The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead?

This task pushes me back to the story the Bible tells about the meaning and purpose of life. I know there are many other sources for our convictions. I tend to think that most of humanity’s life-giving sources more or less share the most important elements in common. But I will reflect here on the sources that matter most for me.

This is a central conviction: We have a purpose in living; our purpose is to know love and to share love. Our most meaningful and fulfilling tasks in life are to seek healing for ourselves, for our fellow human beings, and for all of the natural world. The Bible grounds this purpose in God, though in a way that ties God’s will inextricably with the wholeness of creation. As Jesus taught, love of God and love of neighbor must not be separated, and to show what loving God wholeheartedly means, Jesus told the story of the healing love the Samaritan had for his profoundly violated neighbor along the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37).

So, as I think about the recent election, its fallout, and the dark days to come, one of my main tools for discernment is a set of core convictions I find in the biblical story—and thinking about how they apply in our world. I will mention four: (1) the call to peace (“shalom” in the Hebrew), to wholeness, to nonviolence, to love of all neighbors (including enemies), to overcoming evil with good; (2) the centrality of restorative justice in the social order, where violations are met with efforts to find healing for victims, to respect the humanity of offenders, to find ways to resolve conflicts that actually end the spiral of violence and vengeance; (3) the care for the non-human world, environmental wholeness, sustainability, nurturing of life in all its forms; and (4) the commitment to care for the most vulnerable people in the community, genuine economic opportunity for all, resistance to the profound social stratification and maldistribution of wealth that leads to poverty (what Gandhi called the most profound kind of violence).

These are the convictions I want to keep in mind as I reflect on what has happened, where we are headed, what we might hope for, and what the key theological resources will be that might guide us as we move forward.

What happened?

Matt Taibi, Rolling Stone’s clever political writer, outlines an amazing reversal of fortune, what we could call snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, for America’s Democratic Party. “From the end of the primary season onward, I felt sure Trump was en route to ruining, perhaps forever, the Republican Party as a force in modern American life. Now the Republicans are more dominant than ever, and it is the Democratic Party that is shattered and faces an uncertain future.”

Certainly for me, part of the disorientation I feel right now is just how quickly and decisively the tables turned. I have believed ever since the 2008 election that we were teetering on a precipice with the Republican Party, corrupt beyond words, being barely prevented from ending perhaps forever whatever pretense we might have left of the United States as a force for human wellbeing in the world. But I don’t think I quite believed it would happen.

Then Justice Scalia suddenly died and the possibility of a change for the good in the Supreme Court became real. I was never a fan of Hillary Clinton’s, and I felt dis-ease with her nomination. But at least it appeared the Republicans were set on a course of self-destruction, a failed presidential candidate and bitter infighting that might lead to, as Taibi wrote, permanent ruination. Then, boom! We have gone over the precipice. And we can’t really sense at this point just what all the ramifications of this will be.

How did we come to this? I have read countless post mortem reports, as most of us have. It does seem unfortunate that the discussion of “what happened” among progressives often tends toward the polemical, since all who ended up on the losing end of this election will need to find some sense of unity in order to resist the coming hard times. However, there is value in trying to figure things out inasmuch as we might draw some tentative conclusions.

Obviously many factors contributed to what was for almost everyone across the political spectrum a shocking outcome. In the reading I have done, though, a tentative consensus seems to be emerging that the most important factor likely was Clinton’s inability to keep the Rust Belt (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) states that had voted for Obama in the past two elections on her side. These happen to be among the states most severely impacted by the devastation of the industrial economy of the country in the past generation.

It is contested, but many analysts now suggest that Clinton’s close link with policies championed by her husband (with her strong public support) during his presidency (such as free trade agreements like NAFTA) hurt her with those voters (for example, see commentaries by Naomi Klein, Cornel West, and Eliza Featherstone).

In taking a bit longer view, Ryan Cooper, a columnist for The Week, argues that actually the Democratic Party “died in 2009.” Cooper makes a persuasive case, because he cites some disturbing facts in support of his argument—the stunning defeats by Democrats in the Senate, the House, and on the state level beginning with the 2010 elections. The key moment came when newly elected president Barack Obama, with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate (hard to imagine now), failed to respond creatively to the devastation of the stock market crash of 2008.

