Most people have consistently underestimated Donald Trump. When he came down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy by attacking and demonizing non-white immigrants, people should have understood that Trump would likely win the Republican nomination and possibly the election.
Why? Because Donald Trump appeals to the worst of America. His promotion of fear, division, hate, racism, xenophobia, rallying of white nationalism, mistreatment of women, purposeful denial of truth, and consummate love of money, power, and fame are, of course, nothing new in America. Neither are his desire to destroy democracy, love for authoritarian rulers or desire to be one. Indeed, there is nothing new about Donald Trump, but he almost perfectly exemplifies the worst of America — the ugliest things in our history and the greatest dangers to our future.
Now let’s move from the political and moral to the theological and spiritual: These traits and actions also represent the worst of humanity. To seek money and power over all else, to consistently put yourself over all others, to make private self-interest the only the goal of life and overturn any sense of the common good, to create conflict to win and make all others into losers, to constantly lie and try to kill the truth, to make exploitation and abuse the definition of sexuality, to be as violent in word and deed as you can get away with, to never answer to God or seek forgiveness — there are examples of these sins throughout the Bible and human history. They are also, unfortunately, what our country’s leader seems to stand for, what he promotes in our culture, and what he models for our children.
Given all of this, we are in great danger. Strongmen are rising all over the world, and Donald Trump supports them — and even wants to be one of them. Trump started out the New Year tweeting the country’s support to Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new right-wing nationalist leader. Just this week, he articulated an ahistorical understanding of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that seemed to condone or even endorse the Soviet action. His version of that chapter in world history is one that sounds much closer to what Moscow propaganda might say rather than what an American president or relatively neutral historians would describe. Among the current global strongmen, Trump is certainly not the most intelligent, but he may be the most dangerous because of his political position.
Strongmen, autocrats, and dictators don’t all do the same things. They do whatever they can to maximize their own wealth, power, and fame. The only thing that prevents them from going as far as they can is the resiliency of a society’s institutions and social sectors — like the media, the judiciary, political parties, law enforcement, civil society, and places of vocational or historical moral authority like faith communities.
So how are we faring on those fronts?
Press: In our current political situation, a new generation of young reporters are showing great resiliency in the new Trump era, revealing the facts that undermine official lies and offering analysis that seeks to hold power accountable.
Judiciary: Trump appointments at the Supreme Court and Circuit Court levels are gradually politicizing the judiciary to rule in favor of his interests, white interests, and corporate interests.
Political Parties: After winning the midterm elections, the Democratic Party has retaken the House of Representatives. For the first time, we have 100 women in the Congress and the most diverse House in our history. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi retaking the gavel, we will now see what kind of checks and balances to the executive branch that can provide. But the Republican Party has been taken over by the president’s base and retained a Senate majority that has been unwilling to oppose him — or ever vote to remove him from office, which only the Senate can do with a 2/3 majority vote, even if the House were to impeach him.
Law Enforcement: Trump has continued to attack the Justice Department and relentlessly seeks to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation into his campaign’s involvement with Russia. Trump’s behavior in response to the investigation of him and his campaign puts the rule of law into jeopardy, depending on how his administration reacts to the results and reports of the Robert Mueller-led investigation.
Civil Society: Will the civil society seek to hold the government responsible for civility in the way that it governs? So far, nonprofit organizations focused on good government, exposing corruption, and protecting the vulnerable have done important work in galvanizing massive protests at key moments of danger or significance, as well as leading or joining key court cases that have sought to rein in some of the worst travesties of the administration, like the monstrous policy of family separation at the border.
Faith Communities: On the religion side, white evangelicals have been the most supportive of Trump as their Religious Right has entered a transactional, Faustian bargain with his administration, agreeing to look away from Trump’s immoral behavior and brutal treatment of those Jesus called “the least of these” in exchange for the judicial appointments and conservative economic policies they support. Others, like the Reclaiming Jesus movement, with Sojourners involvement, have proclaimed that the gospel itself is at stake in the faith community’s response to Trump. This year will be “an hour of decision,” to use Billy Graham’s old language, for the faith community’s testimony in the face of Donald Trump’s corrupt and cruel practices and policies, which are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
In 2019, I believe things are going to get worse in America before they get better. We now face grave dangers to democracy itself, and to societal moral decency. But that danger also provides us an opportunity: to go deeper into our faith and into our relationships to each other, especially across racial lines, and into relationship with the most vulnerable people in our society — a practice our faith says will change us. If we do go deeper, this moment could become a movement for all the things that many of us have consistently lived and fought for all our lives. If we don’t go deeper, but just continue to react or ultimately retreat into frustration and cynicism, we will indeed be in great danger.
Many of us faith leaders believe a constitutional crisis is coming in 2019, which will also create a crisis of faith to which we will be called to respond. A dangerous overreach of presidential power could come in response to the ultimate results of the Special Counsel’s report and potential further indictments of Trump’s associates, potentially his family members, or even himself for criminal behavior. Attempts to cover up or obscure the results could be a serious obstruction of justice that undermines the very rule of law in this country. We could also see other executive overreaches like choosing to shut down the government over vanity projects, the prosecution of dangerous wars, the censorship of the press, attacks on opponents, more assaults on migrants and the most vulnerable, and, most frighteningly, the threat or use of nuclear weapons.
If we start to see that executive overreach as distraction, there must be a moral response. And the response of faith communities could be a game changer. I believe it is time to prepare for that response from the followers of Jesus. Stay tuned and prayerfully get ready.