If He Wins Again

I’m not going to vote for him. But I think he’s going to win again – President Donald Trump.

This possibility that makes some gleeful, makes many others shudder in fear.  Yet 57% of Americans think it might just happen, even if they’re not personally supporting him.

Though I (genuinely) understand some of the rationale of his supporters, I share even more of the concerns of his critics (but not all of them). Fears of dictatorship on the horizon (held by 80% of democrats) seem to me hugely overstated – and worries that COVID-19 will spiral out of control equally so, in my mind.

The fear that seems most realistic is what another four years would mean to our social contract as Americans – aka, that whole “United” part of our name.

My conservative community profoundly underestimates the fear, the rage, and the despair on the left right now (partly why I’ve argued the threat of post-election violence with a loss on the left seems much greater than on the right).

In that piece, while highlighting responsibility on both sides, I argue that for the portion of America barely hanging on (by their fingernails) after four years of President Trump, his reelection would simply be psychologically too much for so many.  It would push them over the edge – and potentially all of us into the abyss of all-out civil conflict.

I’m not the only one saying this – or believing it.  Because the math is fairly evident:  Trust is dangerously low and anger is historically high. And re-empowering this kind of an individual – after all he’s said, and all the repeated provocation he has employed – would be like gasoline on a smoldering fire.

Some conservatives have pushed back that this sounds like “appeasement” – “so, you say we should back down for fear of the angry left”?

Not at all.

It’s about choosing a leader that might actually help bring Americans back to a place of trust. Just imagine, for a moment – regardless of who you voted for – what a Biden inaugural speech would sound like?

No matter what you think of him, you know his words would be an appeal to America’s better angels – an expression of confidence in our ability to do this together. Rather than primarily reflecting (or endorsing) a “radical left agenda,” I see Joe Biden as a symbol and embodiment of our capacity as Americans to still work together.

By contrast, if President Trump is re-elected tomorrow (or this week), I’m not the only one who believes virtually all major population centers will witness painful protests – even beyond the most turbulent ones of this summer. Whatever cooling off happens in the winter months would likely escalate even further this summer with more organization behind them. That’s when I could imagine it getting really ugly.

And if and when that happened, it would be easy for many conservatives to blame the left – almost entirely – for the chaos and violence.

But that simply wouldn’t be honest.

As one dialogue leader told me a year ago, “President Trump is almost custom designed to harden us – day by day.”  Over these years he has, more than any other single human being, hollowed out our public trust…poking opponents, critics, and enemies in the eye over (and over) and over.

Yet, he’s still competitive!  Why could he win?  Not because this country is full of “secret racists” deeply motivated by “white superiority.”  I don’t believe that at all – and have written in the past in defense of the thoughtfulness of my friends and neighbors who voted for the president. I would do the same today, even though I disagree even more deeply with them now.

I would argue the President is currently competitive because of three big (and good) reasons – each of which I am sympathetic to, and which touches on a threat many Americans like me feel (but which hardly show up in the mainstream media):

  • First of all, I believe more people (than anyone realizes) are not on board with the Faucian public health philosophy and the accompanying never-ending fear of COVID promoted in most media outlets. However moralistic all the rhetoric about keeping everyone safe feels, the cost-benefit ratio of future lock-downs and never-ending fear of transmission just doesn’t add up for many of us. Hearing someone – even someone as provocative as President Trump – pushing back on that has been a breath of fresh air for more people than you might realize (I agree with this one, although that’s not enough for me to vote for him).
  • Secondly, as awful as the violence against George Floyd and others has clearly been, more people (than anticipated) are even more spooked by the remarkable levels of chaos and violence that accompanied Black Lives Matters protests this summer. Although both candidates have spoken out against the violence, it’s not hard to come away feeling like President Trump will stand up against that more – and that a President Biden would somehow embolden them (I disagree with this one personally – resonating with Brett Stephens commentary recently in the New York Times, when he said, “For anyone concerned about the increasing radicalism on the left, the best way to contain or defuse it is to have Biden in the White House. If, God forbid and heaven forfend, Trump wins, moderates will lose credibility in the Democratic Party while Trump spends the next four years lighting culture wars like an arsonist in a hayfield.”).
  • Lastly, President Trump – for all his rhetoric and insults – plays the part pretty well of advancing Christian interests – in Israel, on the Supreme Court, etc. For a people who felt terrified about having their (“bigoted”) backs against the wall under Obama, it’s been experienced for many like a welcome reprieve from the subtle, but powerful pressing of our community into a cultural corner.

