Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, religious conservatives in America found themselves increasingly disliked within a society more and more rejecting of their core convictions about life, sexuality and family.
By the time 2016 rolled around, these orthodox religious folks were definitely not the cool cats, anymore:
“Sexist!” “Racist!” “Heterosexist”
“Is that even a thing?”
“Yep – it’s another way you’re really, really bad.”
The animosity towards religious conservatives grew so great that many started to wonder whether they were even welcome in the U.S. anymore. “What does it mean if core convictions of my faith are now being equated with bigotry?”
Some got scared. And others got angry.
And when the 2016 U.S. Presidential election came along, they had come to feel so pressured and pushed into a corner, that they did what people do when pushed into a corner.
They did whatever they thought they needed to survive.
They elected Donald Trump. Under what felt to many like extreme circumstances, a man who embodies almost every single definition of “wickedness” in the Bible became leader of American conservatives. Even two years later, he still remarkably retains majority “support” of even religious conservatives (something taken to mean things it likely doesn’t mean, with far less attention to the nuances of that “support”).
As if people didn’t already despise religious conservatives enough, as if they didn’t already have suspicions about their motives, intents and true values…now, for many, the question was settled. That support for President Trump was proof enough of mass hypocrisy and hidden conservative bigotry that was now beyond doubt.
“Well, at least he’s better than Hillary” said continued to say.
“He’ll make America great again!” said others.
The other dystopia. This, of course, is only one version of real-life dystopia being lived out in the U.S., with another large group of Americans living another separate dystopia – a nightmare following closely on the heels of what had been the stuff of dreams. As President Obama’s presidency came to an end, progressive Americans had lived to see remarkable strides in their own vision of the ideal society – presided over by one of the most charismatic, likeable leaders in American history.
Progressive Zion was on the horizon.
What could possibly go wrong?
Seemingly out of nowhere, President Trump’s surprising victory became the ultimate spoiler – threatening many steps progressives had hailed as crucial victories. Indeed, over the last two years, virtually everything left-leaning Americans deeply value has been put into question – from advances in civil rights to the fate of the whole planet.
After spending many hours with dear progressive friends, it’s clear that horror doesn’t even begin to describe what these two years have been like for many people on left – including, and especially, those who identify as minorities, immigrants and refugees.
Rather than make America great, President Trump has continued to upend what they hold dear.
Now it’s their turn to be scared. And angry.
And unsurprisingly, they now are prepared to do what people do when feeling cornered and helpless: whatever it takes to survive…even if that presages their own version of the Faustian bargain they’ve seen desperate conservatives make.
The backlash to come. In remarks about President Trump’s desire for disruption, David Brooks recently spoke with caution about “some future democratic version of Trump who will also want to blow up the system.”
“I disagree completely,” his counterpoint commentator, Mark Shields said – insisting that wouldn’t happen (perhaps hinting that the next democratic nominee would be a contrast in civility as much as policy).
I was curious whether others on the left felt the same – and what would they do if put in a situation where a similarly aggressive, disrespectful, loose-with-truth candidate on the left promised success for issues they cherish.
I’ve been struck by the answers. One gay activist friend on the left began her answer acknowledging that “well, no politician is perfect…so I’m not looking for that” – before acknowledging that, “yes, if an imperfect candidate was able to advance the policies I care about, I’d support them” (which, of course…is exactly the kind of thing that conservatives have been saying in recent years!)
Most I speak with agree that the left will nominate someone “tough,” “bold” – and “a fighter” (sound familiar?) And from what they’ve said about their response to that likely scenario, it seems clear that notwithstanding the ethical conflict that will likely arise for some, the magnetic (tribal) pull to support their candidate will simply be too much for most people on the left to resist – just like it has been on the right.
And what will happen once the left regains power?
Those conservatives enjoying their surprising political power of late hardly want to consider this – instead, choosing to focus on what the immediate, present moment feels like.
And what is that?
“Oh, boy – has he delivered!” Since Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, there has been a wave of apologetic pieces from many prominent conservative authors that sound about the same: Yes, Trump is still repulsive in many ways – but look at what he’s done!
In a Washington Post op-ed titled, “Trump may be outside our norms. But he is succeeding for all of us,” respected conservative voice Hugh Hewitt details a long list of accomplishments – before concluding: “Don’t just return the Republicans. Increase their majorities and increase prosperity and security, judicial restraint and free enterprise even as we collectively figure out a president who may be outside our national norms for the office, but who is succeeding for us all.”
Honest question to fellow conservatives: what difference does it make to have conservative justices when half the country begins questioning the legitimacy of the institution itself?
To all those who insist the crucial ends justify the distasteful means, what really does it mean to see short-term policy gains for conservatives, when political hostility metastasize farther every day and the foundations of democracy itself seem to be shaking?
As Evan McMullin and Mindy Flinn recently recently wrote:
A partisan victory is hollow if it comes at the price of our ideals. Sadly, that’s the trade-off President Trump is asking us to make today…It’s frightening to think that we, as a country, have grown accustomed to a president who lies as easily as he speaks….And it’s all designed to Americans against one another in fear, to help him politically. But we should remember that it’s a lie. America doesn’t have to be divided, and so long as we are unified in support of each other’s basic rights and liberty, we have nothing to fear.
In the Book of Mormon’s account of two ancient American civilizations and their ultimate demise, central to the downfall of both societies is anger – anger that pushed these formerly beautiful people into a tribalized state of living (see this chapter). That public suspicion and hostility, over and over again, was stoked by individuals with clear intentions of “stirring up” the people.
All of this is happening today – and more (no social media spreading-suspicion-like-wildfire in ancient America). And, indeed, much has been written from voices across the political spectrum calling attention to the calamity we are in as a country.
And yet, do Americans see conservative leaders actively working to contain and counter any such threats to democratic norms?
Hardly. But why?
To retain power.
Is there any other reason?
With few exceptions, Republicans have mostly acquiesced and stayed quiet – largely in hopes of keeping their jobs. Even exceptions like Senator Jeff Flake admits he wouldn’t have called for an FBI investigation on Judge Kavanaugh if he had been running for office again.
“So sad” as one man would say.
Is Trump really doing lasting good for conservatives? Contrary to so much that is being said ahead of election day by voices on the right, I believe President Trump has, on the whole, done much harm for a conservative vision of democratic society – gradually corroding our democratic ideals, and effectively enraging both sides against each other.
As one national dialogue leader told me recently, “President Trump is almost custom-designed to harden us against each other…every day, there seems to be something else to stoke the anger.”
President Trump is inflicting real harm on our country.
And it’s time to check his power. (I like Ross Douthat’s idea of a split decision between Senate & House – institutionally forcing some kind of compromise efforts).
To all those religious conservatives defending the President no matter what, please watch this video of hard-core Trump supporters interacting with journalists at a rally (including the pipe-bomb sender). Does any of it give you pause?
If not, what will? How about when the democrats take back (all) power – and have their way entirely?
Will you care then?
Difficult days lie ahead. But this doesn’t have to be all bleak. In John Feffer’s 2017 essay about dystopian politics, he concludes calling upon the American people to do something truly “subversive” – namely, to “rewrite our own dystopian reality. We can change that bleak future ourselves. To do so, however, we would need to put together a better plot, introduce some more interesting and colorful characters, and, before it’s too late, write a much better ending that doesn’t just leave us with explosions, screams, and fade to black.”
Yes, let’s do that. And fast.
 Just under 12 minutes in