The thing about any article concerning President Donald Trump is that that article is prone to outraging many of its readers, even if written in a deliberately neutral tone. An article that fails to sing high praises to our president will be interpreted by many as disheartening to the left. And an article that fails to vehemently denounce our president is perhaps more likely to be interpreted as praise, or even to have been written by “white supremacists,” as Ross Douthat and the New York Times recently learned. There is no dearth of opinionated judgments and emotional knee-jerk the reactions about our president. That so many of our countrymen are so deeply polarized over our leader highlights how each of us can perceive radically different realities, even when we occupy the same spaces.
I did not support President Trump (nor Hillary Clinton) in the 2016 election, nor have I ruled out voting for him in 2020. There were aspects of his historic 2016 campaign that I greatly admired, and there were moments during his campaign when I cringed. There are policies of his that I rather like, and policies of his that I do not like. I will go so far as to say that in our era of political correctness run amok, when so many of us (especially us Millennials) suffer from a conditioned oversensitivity to hurt feelings, even to the point where mild jokes are often considered grievous infractions, that I firmly believe a healthy dose of desensitization to our president’s “outrageous” remarks is much needed and quite refreshing. I do not expect him, nor any president for that matter, to be completely perfect in character. And I am in no position to pass personal judgments about him, nor anyone else; there is plenty of that already.
What concerns me far more than the character of any of our leaders is the consciousness of my fellow Americans, which is of much greater consequence. For as much open discussion as there has been in recent years about overt bigotry, which is very easy to spot, there has been little to no open discussion about subtle entrainment in dangerous ideas. I am highly alarmed by the notion, shared by many, that a president is supposed to be a surrogate savior.
It was a Sunday in the summer of 2008. I was walking northward, along Broadway, on my way to a church service. A crowd gathered at a certain spot, suddenly caught my attention. So I stopped to see what was going on. This crowd had gathered around a man, lying unconscious and face down. The lenses of his glasses were shattered on the pavement. Police officers were crouched next to him.
Another man, broad-shouldered and wearing a tank-top shirt, stood nearby. His hands were in cuffs, and he was flanked on each side by police officers. A woman, whom I could only assume was the handcuffed man’s girlfriend or wife, pleaded with the officers, explaining that the unconscious man had “been disrespectful.”
“Oh, so that makes this okay?” one of the police officers sarcastically asked the woman.
“No, but…” and the woman went on to explain in circles that the unconscious man had been disrespectful, to no avail.
Paramedics were at the scene within minutes. The man lying face down had regained consciousness and soon stood back up. Blood streamed down from his temple to his hip. Several in the crowd gasped at the grisly sight of him.
A woman, who looked to be around sixty years old, was standing next to me. Her mouth dropped open at the pitiful sight of the battered man. She began to speak aloud. And then she said something I shall never forget. “This will stop happening when Barack Obama is the president.”
My thoughts turned to the iconic “hope” poster of Senator Obama and all of that ambiguous talk about “change” that made crowds roar. I realized that this woman, who otherwise appeared to be perfectly sane, was one of many millions who had bought into the limelight.
It was the night of November 8, 2016. I had gotten out of work, at Times Square, at a very late hour. A massive crowd had filled Times Square to watch the election coverage on the colossal television screens that hovered over the sidewalks like guardian angels. Some hours earlier, this crowd appeared to be quite enthused. But when I poured out onto the street, I heard something most uncharacteristic of Times Square: silence. Someone could hear a pin drop in this crowd.
I could only assume that most of those gathered had expected an electoral victory for Hillary Clinton. The press and media had, after all, predicted that she would handily win, even though she had been one of the most loathed American political figures for over two decades. But what was “supposed to” happen and the actual turn of events unfolding in front of this shocked crowd were not synchronized. The media had gotten it so wrong.
I’ve gotta see the end of this, I thought to myself. So I hopped onto the subway, and soon enough I was back in Astoria, settled on a bar stool, that I could watch those last few states on the map displayed on the television screen turn red.