Cooper writes: “When the crisis happened, the main thing the political system managed to do was fling money at bankers until the financial sector was stabilized. Afterwards, the idea that bankers might have committed crimes — might in fact have had whole floors of people committing crimes all day long — was simply too big to swallow. So Democrats — many of whom no doubt had plush consulting gigs in the back of their minds — basically looked the other way. No bankers went to jail, and over nine million people lost their homes.”

These failures led to disastrous consequences for Democrats in most of the elections except the 2012 presidential race where Obama’s charisma and Mitt Romney’s own close linkage with the bankers and neo-liberal policies hindered his ability to exploit the Democrats’ short sightedness.

Now we get to 2016, and another epic failure by the Democrats, starting at the top. And now there will be few restraints on Republican power on all levels (Republican domination of state governments is even more extensive than in the federal government). It will take a long time to sort out all the causes of Clinton’s failure. However, thinking in terms of the core convictions I outlined above, I can’t help but note the moral hollowness of Clinton’s campaign as a key factor. She simply did little to convince the decisive voters in the middle that she was committed to their wellbeing. And it’s not like she was up against a paragon of compassion and empathy in Donald Trump.

A morally hollow campaign

As I wrote shortly before the election, Clinton’s strong emphasis throughout her campaign on expansion of US military power should have raised serious questions for progressives. I don’t think her warism probably cost her very many votes (though Christian Parenti suggests it actually may have), but it did signal an insensitivity to core convictions such as peace and compassion that also found expression in other areas that did hurt her chances.

She was seen as the candidate of the wealthy, who supported the policies that had helped devastate the economy in the key rust belt states that ultimately turned to Trump. Her coziness with the big bankers was reflected in her stonewalling about the content of her speeches to their meetings that she was paid hundreds of thousands for. Tellingly, in the weeks following the Democratic Party convention when she secured the nomination, she spent much of her time in meetings with rich donors and failed to cultivate the populations that Bernie Sanders had energized (working class and young adult voters).

Clinton failed to make the case for her moral vision of concern for those whose fortunes have diminished while the economic growth of recent years has been funneled to the very wealthy. She regularly attacked Trump on what I would call “moralistic” grounds, but such attacks did not establish her own moral credibility and obviously had little impact in peeling away Trump’s supporters.

As it turned out, Trump was elected not by a groundswell of support (his vote total was about the same as Mitt Romney’s in 2012) but by a falling off of support for the Democratic candidate compared to the last election. That is, it was Clinton’s failure to convince people to vote for her that led to her defeat.

At the same time, I should also note the crucial dynamic of voter suppression precisely in the closely contested states, all under Republican control, that were considered to be likely Clinton victories—Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It seems likely that without the suppression, all of these states would have gone for Clinton. But this problem also signals the failures of the Democratic Party to fight effectively for voting access (in fact, an important element of the dynamics in the Democratic primaries that helped Clinton hold off the Bernie Sanders insurgency seems to have been narrowing the electorate).

I think the abortion issue was also a crucial factor. Supposedly slightly more than 80% of the evangelical voters went for Trump (granting the imprecision of this category “evangelical Christian”). It seems a bit counter-intuitive that this would happen given Trump’s own profoundly secular and profane image. However, the reason often given for the support is Trump’s likelihood of appointing anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court.

What I wonder is what would have happened had Clinton argued strongly and widely for a program for preventing unwanted pregnancies. She could have pointed out that the countries around the world with the lowest rates of abortion are countries that do the most to eliminate unwanted pregnancies through a strong safety net, education, and ready availability of contraceptives (such as Belgium and the Netherlands). Perhaps such an emphasis could have persuaded a few evangelicals who were uneasy with Trump to change their vote. And, in my opinion, it would have reflected a moral depth basically missing from her campaign.

[This is the first of a series of six posts reflecting on the election and its aftermath. The second post will be “What to expect and what to hope for.” The third post is “The book of Revelation and America’s election.” The fourth is “The book of Revelation on living in empire.” The fifth (“On being informed”—focusing on news and commentary websites) and sixth posts (“Ten books for a radical Christian sensibility”) will provide lists of resources for proceeding onward.]

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22 thoughts on “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

  1. Ted:
    While I think you overstate the implications of a Trump victory, I think you are correct in identifying it as a race that Clinton lost and that her loss was based on her failure to produce a moral narrative worthy of wholehearted endorsement. But I don’t think she could have lost, even so, without the actions of the FBI, that as lacking as her moral narrative was, it was still present and based on the premise of grandmotherly concern. But in the race of a grandmother versus a charming pirate, her grandmotherliness could not hold off the implications of an FBI investigation.

