The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part two: What to expect and what to hope for

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]

Most of the focus of attention since the election, as it was during the campaign, is on the person of Donald Trump. However, probably in the scheme of things, the resounding success of the Republican Party across the board will have more impact on the nation and on the world. Trump will provide an entertaining sideshow, but I suspect he won’t actually exercise all that much power in relation to the big policy issues or in the day-to-day functioning of the federal government.

So far, it seems that Trump is surrounding himself with prospective cabinet members and top staffers who come from the right side of the Republican world, which is rightish indeed.

What to expect?

We have the precedents of states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin where, when the Republicans have gained a monopoly of power, they have acted quickly and decisively to impose policies that are intended to solidify their power. The “wait and see” talk about the new Trump administration is surely overly naïve. It’s hard to know what could be done to slow the Republicans down, but it seems certain that the changes will be immediate and devastating for democracy and the wellbeing of vulnerable Americans. And it will take a long time for the nation to recover from these actions.

One of the main dynamics to watch will be to see how the new government will work to extend the Republican efforts in recent years to reduce access to voting and to other elements of governmental power. Recent Supreme Court actions related to this that many of us hoped would be turned around with a center-left replacement for the late justice Scalia will instead be reinforced by Trump’s Justice Department. Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has one of the worst records with regard to voter suppression of any major American politician.

This will happen in part due to the much noted evolution in the demographics of the US that have been seen to favor the Democratic Party—non-white and younger voters tend to tilt more to the left. They will find voting more difficult as the Republicans seek to consolidate their power.

As reactionary policies are implemented and as the Trump administration sets a tone in harmony with those policies, the general standing of the United States will suffer greatly. The reputation of the country around the world will be diminished. The indicators of social health within the country will worsen greatly. In other words, the ability of the United States to be the world’s dominant power will be reduced significantly.

It will not be a totally bad thing for the ability of the United States to dominate the world to come to an end. The American Empire has had many terrible effects globally in the past 70 years. The Empire has been losing its grip gradually in recent years. Probably with a Clinton presidency, that lessening of the grip on domination would have continued. But with Trump, it will be greatly accelerated.

The dynamics of American warism will change. We should be relieved that the likelihood of an intensified deterioration of relations with Russia will seemingly be much less with Trump than they would have been with Clinton (perhaps the one silver lining with the election’s outcome). But overall, our nation’s commitment to militarism will only increase, a dynamic that will accelerate the disintegration of our imperial reach. This diminishment in itself is good, but the concomitant destruction around the world of course will be terrible.

Diminishment of the quality of life

Sadly, the decisive constituency that elected Trump, the white working class in the Rust Belt states, will almost for sure have their fortunes worsen in the next several years. The Trump administration will be committed to destroying the remnants of the union movement, expanding the effort to crush public sector unions. This will have the effect of further depressing wages across the board (note also the opposition by Trump and his minions to minimum wages increases). Pollution will get worse, healthcare worsen, the “commons” (public parks, libraries, et al) will deteriorate, food safety will be lessened. These are only a few of the ways quality of life for working class people (and so many others) will be damaged.

The promise of investing in infrastructure will almost certainly be deceptive—leading to more privatization of public goods, a strong non-union thrust, and massive corruption with Trump’s cronies siphoning off a bulk of the “investment.” One of the main initiatives, it appears, will be to build more privatized toll roads and bridges—the federal government’s roll being to transfer wealth from taxpayers to large corporations.

Environmental protections will be gutted. The national park system will be weakened, perhaps even privatized. Food protection, net neutrality, the remnants of the social safety net, disaster relief, and many more federal government activities will be curtailed or eliminated. We will see a return to cronyism across the broad in federal agencies (we can expect many more “Heck of a job, Brownie” incidents).  And given that a large number of states are also under Republican control, it’s hard to imagine state governments filling the breech.

The strong support evangelical Christians gave Trump, along with the presence of one of the political icons of the Christian Right, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, at the center of the new administration, signals a return to prominence of this version of Christianity in the public arena. As during the George W. Bush years, this dynamic will help neutralize one source of a possible counterweight to the viciousness, a reinvigoration of the kind of social gospel message articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr.