I, for one, thought the situation was hilarious, far too amusing to be upsetting. A billionaire, playboy, and reality-television star who had never previously held public office, and had a penchant for making some rather buffoonish remarks, went on to defeat the more seasoned and polished contenders in the presidential race. The mainstream media, eager to run news stories about each and every “outrageous” remark that would offend the ears of the politically correct, had given a presumably unqualified candidate so much coverage that it unwittingly made his electoral victory very plausible, even though his campaign chest was roughly half that of his opponent’s. Increasingly aggressive advocates of a politically correct culture, eager to label even very mild remarks as “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobic,” failed to grasp that amid all of their recent gains, the pendulum of public opinion had swung the other way, that millions had grown weary of all the blaming and complaining, that a candidate who routinely flaunted a disregard for their protocols had suddenly gained so much appeal. There was no satire that accurately anticipated this actual turn of events!
But those who were around me in the bar clearly did not see the humor. One woman was wailing aloud, and lucky for me, her way of mourning was to buy shots for everyone in the bar. Another man had his face buried in his hands. Most of the others stared at the television screen, several of them with mouths dropped open, as though the world was ending, as though they had forgotten that there will be another election in four years.
Over the course of the next week, I went on to read reports of “cry-ins” hosted at college campuses throughout the country, and even a candlelight vigil at my own alma mater. I do wonder how many of my fellow Millenials, as pathetic as we can sometimes be, had asked themselves: who will save us now?
The belief that government, or human institutions, should act as a surrogate savior is a very ancient idea. From the Tower of Babel to divers efforts to build a “right state” in ancient Israel, this idea, and the destined failure of this idea has been chronicled many times throughout the Old Testament. And history has produced no scarcity of kings and emperors who were assigned a role of savior, or even outright deified, whose empires inevitably crumbled. Kings are human, with weaknesses just like the rest of us. That we cannot save ourselves is one of the key insights from the Old Testament.
The New Testament does much to counter this ancient belief, both by implication and by directly confronting it. Acts 15 chronicles a hot debate within the early church concerning the role of obedience to traditional laws and customs; with the implications being more far-reaching than just circumcision and kosher. Saint Peter would eventually side with Saint Paul in this debate. The many words about the flesh and the spirit running throughout Saint Paul’s epistles strongly imply that this old idea is due for a correction. Our Lord both strongly stated and strongly implied that we ought to look elsewhere for salvation when he spoke of the kingdom of God, engaged in arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, or taught that “ye cannot serve both God and mammon.” And nowhere in the Gospels is the hold of this idea clearer than when certain chief priests of the Sanhedrin, urging Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to have Our Lord crucified, declared that “we have no king but Caesar!” Many centuries of Christian insight about the Spirit, having followed the implications, have done much to develop the idea of the individual’s primacy, that it is a state-of-being, not a state, that saves us.
The debate over whether a state or a state-of-being will usher the kingdom of God was not put to an end in the 1st Century. The idea of the state as surrogate savior has shown great strength in relatively recent history, with catastrophic results in some very infamous instances. The French Revolution, the ascent of the Nazis, and the Communist revolutions, all very godless movements, were fueled by that great lie that gives appeal to utopian ideologies: a promise that the state will set all things right, beginning right now.
That the world is transformed one person at a time is a frustrating truth, a calling for all the faithful to exercise patience. Even after two millennia, our temporal world remains in the agonizingly slow movement toward the kingdom of God. And in our impatience, it is very tempting to revert to old idolatries. But the idea that the state can fulfill a savior role does not reflect faith in God. It often does reflect a profound lack of faith in the power of God. No government, no matter how much influence we give to it via our consent, can become powerful enough to save something as grand as a soul. No king can ever replace Christ.
Our own nation has still not had a Robespierre, a Hitler, a Lenin, or a Mao to suddenly swoop in and “save” us all. It has been by piecemeal that the idea of government as surrogate savior has steadily gained traction in our country, from the New Deal (which Professor Thomas Sowell convincingly argues slowed the recovery from the Great Depression) to the Great Society to recent efforts under the Obama Administration. In tandem, and also by piecemeal over the course of decades, we have likewise accepted the tenets of Socialism and its Post-Modern heir. A noble effort by the Reagan Administration to reverse this course may have been a mere hiccup. Little by little, we have accepted not only big but also very intrusive, government.