Okay, so given all that, why not vote him in again?

Because of what it would mean to our institutions as a country.

The one Trump effect we haven’t talked about enough. As we wrote about at Public Square magazine last month, recent polling shows dramatic drops in the amount of trust Americans are giving each other and the institutions of a functioning society around us.

That should matter way, way more than it does to all of us – but perhaps especially to conservatives that place a high value on respect for authority as a crucial social value. But it really doesn’t – and not because, I believe, we don’t care.

Instead, it’s because our institutional framework (not to be confused with “government” – better reflected in the “constitutional order” of America) can be almost invisible to us.  I was sharing this with someone dear to me recently who is a staunch Trump supporter, and she responded, “what institutions?  What are you talking about?”  

Exactly my point. We need to pay more attention to this institutional framework in our country – and how this President has contributed (among other influences) to measurable changes in how the American people feel, trust and relate to all of this.

Speaking of these “quintessentially American institutions” like Congress, courts, FBI, and the academy itself, national dialogue leader Liz Joyner told me in a recent interview that each represents a site not only for checks and balances but also “ongoing disagreement that yields wisdom and truth”—at least when these systems are “working correctly.” From the peer review process to the legal system, the “whole process is set up to help us identify blind spots—and hone in on what is real and true.”

Although these institutions are full of imperfect human beings, they help us do the right thing. After cautioning about how the ideals that protect these systems are “under constant assault,” Liz concluded, “I think that the institutions that have preserved our country over 250 years are extremely critical.  Without them, the danger that exists for all of us is immeasurable.  If they’re gone, God help us.”

But hasn’t President Trump strengthened some institutions, like the courts?

Amy Coney Barret is impressive, no doubt.  And I’m among those who believe the country is safer with her on the bench.

Yet to my point, I would ask all those who point to more conservatives on federal and supreme courts as an unquestionable win, “What does it mean if half the country no longer trusts the institution of the Supreme Court to mediate our disputes in the future?”

This is what I fear my conservative friends keep missing – especially those who act as if President Trump is a great defender of God, covenants and righteousness in America.  Can you see how some of us believe he is not “saving” our institutions, but rather, gradually lighting them on fire (along with the public trust they depend upon)?

Tribal Christianity and Utilitarian/Machiavellian Ethics.  So many go on to argue that, well, results matter more than how you achieve them. Please realize it was Machiavelli who first argued this – when he made an equally eloquent case for why the “ends justify the means.”

But they don’t!  I would suggest that’s not even a Christian thing to believe.  And to earn the label of “utilitarian” and “Machiavellian” in our approach to political power as Christians is (or should be) a frightening outcome.

From the sacred canon of my own faith comes so many warnings about this mindset. For instance, the Lord reminds the Saints of their calling, “To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” Then he cautions, “then received ye spirits which ye could not understand, and received them to be of God; and in this are ye justified?”

Then listen to this, “he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God.”

In other words, you can be preaching the exactly message God wants you to share, but if you do it without the Spirit of the Lord, the divine hand isn’t in it!

So then, what if you advance policy agendas in line with God’s will, but you do it with crassness, harshness – and absent of any degree of charity for opponents? Can that really said to be “of God”?

The Lord concludes, “That which doth not edify is not of God and is darkness.”  It was this same Savior who told the Nephites, “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.”