All this is to say, we are headed into an unimaginably vicious storm. There will be more suffering in a nation that at least structurally will be much less compassionate. It’s hard to imagine much that will slow down the onslaught. The one branch of government that might be amenable to change, the Senate, is set up for an election in 2018 favorable to the Republicans since most of the incumbents up for re-election will be Democrats and several of those are quite vulnerable. And the Supreme Court may well be set up with a right-wing majority for another generation.

We can expect that there will be creative and effective forms of resistance that emerge. Human beings will remain compassionate and responsive to others’ needs. And I would like to imagine that the difficulties to come will provide occasions for a clarifying and deepening of core humane convictions, including theological convictions such as I mentioned in my previous post: (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).

What to hope for?

I expect that in the months to come, as the United States government becomes more obviously less caring and compassionate internally and more obviously aggressive and self-seeking externally, the veneer of a genial Pax Americana will be stripped away. More people, both at home and abroad, will have their illusions about American greatness ended.

This deterioration of the nation’s image will be tragic in that its cause will be actual violence and hardship. At the same time, the United States has never been a benign force in the world. To have more people realize that might facilitate a greater resistance to the Empire, a greater willingness to break free from the comfort and smugness of seeing this as the world’s one “essential, exceptional, and indispensable nation.”

A more accurate and realistic sense of the actual nature of the United States of America, in turn, will hopefully lead to less willingness, for example, to grant the state a blank check to go to war. Maybe fewer people will turn over their souls to the military. And, in general, there might be more willingness to exercise the one kind of power that could stop the Empire in its tracks: the refusal to give consent to the state.

It is difficult at this time to imagine enough people refusing consent actually to change the course of a Trump administration. However, it is also difficult at this time to imagine just how destructive the policies of that administration will be. There surely will be a correlation between the brokenness fostered by our government in the days to come with the refusal of more and more people to support that government. Who knows what kind of transformative dynamics might be loosed by such a refusal should it reach a critical mass.

We have seen a gradual increase of the power of the presidency in controlling national security related dynamics. George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney) ratcheted up that power a great deal in the aftermath of 9/11 and, tragically, Barack Obama only extended it. It is truly frightening to imagine Donald Trump following up on these openings toward a more authoritarian state. However, it is also possible that a Trumpian overreach will delegitimate such centralized control in a parallel fashion as the downfall of Richard Nixon did a generation ago.

While I think it is possible to hope for self-destructive dynamics to reign in American imperialism and authoritarianism over time, it is more urgent that people of good will devote their energies to “creating space to be human” (using the language of central European resisters to Soviet domination during the 1970s and 1980s) however we can. We may hope that the hard times to come will also elicit creativity and compassion, along with a more thoroughgoing critique of the ways of empire.

The shape of resistance

In contexts of strong centralized power that is not responsive to the general population, there are two crucial ways for the “weak” to exercise power—actively to disbelieve the picture of the world presented by those in power and actively to draw together as communities of creativity, respect, and resistance.

Christianity in our current context in a general sense may be more a part of the problem than part of the solution. Christians who are committed to Jesus-like compassion and rejection of domination might have to accept that they are a minority of American Christendom. By breaking from a loyalty to institutional Christianity over loyalty to the message of Jesus, though, such minority Christians may be freed to see their faith and their faith communities as centers for resistance to the powers that be. And free to affirm their commonality with other centers of resistance who adhere to other faiths or no explicit faith at all.

For Christians, such resistance will need to be unapologetically gospel-centered. We may hope that in the difficult times ahead a deeper commitment to Christian pacifism might emerge, along with a greater appropriation of what we could call the people-power (or “anarchistic”) inclined biblical political message in general.

Such an anarchistic message has two main components that happen to be the same two ways for the “weak” to exercise power: (1) profound suspicion of the powers that be, of centralized state dominating power, of “benefactors” who rule over the people (see Jesus’s words in Mark 10:42-44) and (2) an affirmation of the potential regular people have to join together in face-to-face communities and organize their common life in ways that enhance human wellbeing.

