The challenge I have with making a coherent statement at the moment is that there are so many competing, subtle, and deeply problematic things going on that it’s impossible to treat any aspect well. I also recognize that humans (individuals and societies) are systems far more so than they are a discrete and single thing. Any one part of our experience and upbringing is always in conversation and/or competition with all other aspects of who we are. For me to attempt to say anything meaningful requires me to weave together a variety of strands within the system that get us to where we are now.
The greatest danger I find in Trump’s presidency (something I thought during the campaign rhetoric and something he has lived up to so far) is not in the concrete actions that he may or may not take, nor the wars that he may or may not start. I’m not at all convinced that Trump’s goal isn’t to burn it all to the ground and wind up with power and wealth galore. But, for now at least, those are distractions from what is already so dangerous and harmful about a figure like Trump.
The greatest danger I see is that most evil in the world does not come through overt, obvious, concrete actions. Most of the world’s evil comes in the form of subtle, passive aggressive, divisive, often implied actions and words that instill fear and do violence to relationship. Many of the worst offenders generally look and interact like a normal person. Whether or not Trump has meant or done anything overtly problematic, he has done everything with callous disregard for the people most affected and with such deep disdain for anyone who disagrees. That in itself is extremely harmful and will cause more harm than any good his orders and actions could conceivably do in the long run, if ever deemed reasonable and implemented appropriately.
Even if you don’t agree that his actions are security theater and will cause more harm than good, his words completely justify the fear and anxiety that he has caused. You cannot tease apart the specific, letter of the law actions Trump has so far made from the bombastic, hateful, xenophobic, and caustic campaign rhetoric that he used to rile up crowds during and since the election. If it is in any sense reasonable to say people have overreacted to the specific, narrowly interpreted actions Trump has taken so far, the blame for that overreaction lies squarely at the feet of the man who ran a campaign on promises to do exactly the things that protesters fear he is already doing.
Children who suffer physical abuse are often some of the most gifted at reading the emotions of others. The skill is often learned in an attempt to avoid the next round of abuse – if you can tell when the parent is angry or drunk, you know when to act normal and when to respond accordingly. For so many marginalized and trivialized groups of people, they have read the emotional state of the president and where things seem headed. It doesn’t matter at all whether things are going to be as bad as people expect – unrest and uncertainty are in many ways worse realities than overt acts of discrimination or abuse. This is the reality we are forcing a great number of people to live in – and it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference whether or not that is the intent of Trump or a fair reading of the actual words in his executive orders.
How you do something is at least significant as what you do. If you’re on the playground, it makes you a bully; when you’re the president, it makes you the worst kind of abuser. If you’re famous, you might rally a crowd; when seeking office you have no idea and no control over the backlash your words will have on others. It makes no difference to me at this point how you describe the specific actions Trump has taken or whether you think they come from a good or reasonable place of protectionism and safety. The manner in which he has done everything is inherently problematic and hurtful in some of the worst ways.
At least 6 interrelated strands of thought are necessary to express why I say all this –
- An African Proverb – “If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.” (from a ted talk podcast on what we need to know about europe’s muslim children – the talk is about why young muslims are drawn to extremism when they are rejected by the dominant culture).
- My understanding of Sallie’s MFT training – when you repeatedly tell your child they are “X,” they will often spend their whole life trying to live up to or reject that label. Some are driven to be the smartest, for instance. Others are crushed by their inability to be smart enough. Still others intentionally fail so as to be seen as not smart as possible.
- A critique of modernity from Stanley Hauerwas – Modernism is the story that “you should have no story except the story that you chose when you had no story.” (explored here in relation to American religion; from my perspective as to why social identity is more basic than individuality here)
- Symptoms vs diseases – We are infinitely more likely to address the symptoms that we can see than the disease underneath. This happens especially in relationships. One of the greatest challenges to heal current wounds is that the internet and partisan politics are terribly suited to create the space in which people can express their brokenness and find healing.
