Helsinki Was … Clarifying

Commentary
By Jim Wallis 7-19-2018
Image via Grigory Dukor/Reuters

In Helsinki, Trump's behavior — taking Russia's side over the country he was elected to lead and the intelligence agencies that report to him — has been called indefensible, by many of America’s defense and intelligence veterans and a handful of Republicans, mostly those not running for re-election.

Since then, Trump has been playing with words. The president's transparently insincere “clarification” that he meant to say "I don't see why it wouldn't be [Russia],” rather than "I don't see why it would be," was contradicted both by his own off-script asides ("There's a lot of other people out there") and in his response to press questions (“No,” to whether the Russians are still trying to meddle in U.S. elections), later interpreted by press secretary Sara Huckabee Sanders that he had just meant for the press to leave the room.

That, of course, is directly counter to what Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said Monday about “warning lights…blinking red” over Russian plans to disrupt the 2018 midterm elections this year.

Yet it very much appears that Republicans in Congress will take Trump's half-hearted walk-backs and word games as good enough to leave the matter there. We will now see what the Republican leaders will say about the breaking New York Times story last night, that before his inauguration, Trump was shown intelligence indicating that Russian cyberattacks were personally ordered, by Putin, to sway the election. Trump was briefed. He knew, and has been trying to cover up that evidence since the beginning of his presidency.

There's a clear, obvious reason that political courage has been so lacking from elected Republicans under this administration: President Trump is extremely popular with the base of the Republican party that comes out to vote in primary elections—a party that is now the Trump Party.

The simple political calculation laid out by Republican strategist Mike Murphy on Twitter Tuesday, is as follows:

This is a cowardly and selfish way to think and operate, especially in a time like this. Unfortunately, in all my years working in Washington, I probably don’t need two hands to count the number of politicians, in either party, who are willing to take actions that they know will cause them to lose the next election, unless they are already planning to leave office.

Former CIA Director John Brennan was as blunt as he possibly could be in his assessment of Trump's behavior with Putin, saying Trump's Helsinki performance "rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

At heart, Brennan is expressing his political judgement. A majority of the House of Representatives decides what constitutes an impeachable offense, and two-thirds of the Senate must agree to remove a president from office. Richard Nixon didn’t resign until his Republican leadership came to him threatening to vote for his impeachment unless he resigned. The current loyalty of enough Republican voters to Trump means that there is almost nothing he could do that would provoke a concrete response from Congress to hold him accountable in any real way. Even after the past month's public fury over his administration ripping immigrant children away from their parents at the border, Trump’s approval this week is nearly identical to where it was at the beginning of June. And his base believes him, whatever he says: One of the most alarming polls finds that only 37 percent of Republicans believe that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election — despite total consensus among every U. S. intelligence and national law-enforcement agency that Russia did.

And that means that, for now, we are stuck with a strongman running and undermining our democracy.

Make no mistake: A strongman is what Trump has always been, and now desires to be as president of the United States. His admiration for autocrats is by no means confined to Vladimir Putin, as he has seemed to reserve much of his praise in public and private comments for autocratic leaders like President Erdogan of Turkey and Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and much of his criticism for allies leading European democracies. He finds the checks and balances of the American system inconvenient, and he clearly wishes that even the modest checks he has had to contend with so far weren't there.

Given Republican refusal to hold him accountable for any of his actions or statements, he faces less and less accountability going forward.

So, let’s go back to reclaiming Jesus. Where does this leave us, as Christians? What can we do? And why should even the Christian voters who agree with some of Trump’s policies and Supreme Court appointments still be deeply troubled by his admiration for strongman leadership, his disdain for accountability, and especially his regular undermining of the truth?

The answer has everything to do with the one whom Christians everywhere claim to follow — Jesus Christ.

As we made clear in our Reclaiming Jesus declaration, Jesus did not embody or endorse the strongman style of leadership. On the contrary, Jesus taught, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:25-26)

The elders wrote:

“We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God…

Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority… 

We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger threatening democracy and the common good—and we will resist it.”

In that light, the president's constant self-contradictions and outright lies this week, and every week, is also something we need to continue to mark and contrast it with what Jesus taught. A commitment to speaking truth, to “not bear false witness,” is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). And regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children.

Donald Trump’s behavior in Helsinki was not just shameful and disastrous. It was also, on a deeper level, clarifying. Trump has always acted as a “strongman” in his bullying leadership style, and he got away with it in his world of real estate, reality TV, and beauty queen pageants. But now he is the President of the United States. Trump has been a liar his whole life — a word that the media commentators are only slowly getting comfortable using to describe a president.

But Trump is more than a liar. He has always tried to change what people believe about the truth — suggesting that there actually is not really any truth, and people should just believe whatever Trump says. Listen to him, and hear him in any situation trying to change the truth to whatever he says it is. This goes all the way back to day one of his presidency, his inauguration day, when Trump said the sun was shining though it was continually raining. It has been raining on democracy ever since.

The false strongman whose strength is based upon the undermining of the truth will get stronger in coming days, unless there is courageous political opposition against him.

As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, in another time of crisis, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.”

We can’t control all the politics, but we can decide what we will do.

It is time for Christians lift up the truth over falsehood, as a way of life. To defend public service over political tyranny. And to always protect the increasingly vulnerable.

It is time to reclaim Jesus.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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