I hope for a growing sense of the value of pacifist and anarchistic convictions as ways to provide inspiration and clarity for transformative action in the face of authoritarian and non-compassionate power dynamics that seem certain to grow in the days to come. We likely will enter into a time of increased confusion, propaganda, something akin to what has been called “the fog of war.” We will need the clarity of thinking and responding that depends on self-awareness of and trust in core convictions of pacifism, restorative justice, care for the non-human world and inclusion of vulnerable people,

So, we certainly may (and must) hope for expanding advocacy, activism, and concrete acts of resistance. I would suggest as well that we may hope that with effort we might also experience growing clarity of conviction about what matters most in life and the necessity to understand better how to see the world in accurate and life-affirming ways.

[This is the second of a series of six posts reflecting on the election and its aftermath. The first post was “What happened?”  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.]

21 thoughts on “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part two: What to expect and what to hope for

  1. I agree with you, Ted, that the decisive constituency supporting Trump, the white working class in the Rust Belt states, will be deeply disappointed with the Trump Presidency, including what I expect will be many broken campaign promises, and will not realize the change or improvement in their lives that they anticipate. At best, the future will be filled with uncertainty, and I fear that many of the negative consequences you predict will indeed come to pass.
    I have been wondering if the election of Trump could signal the beginning of the Fall of Babylon. I look forward to your next post incorporating the book of Revelation.

  2. “…the one kind of power that could stop the Empire in its tracks: the refusal to give consent to the state.”

    As I see it, the new resistance started with the Occupy Movement, but systemic economic injustice was eclipsed in importance as a political issue by the life-and-death concerns of blacks in America since the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin, and with the Ferguson uprising in response to the street execution of Michael Brown. I witnessed and marched with large numbers of black protesters holding their open hands in the air in peaceful, defiant show of unarmed defenselessness, and in righteous indignation, in opposition to the militarized police invasion of Ferguson. The horrible ongoing video revelations of police murders–Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurly, Dontre Hamilton, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Keith Scott and so many others necessitated the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, that I fear may soon be designated and treated as a terrorist organization by the Trump administration. The Standing Rock uprising is becoming an important, major challenge to the establishment as this new Trump era begins, and, so far, NoDAPL water protectors are demonstrating a deeply admirable model of resistance. My heart hurts for them because their defeat seems inexorable. Nevertheless, sometime soon, this winter, when I’m able, I plan on driving up there to stand with them. The news that a couple thousand former soldiers are on their way to lend their peaceful support to the Native tribes is, to me, a very welcome and unexpected example of how people can be transformed and redeemed through love of their neighbor. As pessimistic as I am, as bad as I think things are going to get–the resistance is beautiful and inspiring, and it shows signs of unifying on the basis of common morality and love. So, I have hope.

    1. Good points, Ed. These movements of resistance you cite—and there are others—are indeed important beacons of hope. Part of their significance is not that they will necessarily win, but that they show us the path we all must take if we can even hope to “win.”

  3. So to summarize, severe regression in the humaneness of public policies, continued decline in public infrastructure, and a public that better understands what America has become and where its leaders are taking it.

    Ted, this will be difficult, to be sure, but I’m not persuaded we should call it “tragic.” Shouldn’t we save that word for the past eight years, when the opportunity for a better and more honest country was wasted?

    I’m not talking only about the Obama Administration, but also peace-oriented portions of the private sector. In my town, many people who stood for peace during the Bush years changed the subject during the Obama years, saying not a word about Libya or Syria or Yemen, and joining the imperialist cause in regard to Ukraine.

    It’s not “tragic” that we finally will stop preening about our moral superiority regarding race, immigration and religious tolerance, even while giving a pass to our government’s fomenting of wars that cynically slaughter many tens of thousands of Muslims.

    1. I think you know I agree with you, Berry. I won’t insist on the word “tragic.” That is a crucial point about the past eight years. I fear in another generation, the continuities between the Obama and Trump years might seem stronger than the discontinuities.

