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.