Not only has President Trump not edified, he has picked fights and spiraled contention in every direction. As a result, whatever moral authority religious folks had fought for decades to preserve (in order to uphold a message to an America increasingly lost in indulgence) seems to have been squandered.

‘After all,’ many secular Americans now say, ‘look who those people are voting for (again)!’ For better or worse – and regardless of how many Christians feel uneasy and deeply unsettled about President Trump, much of America now sees this man as the public face and living embodiment of the hopes and goals of religious conservatives in the world.

Is there any conceivable way that can be a good thing for us or the work of God in the long-term?  

Let me give a personal example.  I’m among those who have worked hard in the last decade to try and promote space for open dialogue in the world – including on college campuses. When President Trump made a public statement (and signed an executive order) in support of ideological diversity on campus, many conservatives cheered him as a defender of truth.

The reality however is so different to those on the ground actually doing the work.  By attempting to “uphold” the ideals of freedom of speech on campus, President Trump has set back our work dramatically– by branding the very American idea of having open dialogue as part of a “conservative” agenda (the most poisonous perception we’ve had to battle on campus, in particular, for years).

One more question. My final questions to fellow orthodox believers:  Will we look back one day in the distant future, as religious conservatives and say, “I’m so glad that President Trump there to defend us – and to advance good causes during that time?”

If you sincerely believe the answer is yes, you should vote for him.  I cannot imagine the answer a future sacred history provides as being anything but a resounding no.  In good conscience, I simply cannot vote for a man who would – by so many measures – expedite our path to civil war.

All that being said, I’ve honestly grappled to the very end in who to vote for – right to the very end.  I still appreciate sincerely President Trump’s push-back on the frightening hold one single Pharma-friendly perspective about health and healing has in America today.  And after hearing directly this week from Don Blakenship, the Constitution Party candidate for president, I find his argument very persuasive.

In Biden I see not a perfect man, but a symbol of civility, bipartisanship, decency – and someone who loves his family. Listening to how he made sure to take the train home for family dinner as a senator – and hearing the affection his sons speak of him, and how he loves his wife…these are the signs of a leader I can trust.  (I can’t help but hear echoes of the Book of Mormon message to Nephites about God’s surprising favor to the Lamanites because they still loved their wives and children, despite not having the ‘correct’ policies at the time).

When I listen to him, I feel like I’m listening to a general authority in our faith community (a little dry, at times, but with the right heart and spirit).

That doesn’t mean I agree with his policies (on almost all of them, I don’t).  But when the institutions on which our nation are built are threatened with dissolution, this is no longer about policy anymore.  The president’s most recent string of commentary actively corroding trust in the election itself (which I and many others consider a sacred ritual, even our “national sacrament”) should have been, I believe, the last straw for many religious conservatives. And yet when questioned about it, I find most of them telling me, “well, you know the election may not be fair” (in other words, the president’s words are powerful enough that they ultimately believe what he’s said!)

Latter-day Saint politician Jeff Flake’s explanations for endorsing and voting for Biden reflect my own.

My wife doesn’t share my feelings, and I love her all the same. I also asked Monique to watch this brief biographic video before writing him off as “just another evil politician” (I don’t believe that – nor do I believe all politicians are inevitably ‘tools’). If you’re still trying to consider yourself, check it out.

And vote!

In sum, I can understand why people go for the President – and why others pull for Biden.  I’ve (still) felt pulled in both directions.

Yet if Trump is elected, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see civil war is coming to America. There’s really no question about that in my mind (and that of fellow conservatives).

The difference between us is that they speak of civil war as solely and entirely arising from the aggressive elements on the left.  I disagree.

If that happens (God forbid), please listen conservative friends:  that won’t just be the fault of the political left alone. It will also be something I believe historians will see clearly as having been ushered in (by at least some real degree) by the political choices of conservatives today.

That’s no excuse for violence – and certainly no justification for it.

But it is what I believe will be historically true.

And it’s why I cannot vote for the President.

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