  4. Thanks for the great articles (#1 and this one, both of which I just now read), Ted. You’ve raised so many important issues, I’ll have to focus on just a couple things.

    First, the political front: While things do look dire as to the ascendance of the Republican Party, and particularly the right wing within it. But I think there are more mitigating factors and forces than we tend to account for. I’ve noted, over decades now, that the “demise” or “down for the count” condition of one party or the other is often way overstated. It is indeed concerning how many state gov’ts are Repub. controlled. But even this may well have a “return toward center” effect. Their fanciful theories, when seen to not work, get modified toward realism and pragmatism… and it does tend to bring out the compassion that most Republicans do have, if not expressed well in their law-making.

    I presume honest Repub’s in my state (CA) would admit the same about the dreaded “extremes” they’ve thought Democratic control would take us to. Overall, we’re doing quite well! And that with several years of full legislative and governorship control by Dem’s. (I’m not surprised, but they SHOULD be if they are not.) There was even a “supermajority” (beyond Rep. blocking, if no Dem’s defect) in both state assembly and senate for a while earlier and now again for the upcoming session. And this Calif. situation raises some questions (for which I have no good answers) as to HOW Calif. has become so heavily Dem dominated, even with our heavy conservative pockets around military bases, Orange County, and many rural areas. Of course, demographics (Hispanics and others) is part of it. But whatever, I think we can take some solace that it’s not only Calif. In similar ways, Nevada, Oregon, Wash. are becoming more Calif-like. Even Arizona is less the conservative bastion it once was.

    This can be read “bad”, as furthering the polarization and the distancing of “flyover” country. But I think it can be read “good” also, as demographics and the forces of culture (and globalization, etc.) tend to prevail over time. And, IF Republicans moderate to accommodate more Hispanics or Millennials, etc., then THEY won’t be as extreme or uncompassionate either, of course.

    On the religious/spiritual front: I tend to think we in the more progressive denominations (or split groups, like Mennonites, Episcopalians, United Methodists, PCUSA, etc.) have to get things clarified and make deeper commitments… along lines you describe. I’m pushing for that in my own church, btw (a United Church of Christ / Congregational one) which just dodged the fatal aging and in-fighting bullet). I want us to become clear that God (not just Jesus) is non-violent, non-coercive and non-controlling (i.e., NOT “in control” — I know, that last one’s kinda scary, even for us progressives, but gotta face it. Not being from the “peace church” or Anabaptist tradition, it won’t be as prone toward bucking militarism, but I think there may be some hope re. that as well, especially as many of our WWII or Korean War vets have passed on or are largely inactive due to age.

    Now, it should be noted that a well-developed theological and worldview paradigm already exists, explaining these “nature of God” issues and their implications, and uses the Bible in doing so…. and also philosophy and science as close allies. I mean, of course, Process theology. One of my intentions is to help create more collaborative efforts or “cross-pollination” between the peace churches and the UCC or other progressive denominations. Finally, to me it’s important that Process tends to give respect to a wide variety of spiritual “phenomena”, based on science and on open observation and interfaith engagement.

    Thus, churches like Broadway Church in Kansas City have been able to meld a progressive theology with some of the healing/worship elements more typical of the Charismatic churches which are generally more theologically traditional/conservative. Similarly, to me and people like them (and Paul Smith their long-time now-retired pastor, author of “Integral Christianity”–see review on my blog), the spirit of God (“Holy Spirit”) is not the exclusive domain of orthodox Christianity, or even Christianity period. Rather, “it blows wherever it wills”!

      1. Yeah, me too sometimes. But I’ve gotten more content with the always-pretty-pleasant weather here and proximity to many resources, etc. And the use of Internet and techy tools makes location less of a factor, of course.

  5. Ted, I am a long time Anabaptist and am thankful that responsible people have voted for Trump as our next president. Our church distributed a comparison of 10 key issues comparing platforms of the Democratic and the Republican parties. The 10 issues are as follows: Human life, Planned Parenthood, Judges, Religious Liberty, Education/School Choices, Sex Education, Obamacare, Marriage, Biomedical Research, Iran and I will add Border Security.

