Explaining the Trump phenomenon

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I’m an embarrassed registered Republican.

I’ve never written about specific political candidates nor particular elections because I have not wanted to be perceived as negative or divisive.

By and large, individual elections aren’t worth getting worked up about. While there are stark philosophical differences between some Democrats and Republicans, effectively the country has been governed by pretty much the same general, overarching themes for nearly the past 40 years – exceptions of course exist, but taking a wide view of American society from the 20th Century until today reveals that the same broad philosophies have been at work.

Social media is a wasteland of people attacking candidates, political parties, and others’ opinions.  I haven’t wanted to be associated with those types of things, and it’s because this type of behavior and rhetoric is so pervasive that a lot of us are unable to distinguish between the current election cycle and those that have come before.

We’ve been bombarded with so much negativity and ugliness for so long that we are suffering from a collective condition of the proverbial boy who cried “Wolf!”  We’re immune to the warning cries of others because we’ve had to tolerate our own caustic reactions to every political situation for over 20 years.

This election is different.  I hope because I haven’t been sounding alarms my entire life that people can hear my concern and understand it is real.

There is an actual wolf among us.

Donald Trump is a horrifying candidate that is unique in American politics.  The fact that so few people have understood this truly scares me.

Trump is different because he has advocated committing war crimes, targeting women and children, the families of perceived terrorists.  He is unique because he champions divisiveness and blaming of the “other,” particularly immigrants and ethnic minorities.  He is unique in the extent of his moral failures, his vulgarity, his blatant demagoguery.

But I’m not writing to be another Trump critic.  There are plenty out there, and I’d recommend you listen to them, particularly this article featuring the words of several die-hard Republicans: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2016-02-29/the-die-hard-republicans-who-say-nevertrump

I’m writing because, while I’ve read several analyses looking into how Trump has become popular with a large segment of the American electorate, so far I haven’t come across one that does this phenomenon justice.

Why is Trump appealing to so many people?

Listening to interviews and town halls where Trump supporters have spoken, it sounds like they respect him for “telling it like it is,” “speaking his mind,” “not being bought by the establishment or corporations.”

These opinions reflect a deeper reality, which is the complete lack of trust in those considered to be “standard” politicians, the types of candidates for higher office that are generally trotted out by the two major political parties.

But that also doesn’t describe Trump’s popularity.  President Obama – when he ran in 2008 as young, articulate, fresh-faced Senator Barack Obama – offered a different group of voters the same promise: a non-standard candidate who offered hope and change to other large portions of American society.

Very few Americans trust the political process in Washington, and with good reason.  It’s corrupt.

The uniqueness of Trump therefore must rely not in the method of his delivery as much as it does on the content.

As Trump’s slogan suggests, “Make America great again,” it is a hearkening back to something, hence the inclusion of the word “again.”  President Obama’s “Hope and change” was an implicit looking forward to new possibilities, while Trump speaks of bringing a supposed golden age from the past to the present.

The appeal of Trump is not pretty, but it is understandable given the kinds of people he is most popular with, which are lower-middle to lower class white Americans.  Generally speaking, this group tends to be lower-educated and is represented by a large swath of fundamentalist evangelical Christians.

Having come from a middle class, white, Christian family in the South, this is a mindset I’m not unfamiliar with, having witnessed it in several settings.

I want to first describe this mindset, then attempt to show how it is dangerously misguided.

It’s a racist mode of thinking, but those who adhere to it typically don’t recognize it as racist.

The difficult truth to discuss in polite settings is that it is indeed harder to economically thrive in the U.S. today as a middle class, white American.

Affirmative Action has for several decades made it more challenging for whites in the work place.  It is, technically, a form of reverse discrimination against whites in an attempt to compensate for hundreds of years of discrimination against minorities.

Coupled with a very fundamentalist view of Christianity, blaming of the “other” for the problems these white Americans are facing becomes tempting.  A quite non-nuanced perception of God leads to the belief that He will smite the country for its complicity in perceived sins, many of which have come about through the auspices of “progressive” voices in American government.

Rapid changes in societal norms, from ever-increasing demands for tolerance and diversity in religion and ethnicity to the legalization of gay marriage and the increased rate of abortions, provide an easy explanation for America’s current plights – in essence, we’ve let the progressives drive us over a moral cliff, and we are now reaping the consequences.

Thus, build walls; expel the immigrants; reverse course on our moral legislating; and punch our perceived enemies in the face so hard that they’ll never think about messing with us again.

Trump.

I’m sympathetic to the increased difficulty of finding good work as a white male as I was stuck in a dead-end government job for six years in which I could not advance nor receive full benefits explicitly because I wasn’t a military veteran or a minority.

It’s incredibly frustrating and is indeed unfair.

Yet.

None of us live in an historical vacuum.  All of us reap, unfairly, the consequences of what has happened in the world before we arrived on the scene.

For hundreds of years, whites benefited from the systemic oppression of minorities.

This established a socio-economic situation in which numerous benefits were available by default for having white skin, and in which numerous disadvantages were aligned against those with a different skin color.

The best analysis is the classic essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, available here: http://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf

No one knows how to effectively reverse these trends and level the playing field for people of all colors, but Affirmative Action has been a start.

There is no “just” way to make things more equal in an already unjust system without essentially “taking” privileges those in privileged positions have enjoyed.  Thus, without a broad understanding of history, it can appear to white people that recent times and government policies have brought about punitive measures that have resulted in a worse nation.

A simplistic understanding of the Christian God and the identity of the United States as a country contribute to this perception.

There is literally no warrant for concluding that America is a divinely-inspired nation, yet many Christians hold that it is, that America was created by God’s will to fulfill God’s purposes.

While true that a number of Protestant Christian groups emigrated to the New World to seek religious freedoms and that a large majority of people were Christian when the nation started, neither facts follow to the conclusion that the founding of the country was done so according to divine providence, any more than any other historical event.

All European nations in the 16th through 18th Centuries were decidedly Christian.  That the U.S. would follow suit is natural.  It was no more or less Christian than any other predominantly white nation during that time.

There are no direct parallels between the United States and ancient Israel from the Old Testament, despite fundamentalist Christians’ beliefs.  Israel was a theocracy directly established by God to specifically fulfill His purposes.  The U.S. was a group of disgruntled colonists upset at the level of taxation being levied upon them who decided to establish a constitutional republic in the mold of then-current Enlightenment rationale.

While it is certainly true that God will judge each of us according to what we have done individually and to what we have contributed to our nation, He will not hold us to the same standard with which He held explicitly called Israel.

We are a nation composed of numerous beliefs, many of which have always been opposed to Christianity.  As a Christian, I don’t particularly like that, but it is nonetheless true: those of us who are Christians strive to influence the nation as best we can in conjunction with our core beliefs while also respecting the differences of those who disagree with us.

Our concern over being judged by God should be holistic and encompass the entirety of sin.  How have we treated the widows and orphans?  the homeless and the defenseless?  the neglected and forgotten?

Have we been peacemakers instead of warmongers?  Have we been a source of hope for the hopeless?  Have we served the least of these among us?

For all these blatant Christian reasons, a genuine follower of Christ will realize he or she cannot support Trump and what he stands for, as he represents a spirit that is truly anti-Christ.  Jesus was never self-seeking nor into looking out for his self-interest.

His consistent focus was on caring for the other, on being a source of healing for the afflicted.

Nothing about Trump’s message is congruent with true Christian belief.

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