Trump in Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb. 8, 2016. Photo by Marc Nozell (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcn/24622320840/
“Nothing in this election makes logical sense,” says John Feehery in a recent opinion piece for The Hill. Sadly, he is right. All elections have their quirks, but what is shaping up in the 2016 election seems unprecedented in its quirkiness and irrationality. In his column, Feehery is specifically referring to the remarkable rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but with respect to Vermont senator - while it is true that he is gaining in popularity – until very recently he has been considered an “also-ran” behind Hillary Clinton, recent and upcoming primary results notwithstanding. The more noteworthy development is the sudden and startling rise of “The Donald” to a level of popularity which seems to make the prospect of him becoming the Republican Party’s presidential nominee an increasingly likely scenario.
Avoiding Donald Trump is nearly impossible these days. Every major television network devotes exorbitant amounts of time covering him. In fact, according to one recent study of nightly network news broadcasts, Trump had received more than twice the amount of coverage as Clinton, the second most popular candidate. Seemingly any statement he makes, controversial or not, is splashed across headlines all over the internet. He is a frequent suave and charismatic guest on late night television, evocative of a movie star promoting a new film, not a rehearsed politician running for the highest office in the land.
It is Trump’s persona as the brash, no-nonsense tough-guy that has given him the apparent charm he so effectively wields to win support. He has become the candidate of the average American, the “middle-class,” the “silent majority.” He doesn’t sound like a politician, he doesn’t back down, and he’s going to get stuff done, so argue his supporters. He says repeatedly that he is going to get tough on immigration, strengthen our military, stand up to China and Russia, and all-in-all “make America great again.” To his credit, he has ably diagnosed many of the problems ailing our country. For many Americans, hearing a candidate speak so glowingly about the promise of our country is a refreshing development, and frankly, it is difficult – if not impossible – to argue against a candidate with that kind of powerful pro-America rhetoric.
Yet, it is equally as difficult to logically conclude how a multi-billionaire real-estate mogul and reality television personality who counts the Clintons among his friends could capture the support of so wide a swath of “average” Americans, including a majority of Catholics, by appealing to them as if he shared their commonness. Such apparent demographic disparity aside, Trump’s record on issues of import to conservatives (e.g., abortion, marriage, and individual freedom) reveals further obvious incongruent characteristics with the conservative Republicans, especially religious conservatives, he attracts. Such incongruity is not going unnoticed. National Review, a leading conservative publication, recently published a lengthy, multi-author editorial simply titled “Against Trump.” The notoriously conservative CatholicVote recently documented a laundry list of reasons why Trump is not conservative and should not be supported by Catholics. Serious questions have been raised about his numerous flip-flops, which have been widely documented elsewhere and do not need to be re-hashed here. Suffice to say that candidates with records so inconsistent are often deemed unelectable. (Some of us will recall the 2004 presidential election when John Kerry’s campaign was severely hobbled by his flip-flop on a single issue.) All this to say nothing of his policy proposals, which as S.E. Cupp recently wrote, “are usually unconstitutional, un-American or un-conservative -- and very often an alarming hat trick of all three.”
Despite his privileged background, his inconsistent principles, and shoddy policy proposals, Trump remains and grows more popular than ever. One might argue that his popularity represents the continued descent of politics as a profession for megalomaniacs, narcissists, and sell-outs willing to shift their principles any which way for the sake of gaining support, as opposed politics being a noble activity for true statesmen who put the common good ahead of their own, in the fashion of Thomas More. Political commentator Ben Shapiro aptly describes this phenomenon of politics as a “cult of personality” where “celebrities have become royals, and our politicians have become celebrities.” It is characteristic of our entire political and social system. The phenomenon is not of Trump’s creation, nor of recent development, but one which he seems to take every advantage of for his own political gain. Without a doubt he is as shrewd a politician as he is a businessman, which might help to explain his popularity.
As we approach this 2016 election, we must ask ourselves: what is important in this election? Is it about character, policies, or both? Should we judge a candidate on personality and charisma, popularity and appeal, knowledge and achievements, or some combination thereof? Do we place more importance on strong, emotional rhetoric, or do we support pragmatic, principled, and reasonable solutions to problems?
None of these questions have simple answers, and no candidate will perfectly suffice any formula. But, regardless of political affiliation, one would think that any honest voter would be able to see Trump for the charlatan that he is. Catholics, and especially Catholic men with a basic understanding of the “masculine genius” ought to recognize that Trump in many ways personifies the modern crisis of authentic masculinity. Whereas authentic masculinity demands that we be measured, humble, and charitable, Trump is boisterous, haughty, and insulting (you can actually watch ten hours of Trump’s insults on YouTube). His “conversions” seemingly happen at the most politically opportune times, but we know that true conversions require a difficult process of discernment. Trump displays his “strength” by tearing down his enemies. But scripture tells us that “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
Supporters of Donald Trump may dismiss all the above as misconstrued, as inapplicable to a candidate for president, or for a host of other reasons. Conversely, were it not for his shockingly high polling numbers, Trump could be dismissed as a petulant multi-billionaire who gained his wealth by unmitigated, self-interested greed, and who is only interested in increasing his own power. Considering the gravity of the situation at hand, dismissing Trump is as unwise as it is impossible, no matter how much of a narcissistic megalomaniac he really is.
Although this author believes there is very little that is truly Christian about Trump, that his character is devoid of morality and decency, that his policies are devoid of forethought and substance, and his leadership style is, frankly, devoid of real leadership, there is no reason to demonize him or his supporters. While my belief is that he is a populist and a progressive - neither of which are aligned to Catholic social teaching - the beauty of our system is that we can freely speak out for, or against, candidates for office. I simply pray that there are enough voters, especially my fellow Catholic men and women, who will be honest enough with themselves to recognize that, despite bold promises and strong rhetoric, our political leaders must first be people of character. If we can grasp that concept, perhaps this election will begin to make some logical sense.