point. Of course, you are free to hold and espouse any political views you desire, and you might even be surprised to find that we are in agreement on several points.
    My goal is not to argue for or against your political views. My point is that (in my opinion) Seedbed is absolutely the wrong forum for this type of “in your face” political discourse.

    Are you trying to “sow for a great revival” on this site or push a political agenda? Both the tone and the extremely one-sided arguments in your post argue for the latter. This is not helpful since it will accomplish nothing other than alienating those who disagree with your political views. Though you may not realize it, to a political conservative (and to a Trump-supporter in particular), your post is not only dismissive, but even crosses over into mockery. If your goal is to change minds and encourage people to think more deeply about justice, mercy, and truth, your post accomplishes the opposite.

    I’ll also point out that, whether intentional or not, even in your replies, there is a continued irksome subtext that you view your particular political views as Biblical truth whereas those you disagree with are simply engaging in political idolatry. This is not good theology since it denies that Christians being led by the Holy Spirit can fully agree together on Biblical truth, yet still sincerely and in good conscience disagree on what that truth requires of them and how best to live out that truth.

    There are Biblical and effective means of reaching and convicting hearts. Posting partisan diatribes titled, “5 Reasons Trump Sux”, is not one of them.

    • If I may point out, the prophets often times speak a message that falls on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah here to describe his own ministry. The purpose of speaking truth isn’t some pragmatic win people over at all costs that sacrifices actually speaking truthfully and honestly for the sake of appealing to people’s (unjust) political prejudices. Biblical persuasion isn’t always that “persuasive.”

  4. Thanks again, Paul, for your thoughtful comments.

    I agree with you fully that Christians should be able to disagree on political issues. They always have. I think they should also seek common biblical and discipleship ground.

    My blog was already too long, so I didn’t have space to develop the biblical basis for what I expressed. I have done that in several of my 100+ previous Seedbed posts. Particularly “The Revival America Doesn’t Need” (10/20/14). Also in some of my books. Naturally many people don’t agree.

    I intended my blog to be forceful, but not unkind or untruthful.

    I would be interested to know which of the five areas I highlighted you do not think is a legitimate discipleship or renewal concern, or where specifically I was mistaken. If I am wrong, I need to know it.

    Why don’t we meet for coffee and compare the areas where we agree and disagree? And maybe pray together.

    I would appreciate an interest in your prayers, in any case, as I seed to be faithful to the gospel of the kingdom in these critical days.

    Shalom,

    Howard

  5. Oh, I meant to add: I would never use the kind of language you suggest in your last sentence. You misquote me.

  6. If anyone else responds, I hope they will be specific as to what point(s) in my blog they disagree with and why, rather than simply expressing disagreement. The point is discernment, understanding, and learning through “speaking the truth in love.”

  7. NEWS of the past week strongly reinforces legitimate concerns in all five of the areas I highlighted. Particularly No. 5, but others, as well. Consider.

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