- Tribalism – people want an identity and a community that safely defines the insider and the outsider. We will forgive a multitude of sins as long as we get to be on the inside. Multiple theories attempt to put a hard number on the limits to a human tribe and others show the problems with too much open access to resources. But for Christians to view our ‘tribe’ as anything short of all creation is precisely to reject the gospel. (#s 2 and 3 here, in the form of a sermon here)
- Predictors of Societal Violence – One of the stronger predictors of societal violence is unequal and especially limited access to vital resources. I can’t think of one specific source to cite, but it’s not hard to find historical examples – race riots in mid 20th century America, the connection between drought and the Arab Spring, the French Revolution, the disparity b/w the US and Mexico, the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation, etc. All share the fact that when at least one group doesn’t feel their needs met, violence is likely to rise up.
Trump’s campaign promises and his actions so far seek to 1) reject any attempts to change American culture and values, from inside or out – holding tight to some magical picture of ‘great’ is a flat out rejection of the young and the diverse; 2) label vast communities of people in dramatically simple, negative terms that only name problems and never speak of hope in anything but himself; 3) speak grand pronouncements about ‘greatness’ and other such lofty words without saying what he means or even critiquing those who interpret those words as a rejection of foreigners and the civil rights movements; 4) talk incessantly about ‘fixing’ problems without even a tacit acknowledgment of how we arrived where we are or what reconciliation and justice might entail apart from a police state; 5) isolate America from the rest of the world in every conceivable way; 6) prevent government attempts to redistribute wealth to meet the basic needs of all.
If you actually want to make the world a safe and better place, you would have to start by 1) finding ways to embrace and value the differences of the next generation and the neighbor who doesn’t look and think and act like me; 2) speak to the reality you hope to create in the world rather than constantly name the fear and brokenness you see; 3) recognize that we are all a part of an interconnected, global story that no one alive created nor does any one person or nation control; 4) actually create the spaces for conversation and healing rather than just stick a band aid (or pour gasoline) on centuries old divisions; 5) encourage the development of tribes that recognize rights are not pie, and lives are not actually a zero sum game, economically or theologically; 6) and invest in ways to ensure that the increasing automation of the workforce and changes in technology become means of human flourishing rather than a primer for the next great social (and military) revolution.
Nothing about what has happened gives me hope for positive change. Nothing makes me feel even the slightest bit safer or more empowered.
It was said countless times that Trump was all talk in order to rally the votes, but he should not be taken literally and he would back down and mellow when in office. It’s time to accept that we really can take Trump at his word; he says what he means and means what he says. Whether or not he starts WWIII, he is already doing a great amount of harm by traumatizing an unbelievable variety of people (victims of sexual violence, fully documented and employed immigrants, LGBTQ persons and supporters, foreign officials, refugees, men who are masculine enough to show emotion, Jews, African Americans, inner city residents, democracy itself, and I’m sure I’ve missed others).
It would be bad enough to have to create this list, but not once has Trump so much as acknowledged that anything he said could have been harmful, much less flat out wrong. The only ‘apology’ I’m aware of is the most clear cut example of a statement written by someone else that I have heard from him; but more than that, an actual apology is not an opportunity to tell the world why we’re wrong for being bothered by something you admit to having said. Nothing in him shows the capability for remorse, regret, or change. He has, at best, deflected the criticism and told the people he harmed that they’re wrong to feel hurt and has challenged the reality of the criticism for everything he’s done. At best, that makes him an ass. More likely, Trump is gaslighting us all.
I am proud of the UMC response and not surprised at all to see the vast array of other peaceful protests that have already happened. It is all entirely justified, regardless of where you stand on a narrow interpretation of what Trump has actually done and regardless of the danger in what might come next. Reasonable people can disagree on whether some of the principles behind Trump’s policies and actions are justifiable or beneficial in the long run. But the divisive and harmful rhetoric that Trump has spoken and that which he has allowed to go unchallenged is a direct affront to pretty much everything I believe is good and holy in life.
As a blonde haired, blue eyed, white, cis gendered, heterosexual, married, American, protestant, pastor I’m about the only kind of person with nothing to fear directly from Trump. I recognize that puts on me a distinct requirement to speak up and I will try to do so in whatever ways I am able.
The gospel I preach and to which have given my life says power is made perfect in weakness, not in the ubermensch. Our words will not change the world, but we are called to witness to the one who did. And there is room for all at the table of the Lord. I pray that all my words and actions reflect hope, trust, love, and fear in the Lord – no matter what that looks like.