Like others, I feel compelled to write about the events of this past week, yet am reluctant because it’s difficult to wrap my head around them. Maybe you feel the same. As usual, everything revolved around Trump, and it’s impossible to reflect on the week without reflecting on him. He entered the week as the same Trump he’s always been. There was nothing new to see. He continued his claims of a fraudulent election based, as he admitted in his infamous Georgia phone call, on rumors and the amplified echoes of his own words coming back to him through right wing media sources. In his customary fashion, he rallied his troops to assemble on January 6 at the Capitol and fight to overturn the election. We know what happened. Two days later, again in customary fashion, he deadpanned a video disowning the violence while falsely claiming to have immediately sent the National Guard to restore order. It was a classic Trump move to deflect blame and create an exhibit for possible future use in his defense at trial. We’ve always known his loyalty is to no one but himself. What he has done to countless aides and subordinates, he did to the entire mob that had assembled at his request. Will they abandon him as he’s abandoned them?
Trump may be on the way out, but what troubles me more is the deeply rooted conviction among his followers that he has been the president of their hopes and dreams, restoring America to a figment of their imagination, and saving it from being overrun by the wrong sort of people. They have believed, in their heart of hearts, that the election was rigged against him, saturated with fraud, and that a count of “legal” ballots would declare him the winner by an overwhelming majority. Their evidence was the closed echo chamber of right wing propaganda outlets, the same echo chamber that Trump himself lives in. They believe that “we the people” created a more perfect union. They believe in government by the people, for the people and of the people. Who, though, are the people? Many who were interviewed at the scene of the Wednesday insurrection said they believed that they are “we the people” who are here to defend America against radical socialists intent on destroying America, confiscating guns, taking away personal liberties, and promoting immoral behavior. It’s a world view deeply held, against all verifiable evidence to the contrary, by millions of Americans.
Sadly for me as a priest in the tradition of classical Christianity, it’s a world view adhered to by a large swath of conservative evangelicals who claim to be Christian. Various surveys estimate that 76% of white evangelicals supported Trump’s candidacy. Some think he’s God’s agent to restore America as a Christian nation, governed by socially conservative “biblical” principles, on which they believe the nation was founded. It matters not that his character is flawed, it only matters that he endorsed evangelical social policies. It matters not that Christian texts, tradition and scholarship are in sharp disagreement with them. From their point of view, they are the sole proprietors of correct Christian thinking. They looked to Trump to be their benefactor, and for a while, he was. They will not give up what we now call Trumpism when he’s gone. They’ll simply look for a new, more capable benefactor, one to whom they can pledge their loyalty with greater confidence. There are many to choose from, and they’re already auditioning for the part.
Secular and religious believers in Trumpism may be strange bedfellows, but they’re in agreement that they alone are the ones who are “we the people.” All others are not “we the people.” They, as “we the people,” are the only ones whose votes should count, whose candidates should govern, and who get to set the terms and conditions for who can be an American. They believe the nation should be governed by their rules alone, enforced by the candidates they alone elect. We saw abundant evidence of that mindset in videos recorded in and around the Capitol during the Wednesday insurrection. “We the people” was boldly chanted. One of my right wing contacts asserted their right to invade the Capitol because it is the people’s house, and the Trump crowd were the rightful claimants to be “the people.” He was equally certain that those protesting racial and economic injustices over the summer are not rightful claimants to be “the people.” They are the enemy of “the people.” It’s plain for him to see, and others are blind if they don’t see it too.
Trumpians are unable to see or understand that the road they’ve chosen is not to freedom, but to oligarchical authoritarianism, fascism if you will. They are unable to see or understand that they are merely fodder for the benefit of other, cagier, more resourceful people. It’s been asked often how we’ve come to this place. How could such an anti American world view gain so many adherents and so much power in such a short time? How could they have so easily hijacked the label of patriotism? I’ve tried to poke at a few answers in previous columns. The underlying truth is that they’v always been there. They’ve been relatively quiet since the end of WWII, but they were there. Surrounded by a larger, more liberal public, they knew their views were intolerable in the eyes of neighbors and national leaders. They saw the ignoble fall of Faubus, Wallace, Goldwater and the like. They chaffed at the adulation given to King. It was OK to make their voices heard among a few friends over a beer, but they didn’t have the critical mass to go public. That changed with the tea party movement, partly created by oligarchs who thought they could control it. They couldn’t. Trump gave them permission and opportunity to shake off all restraint. Like genies out of the bottle, or toothpaste out of the tube, they will not willingly go back into their containers.
That may be a good thing. We now know how fragile our democracy is, and how hard we need to work to keep it. It’s work that includes restoration of opportunities for economic well being, first benefitting those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It means teaching a more complete version of America’s story that doesn’t shy away from challenging things like slavery, conquest of Indian lands, oppression of immigrants, etc. It means doing that without demeaning the stories that celebrate our achievements and ideals.
For the Christian Church, it means boldly reclaiming the name of Christian by even more boldly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the moral precepts guiding his followers in the way of love. It means working for justice that will restore wholeness of community by naming the sin, and committing to repentance and atonement.