Government is necessary and has legitimate functions. But when we expect the government to solve our personal problems for us, or to make everyone “speak and act right,” its reach goes far beyond those legitimate functions. The power to influence our personal decisions has been, more and more, concentrated into the hands of the federal government, oftentimes undermining the domains of state and local governments (in blatant disregard of the Tenth Amendment) and oftentimes undermining personal discretion (sometimes even in blatant disregard of the First Amendment). I do wonder whether any correlation between this trend and a general decrease in religious faith is more than just happenstance, whether government as a surrogate savior is a default.
We have, in recent years, witnessed a decision once at the discretion of state governments be wiped away by the Supreme Court in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, in a great triumph for political correctness and avant-garde values. State and local government have likewise been undermined by Common Core, an intrusive effort to improve education that has resulted in the dumbing down of education. We have witnessed the passing of Obamacare, government legislation to ameliorate the unaffordability of modern healthcare by forcing citizens to buy healthcare that they could not, or could barely, afford. It should be noted that regulatory legislation passed by our government has been driving up the cost of healthcare for decades. We have witnessed a tremendous effort by the Obama Administration to compel Catholic hospitals to provide abortion services, a disregard of the First Amendment. And the list goes on. We are the ones that gave a mandate!
We, the public, are fed reports about an “economic crisis,” or a “social catastrophe,” during every election cycle, by both parties. Sensational reports about looming poverty can make it easy for many of us to forget that for Americans whose income falls below the IRS-defined poverty-line, overeating is a far more common problem than malnourishment. Sensational reports about a “police state” can make it easy to forget that any one of us can openly criticize our government without any legal repercussions whatsoever, which puts our nation far ahead of most (we have not yet followed a dangerous path to catastrophe). It can be easy to give in to the sensationalism, to get frightened, to be tempted to ask: who will save us?
There certainly have been rare instances, such as the Civil War or World War II, in which government taking a more assertive role was a temporary necessity. But fear can make us forget that such circumstances are an exception, not a standard. Our fear gives the government its mandates. This is despite the fact that in practically any venture, government activity (managed by bureaucrats) is thoroughly outperformed by the private sector (managed by people who actually have to know what they are doing). This is despite the fact that it is now very well established that a robust economy is built from the bottom-up by individuals making their own decisions, not top-down by planners. This is despite the fact that government legislation, and government intervention in the economy, consistently demonstrates counterproductive results, no matter how well-meaning. The government has the destructive potential, but very limited constructive capability.
There is another truth that may be far more frightening for many of us: that we are far better off working out a lot of our individual problems individually. Things beyond our control sometimes happen, but the vast majority of jobs can easily be held onto by showing up on time, keeping complaints to a minimum, and performing up to task (responsibility is very healthy for the economy). The overwhelming majority of us, across all group identities, will avoid going to prison simply by refraining from stealing, drug-dealing, pummeling, rape, and murder. The cost of education does keep rising, but there are no barriers to becoming a little smarter by reading a book. Such a list can go on. Using government as a crutch easily turns into a deflection of personal responsibility, and eventually into an unhealthy dependence.
Beyond that, our lives are not made or broken by whom we read about in the news, but by those whom we touch. Can the laughter of a child be made any more or less sweet by a president? Is it any more or less fun to share a beer with an old friend because of the president? Is it any more or less satisfying to tell someone or hear from someone “I love you” because of the president? I do not envy a person who would answer “yes” to any of these questions.
We are today a year into Trump’s Presidency, and I have some good news for those who predicted imminent collapse: our country is still intact.
