Trump's Strategy of Fear | Sojourners

Trump's Strategy of Fear

Joseph Sohm /

As I sat down last night to write my column about the upcoming election, the national headlines running across every television broadcast in America referenced the pipe bombs sent to the homes and offices of two former presidents, former Cabinet members, members of Congress, a former CIA director, a philanthropist who has supported Democrats, and the free press. There is much that we don’t know yet, but what we do know is that all the targets were critics of Donald Trump — and Trump has named them in recent hostile campaign rallies and caustic tweets. Somebody is paying attention.

Trump's rallies, like his tweets, have been hard to watch, but they clearly reveal a political strategy of fear, based on continual and unapologetic lying, which deliberately evokes racial resentment and hatred. This president’s purpose is indeed to divide us, especially along racial lines. Again, we don’t yet know who is directly responsible for this latest string of violence, but it can no longer be said that there is no relationship between violent presidential rhetoric against opponents and the media, and the violent action against those very people. You can no longer say, “I don’t like his rhetoric and tweets, but I like his policies.”

At his rallies, Trump continually calls the press the “enemy of the people,” and has praised the body-slamming of a reporter, while minimizing the murder of a Saudi journalist by a cruel autocrat Trump admires. The main focus of his ire in this vein is CNN, which he repeatedly calls “fake news.” And yesterday a bomb threat forced CNN anchors off the air in New York.

An article in the Washington Post reports how Trump and Republicans settle on fear — and falsehoods — as a midterm strategy ahead of the Nov. 6 elections:

Trump’s messaging — on display in his regular campaign rallies, tweets and press statements — largely avoids much talk of his achievements and instead offers an apocalyptic vision of the country, which he warns will only get worse if Democrats retake control of Congress.

The president has been especially focused in recent days on a caravan of about 5,000 migrants traveling north to cross the U.S. border, a group he has darkly characterized as gang members, violent criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners” — a claim for which his administration has so far provided no concrete evidence.

We now see that same rhetoric from other Republican candidates out on the campaign trail this fall; they smile when crowds repeat Trump’s chants. The strategy is spreading.

It’s Trump’s deliberate strategy of racial division that unites his base, fanning the flames of fearing “the other” — which is a direct assault on biblical priorities and a denial of the teachings of Jesus.

Daniel Dale, the reporter for the Toronto Star who meticulously tracks every Trump lie, wrote about the Trump strategy this fall:

Trump has been a serial liar about just about everything for his entire tenure in office, but he has rarely before deployed so many complete fabrications about so many important subjects at the same time.

His most frequent and significant recent whoppers have centred on immigration, the issue about which his base has been most excited, and health care, the issue polls suggest is most important to the Democratic base.

At a rally in Ohio, Trump called on black Americans to “honor” Republicans with their votes after praising Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a “true great fighter.” He went on to praise astronaut Neil Armstrong for planting the American flag on the moon without kneeling, a reference to NFL players who protest police brutality during the national anthem.

At a Houston Ted Cruz rally, Trump accepted the label of “nationalist.”

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, ‘Really? We’re not supposed to use that word,’” Trump continued. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”

In America, of course, that word is historically associated with the “white ethnic nationalism” that has become the ideology of Donald Trump’s core base.

Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) The opposite of what Jesus said is also true: Without the truth we are easily enslaved by false ideologies that demand belief. Jesus clearly connects truth with freedom, and that is key here both in our personal lives and in any test of the health of the body politic. Truth sets us free, but lies enslave us. If you care about freedom, you must care about the truth.

Most dangerous is when people don’t believe there is truth anymore and stop trying to look for it. Pontius Pilate famously asks in John 18:38, “What is truth?” just before he washed his hands of any responsibility for what he was about to do. If you don’t want to face the truth, as Pilate did not in his uncomfortable discussion with Jesus, you stop trying to find it. And authoritarian leaders love when that happens.

A unifying theme of all of the president’s outrages and threats is his brazen assault on the very concept of truth and objective, knowable facts. Amid everything that’s going on, consuming and interpreting the news each day is considerably more exhausting than it should be because it has never been more difficult to sort fact from fiction.

Trump is not the first political leader who has had trouble with the truth, nor is he the first with an overwhelming ego. But I believe there is much more at stake here than just self-absorbed personality. Historically, the most autocratic leaders around the world feel compelled to prop up their legitimacy with falsehoods, changing the political narrative by lying about it. We cannot delude ourselves by treating this consistent lying as comedic because it exposes Trump’s fragile ego. This president knows that a certain percentage of Americans will believe anything he says and will dismiss those, especially those in the media, who dispute his claims.

This assault on truth should concern us spiritually as Christians. As Republican writer Michael Gerson, an evangelical, has noted, conservative Christians in particular are in “grave spiritual danger” during this presidency. Gerson’s reasons — the need to reject racial nativism, the fact that religious freedom needs to be applied equally to Christians and Muslims, and the dangers of faith aligning itself with the power of the state — are all important. Timothy’s second epistle warns about people who “having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Those myths and lies can lead to justifications for practices and policies against “the other.” Americans who call themselves Christians have an absolute obligation to stop, pray, and honestly ask themselves the deep questions that come from this Timothy text: Do we have “itching ears” to hear the lies of “teachers" to suit our own desires? Do we “turn away from listening to the truth” about our nation’s racial history and current realities? Do we easily “wander away to myths” that justify our own privilege and the status quo?

Christians are called many times in the scriptures to be truth-tellers and to reject falsehoods, from scriptural commandments against bearing false witness to Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ ... So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another."

According to Stanley Hauerwas, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught us that politics “can never be divorced from truth.” Indeed, Hauerwas maintains that Bonhoeffer believed that “cynicism is the vice that fuels the habits to sustain a politics that disdains the truth.” Truth-telling is a matter of faith for us and a fundamental principle of how we hold politics accountable. We cannot let our knowledge of both objective facts and deeper spiritual truths become causalities of this administration. The free press has a critical role to play in protecting the truth — but so do people of faith and conscience.

Pastors should be preaching truth from the pulpit. Teachers and parents should be clearly pointing out when politicians and other public figures are lying and teach children what the truth is. We all need to acknowledge how the normalization of lying is creating a society for ourselves and for our children in which truth no longer matters — and we must correct course.

The truth will indeed set us free, but the unwillingness of the faith community to speak truth to power could push us toward political bondage.

There is much at stake over the next two weeks as the strategy of lies continues to ramp up. Seek truth, share it, and use that that knowledge to vote.