    1. Dale, I’m not sure if I’m understanding your implication rightly. If you are saying that “responsible people” (at least some of them, perhaps in your vicinity) voted for Trump on the basis of a comparison of the Dem and Repub platforms then I think you/they have missed a massively important factor. We were voting for individuals, both (from the 2 major parties) of whom have long and well-documented “resumes” and life histories.

      While party platforms mean SOMEthing, the candidates’ lives, values, skills, likely ways of operating in the future, etc. is far more important in a POTUS choice than is the platform of their party. In the case of Trump, it is clear that he is not even behind some of the “planks”. The track record of most of his life demonstrates this… his recent words are not enough to make “responsible” (and thinking, relatively objective) people believe otherwise. Rubio, Romney and other key Republicans were right in calling a great deal of his words and actions those of a “con man” or a “fraud”. I think he’s demonstrated that not only in the campaign but through his many years in the business world and his general ways of operating.

      I retain a sliver of hope that Trump MAY moderate some of these ways, but I wouldn’t say I’m even “cautiously optimistic”. My experience in the counseling field and deep study of personality and human behavior gives every indication that he probably cannot change much, especially at age 70 and adding, even if he should want to…. And we don’t even know that he sees the problems and cares to change.

      1. P.S to above comment: Dale, the above scenario is like the old psychiatrist joke: “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Only one, but the light bulb has got to WANT to change”.

      2. Howard, tks for your response. I am hopeful Trump remains committed to solving the many problems in the USA. There are eight years of terrible mess that exist from the Obama years that should be cleaned up. Trump has plans to do that very thing and I wish him success. I am very pleased with those whom he has picked for his cabinet so far. I like his intent to pick conservative judges to the SCOTUS, his position on immigration and border security, national and international terrorism, U.S constitution and the second amendment and his strong views on the evil of murdering innocent babies in the womb. I appreciate his willingness to go to these several states and thank them for their support, men, women, blacks, hispanics. The rally places are packed with his supporters.

      3. Thanks for continuing the conversation, Dale. So, from what you didn’t say or reply to, I take it that how Trump has acted during the campaign, and the long history of similar actions and disrespectful, uncaring and sometimes immoral attacks on people during his long business career (much of which he doesn’t deny or dispute) — all this and more I could site doesn’t much matter to you. In other words, what we commonly call “character” is either not important or you somehow are able to see his as good? Or at least you don’t believe it is seriously flawed… which I, with a seeming majority of Americans, think it is)… Can a bad tree bring forth good fruit? (I forget the exact scriptural wording.) I can’t be optimistic re. that question in reference to him…. And the resumes and ways of operating (little that I know of that so far, though some) among his primarily business/corporate and military picks for cabinet posts do not give me any comfort as to possibly being wrong.

        In 2 to 4 years, I honestly hope you can “call me” on my realistic (in my view) pessimism and I’ll be glad if I have to admit I misperceived and misjudged. Meanwhile I’m working with church friends and others to become prepared to oppose certain of his proposed actions, should he make good on promises, such as rescinding the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”, or DACA; or breaking up many, many families of currently law-abiding, contributing residents (many family members being citizens) under large-scale deportations… I think the biblical case against this is clear and strong (though you apparently may not).

  6. Howard, I think we see DJT softening on some issues. I don’t support large scale deportations at this time as it would be greatly disrupting. Initially, I do hope that illegal immigrant criminals will be deported including those in prison. Others who utilize stolen identities should also be deported. Also, I strongly favor that all states enact voter ID laws that would prevent criminals and all illegals from voting. If illegal immigrants with families have no criminal records I see no reason to deport them, however they should receive no welfare payments and subsidies of any kind at tax payer expense. Prohibiting all welfare payments to illegals would greatly increase our border security. Further, I lock my house at night and when I leave to keep out unwanted people. Therefore I strongly support a strong border to lock out unwanted people. I welcome your response.

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