There has been no shortage of controversies over the course of President Trump’s first year in office. I highly doubt that we will ever again come across the word “shithole” so many times in the news. It will be a long while before we encounter a scandal so colorfully named as “Pussygate.” Allegations of collusion with the Russian government are proving to be unsubstantial, that I wonder if both the media and the Democrat Party are undermining their own credibility by shouting “wolf.” The allegations about tax fraud came to an anti-climactic ending. Many of our countrymen have been acting as though it is a surprise to learn that Donald Trump has a history of philandering. FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal has left many questions. The abrupt end to the White House careers of Reince Priebus, Tom Price, Steve Bannon, and Sean Spicer, all for various reasons, have left the impression upon many that the Cabinet is a revolving-door (wait, maybe I should polish my resume).
Perhaps President Trump is still figuring out how the nature of his job in the Oval Office is different from his previous job in the corner office. Or perhaps he is a much more effective leader than many would realize, doing his job under everyone’s nose while the various news outlets, in a herd mentality, keep busy by rushing to report about that next controversy. So much of what passes for “news” belongs in a gossip column. Either way, millions of Americans are interpreting that the current White House is in a rather chaotic state. Many Americans see a president who acts like a clown, or a jackass, who does not even attempt to carry himself with dignity as his predecessor did. That might just be a very healthy thing for millions of us. It is difficult to take the government so seriously as to be a savior when what we see is a farce.
It is my hope that many of my fellow citizens who today are upset about President Trump will tomorrow make a connection: that our leaders are, and in actuality always have been, just as absurd as any of us, but that our lives carry on. We did not elect a savior in 2008, nor a devil in 2016, nor vice versa. And regardless of who the president is, all of us have our own business to attend to; it is our own task to order our own lives, not his. An electoral victory by Hillary Clinton, or a standard Republican, would have been unlikely to dispel any notion that we ought to take the person of the president so seriously. And if a good number of us make this connection, President Trump will have done our nation a great service, even if unwittingly, by having humanized the presidency. This election result will have been the great triage.
Humanizing the office that so many are tempted to deify is, at the bottom of it, an unspoken reason why many people loathe President Trump. Whether or not any one of us is conventionally religious, this boils down to religion. Instead of a Superman, we have a man who is flawed like any of us; twice divorced, oftentimes brash, and reckless with his social media. We have a president who reflects how we ourselves are enamored by wealth and celebrity status. He reminds us of ourselves, far too much for comfort, so he must be hated.
Perhaps only a leader with a defective personality can truly dispel some of the defective notions that we would hold dear.
The latest approval rating polls do not appear too favorable for President Trump. Several media reports have already predicted massive gains for the Democrats during the midterm elections. But the media has been wrong before. Our president’s rabid supporters and detractors, which we see extremes of among the Alt-Right and Social Justice Warriors, appear to be entrenching themselves in polarization, wholly unaware as to how each is reinforcing the position of the other, much less willing to accept responsibility for doing so. There is a fine chance that we shall continue to be barraged by reports of failure, chaos, and polarization for as long as President Trump is in office, and for as long as his successor, and his successor, and so on, are in office. None of us has a full picture.
It is tempting to call a sitting president the “greatest” or the “worst” ever. But poll ratings rely on what is fashionable, at least fashionable according to news media. The shortcoming of historical rankings is that there exist too many intangibles that cannot be objectively measured. We can very easily measure accomplishments if we limit the scope to legislation passed or wars won. But we hardly possess the ability to measure the subjective, of how any president affects or impacts our consciousness for better or worse. I wonder just how any such rankings would be rearranged if we could. We cannot yet see the course of human events as God does.
It is said that during the 1980’s, Tom Zimmer, an American hermit in Loreto, Italy, predicted to pilgrims that Donald Trump will be elected president and that he will bring his country back to God. Zimmer passed on in 2013, before the surprise election of our president. I am of the suspicion that if President Trump is indeed destined to bring our country back to God, it will be in a manner that none of us would have predicted; that is, not by being pious, but by being himself, and rescuing millions from false hope in an idol by not being a savior. If such is the case, I must say that I, and countless others, have underestimated God’s sense of humor. It is we who have taken these matters too seriously.