    I look forward to seeing where you go with your analysis.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Bruce. Good to hear from you.

      Well, I actually suspect I may be understating the implications—at least in the sense of the power the Republican right will now have to exert their will on the nation. But I hope you’re right.

  2. I don’t think Ted overstates the probable social and economic trauma which is coming to this country. I don’t have any death wish, I enjoy life a much as the next guy or gal, but I think that history is a hard taskmaster, and what this country has been doing to other countries and peoples, will have and is having, inescapable consequences.

  3. “We are about openly to become the rogue nation—’breaking bad’ indeed.”

    The US electorate is absolutely tired of their government’s deceitfulness and lies related to NAFTA, 9/11, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the banking crisis and recession, surveillance, Libya, Syria, etc. For some, it goes all the way back to the Reagan years when the CIA and organized crime worked hand-in-glove to export cocaine into California to fund the Contra effort to take down the government of Nicaragua.

    But isn’t the electorate also angry about the substantive policies covered up by those deceptions and lies? I mean the involvement of our leaders in the drug trade, the export of US jobs and the cover-up of the 9/11 conspiracy; the bankers’ fraudulent loan practices, the illegality of the government’s surveillance activities and its active collaboration with al-Qaeda to effect regime change in other nations? And if the second is as true as the first, then won’t popular support for the rule of law and basic morality serve as an effective check on Trump and the Republicans?

    When I attempt to describe the implications of this election result, this remains my hope: that the popular preference for a candid politician is also a preference for honest justice.

    1. As I was reading I was wondering whether you were going to get to it, thinking maybe you had something else in mind, then you wrote, “…I can’t help but note the moral hollowness of Clinton’s campaign as a key factor,” and you hit that point hard in the second half of your blog. Thank you! I couldn’t vote for Clinton on moral grounds. She’s really smart and competent, especially in contrast to Trump, but she’s not very dissimilar to him with respect to the major issues you noted, war & economic injustice–two areas in which she has personally profited, spectacularly, at the expense of millions of people because of the way systems work. I voted for Sanders, then Stein. Even though she did not have a moral position on abortion, Stein had far many more morally sound policy positions than Clinton or Trump, e.g., promoting peace/anti-war, anti-capital punishment, anti-poverty, pro-single payer healthcare, pro-environment, for curbing retributive justice (war on drugs) and ending mass incarceration. Why didn’t the Stein come anywhere near winning? I fault the major media for promoting Trump in order to profit from the spectacle. I fault the major media again for serving the financial interests of their few corporate owners which are invested in the two party system. I fault America’s morally confused and corrupt culture that doesn’t produce, and, in ways, actively suppresses, a politically powerful number of well informed & morally righteous citizens (as Einstein noted in 1949). I fault the American system of government that Zinn long ago convinced me was designed this way on purpose, that established legal authority and routine elections as ways of managing and pacifying the broader public, tricking them into obedience, and tricking them into investing their passions in faux revolutions instead of resorting to violence and actual revolution; thus protecting the property and maintaining the power of the aristocracy. I voted, I guess, because there must be a small part of me that hopes against reason and evidence that the system we have can correct itself to some extent–but I don’t really think so. I think we need something new that’s based on the morality God gives us, that’s written on our hearts, and that’s not confused by these fake, man-made values: rights, tolerance, punishment, equity, nationalism/patriotism, militarism, materialism, competition, profit, status, etc. I hope your impending storm brings a great collapse. –In the meantime… I’m looking forward to your follow ups, to read what you’re expecting & hoping for.

  4. Thanks so much Ted, for part 1, and keep reflecting and writing the next 4 installments. Your “breaks bad” image is a very apt one that I hadn’t heard yet. I think just about everyone underestimated what all happened and is happening. And I think there are elements that haven’t we yet identified to get to insanity of electing trump. We’ve all been “trumped” — a word which may take on more meaning than anyone can bear. One particular critique that also needs our attention is how a majority of Mennonites could vote for trump!

    I have been thinking of it as a “perfect storm” of disastrous vectors that are economic, political, spiritual, religious, psychological. It is what I have called the era of meanness and madness. We still have more to understand. So I thank you and Bruce, in particular for helping us understand something of what is happening. And, yes, we have to reflect on it theologically. In the meantime the wrecking ball of the trump cabal will become a national and global wrecking ball. Remember the iconic phrase that describes Vietnam? “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Now if only the Republican and Democratic parties would implode and abandoned and a new electoral system be created! Oh, and abolish the Electoral College too. Enough from my weary tormented brain nearing the midnight hour. But then it feels like we’re in a time of nearing the midnight hour. Weldon

  5. I find it interesting that so far in the responses as well as in Ted’s post, there is much emphasis on how the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party have shown themselves to be “morally hollow.”

    And so little emphasis on how so much of American Christianity has shown itself to be “morally hollow.” In observing that “supposedly slightly more than 80% of evangelical voters went for Trump (granting the imprecision of this category ‘evangelical Christian’),” Ted focuses primarily on the abortion/supreme court issue.

    For me, this election exposed how much of American Christianity is nationalism with a relatively thin Christian veneer, especially if one agrees, as I do, with Ted’s statement of Christian core convictions in his third section above, convictions that could hardly be less alien to the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny of Trump’s rhetoric and example. That so many Americans who identify as Christians could overlook this rhetoric speaks volumes to me about the state of the Christian religion in our country.

    There is some evidence that the Democratic Party will do at least some of the soul searching needed to find, exemplify, and better communicate a moral compass that can speak to the American electorate as it has just demonstrated itself to be. Elections coming up every two years at least do provide some incentive.

    What will it take for American Christian churches—of all stripes—to undergo a similar soul searching and appropriate action?

    I would appreciate some thoughts on this and related questions from a writer and readers who I am sure have given considerable thought to what it means to be Christian today, especially in relationship to the larger society.

    1. Thanks for this, Phyllis. Good to hear from you again.

      I totally agree with you with regard to American Christianity’s deeply problematic political amoralism—especially (bot not only!) evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

      I will be (at least indirectly) addressing American Christianity in the next couple of posts in this series (and I will do so more explicitly in my 3rd post on Revelation than I might have due to your comments!).

      In the months come come, I expect your concerns will be a big part of what I will be trying to address in my writing. Since Christianity is more a part of the problem than part of the solution (in my opinion), it becomes crucial for Christians to use Christian sources to confront the expressions of Christianity that are hurtful to life on earth.

  6. “The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world.”

    I’m not sure if I understand how this is a new phase. Call me ignorant, but it is my understanding that historically America has not served on behalf of the general welfare of the world. I am deeply saddened by the outcome of the election, and I must say I think you do understate the implications of this election. I seem to be able to empathize a little more now with everyone who voted against Andrew Jackson.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Steve. The operative term in the quote from my post you cite is “pretense.” I think that what will be changing is that the veneer will be taken off, not that the American Empire will change from serving human welfare to not doing so. But this change seems significant, maybe more for the perceptions of the American people than for those elsewhere. This may be good in some ways; it will be harder to fool ourselves about the nature of our empire.

      It could be that I “understate the implications of this election.” I do think it will be worse than we can imagine—as I do say in relation to my storm metaphor.

      1. Thank you for the clarity. I hope that this change, as you state, will be for the best, at least in regards to the lens through which people look at America. I am excited to read the next four posts.

  7. In a democracy it is to expected that majorities change regularly and the helm shifts from left to right, from right to left, which basically helps to avoid that anything goes to the extreme. Also, this is the fifith change to the right after Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush; and even if there always was some grinding of teeth, I cannot remember that there ever was such an emotional overreaction and really “apocalyptic” sentiment.

    My explanation: I felt from the beginning hat this was, more than ever, not ony a struggle between parties, but between classes: the contented ones and the discontented. Now, college professors – and at large “intelligentsia” – have been a fundamentally contented class, living a secure life. This is not only a matter of a secured income or of public recognition, but also a matter of “hegemony”, the privilege to live in a bubble where you can be certain that your basic convictions are shared by your surrounding. The apolyptic feeling is grounded in a loss of these securities.

    Only it is important that a lot of Americans (and a lot of Mennonites) never lived in this kind of contented security and have no personal reasons to feel at a loss so much. I’m still waiting for a time when distinctions and conflicts of class will be open debated in the Mennosphere.

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