It feels as though decades have passed since Donald Trump’s reputation rose from that of an eccentric game show host on entertainment television. In truth it wasn’t all that long ago that Trump was viewed by many as nothing more than a conspiracy theorist with too much time and money. More of a political punch line than a legitimate player, Trump seemed to be making a living off of extremist claims and wild theories that no serious person believed to be true. Even as he rose to challenge Democrats in the general election, the appearance of Trump’s growing and resilient support seemed to do little to nudge liberals out of their Clinton comfort zone.
Then 2016 happened. And now the man that Obama once smeared for his seeming irrelevance is heir to the most powerful political office in the world. And what makes Trump’s victory particularly ironic is that the American left has been trying to explain their defeat with the same type of fringe conspiracy theories they once associated with Trump himself.
Today, just a few days prior to the inauguration, Democrats and left leaning independents are still engaging in the same kind of biased, unfounded conspiracy claims that Trump pioneered years ago. Many of Clinton’s supporters have tried to console themselves, for example, with the notion that FBI Director Comey is to blame for their loss. The director’s “strategically-timed” memo reminded the public of Clinton’s inability to handle classified information, and that must have swayed last minute voters away. Russian hacking is another popular theory for the left, with resident Obama today levying ultimatums and sanctions against Russian intelligence officials and diplomats. And if either of those theories fail, progressives can always default to tired complaints against the Electoral College and the rules of American politics that preclude simple majority rule.
None of those theories hold any real potential to change the verdict of the election, however, nor do they do much to actually explain why Trump won. The reason for this is that the 2016 election wasn’t all that close, and such theories cannot begin to explain the sound defeat Clinton experienced in swing states like Pennyslvannia and Ohio. The fact that progressives are still clinging to them shows that they remain ignorant of the strong pulse of the American public that Trump tapped into during the campaign. Trump’s massive movement grew from his promise to take on the status quo and corrupt establishment in Washington, D.C. He promised to “make America great again,” and to return the country to a time when the United States had a bright economic future and a system that rewarded traditional values and hard work over elitism and political cronyism.
But as much as he talked about “the good ol’ days” and America’s radiant past, Trump’s campaign was far more about America’s future. It was this aspect of his campaign that truly captured the country’s imagination and its vote. Trump’s crowning achievement was that he and his supporters seized America’s political future from the pre-written narrative that progressives liked to believe was inevitable.
The very concept of progressivism as an ideology is built on an assumed notion that society is moving unswervingly towards the future – and not just any future but a very particular one. Progressives believe that the change they welcome into the world is of an egalitarian, humanistic variety that prizes secularism and abstract reason over the supposed simplicity of tradition, family values, and religion. Progressives assume their imagined future to be undeniably and obviously superior to the status quo as well as the past. They believe the triumph of such an agenda is ultimately a forgone conclusion merely requiring the process of time.
Donald Trump, for all his faults, threw a much-needed wrench into this false narrative. Trump reminded progressives that America’s political future has not yet been conclusively written, and he articulated the very real possibility that the America of tomorrow could look very much like the one from the past. His impassioned, unorthodox, and at times messy campaign served to breathe life into America’s stiff political process. His rise shocked the educated elite, sent college progressive students running to safe spaces, and dethroned the media’s narrative of a queen walking into the White House. Instead of the teleprompted narrative they expected to receive, progressives discovered a wide open election and an unanticipated victor. Trump reminded them what it feels like to lose, and he taught them that a progressive future is just one of many possibilities for our country.
What will Trump’s presidency be like? It’s certainly hard for anyone to predict. No doubt progressives are already predetermining his failure for not ascribing to the same values they hold. The ascension of an unscripted right wringer doesn’t fit neatly into their narrative, and so elites will soon seek to explain Trump away as a short detour on the otherwise steady path to victory. But many attentive progressives might actually be pleasantly surprised by a President Trump who personally seems to share more in common with them than the traditionalists and religious right who helped Trump rise. Those conservatives may eventually get the Supreme Court nominees they were promised, but much to their frustration they could discover an entirely different and even liberal Donald Trump if Democrats regain Congress. Even more so, the establishment should prepare themselves for a volatile love-hate relationship with a president as likely to enrich them as levy an export tax without warning. With so many groups, and so many different opinions of the soon-to-be President of the United States, only one thing can be known for certain.
We are in for one wild ride.
Members of the Department of Defense know the importance of handling classified information. It is ingrained in us before we even begin our jobs through various forms of entry-level training, annual requirements, and certifications designed for program access. Many government offices designate specific personnel, called security managers, to ensure all personnel meet these requirements. Such accountability exists to teach and remind government workers of their important responsibility: the government and people of the United States have decided to trust these certain employees with sensitive information, and these workers must be responsible with that information. The secrets entrusted to them, in many cases, involve specific information about people, places, and methodologies that are classified in order to protect American lives.
In many ways, the responsibility to handle classified information responsibly is a lot like operating a vehicle. Government workers know that the information they possess has a specific use, and they understand their responsibility to “stay between the lines” and ensure the information doesn’t fall into the hands of America’s enemies. Being casual or reckless with this information would put others in danger in a manner comparable to a person operating a vehicle while intoxicated. And just as ignorance is no excuse for driving under the influence, it is inexcusable for any government worker to claim lack of awareness when it comes to handling classified information.
And yet this is exactly the excuse, combined with an attempted cover-up, that Hillary Clinton has utilized to salvage her political career. In a video released by Reason.com this fact was made succinctly and abundantly clear. The video contrasts Clinton’s words against FBI Directory Comey’s, showing the obvious disparity in their stories. Undeniably, the FBI proved that Clinton and her staff violated security requirements, lied about their egregious mistakes on record, and tried to cover up those mistakes. To the average worker this negligence seems comparable to a person driving a vehicle while intoxicated, and then trying to hide the DUI reports and fain ignorance after being caught.
The FBI and Department of Justice refused to prosecute Clinton in this case based on a “lack of criminal intent.” The reasons for Clinton’s actions, however, are abundantly clear to anyone working in a similar capacity. Her excuse of “convenience” masks an obvious inner belief that Clinton and her staff believe themselves to be above the law. Why should security requirements apply to someone at such a high level of government? Why should formalized computer-based training, routine memos, and bureaucratic accountability apply to the busy, important people running entire agencies? Why should America’s leaders of government answer to the same rules made for entry-level positions?
Such thinking no doubt led Clinton and her staff to bypass routine security protocols in order to focus more exclusively on the major tasks and decisions at hand. But in doing so, the former head of the Department of State violated the pledge she as a government worker made to uphold the United States Constitution. This oath was designed to bind her to the rule of law and ensure that Clinton understood that no amount of power gave her the authority to violate the established will of the people. As John Adams claimed, adherence to this principle of the Constitution is the only assurance we the people have to maintain a “government of laws and not of men.”
Hillary Clinton knowingly and willfully violated this sacred trust. Despite her claims to the contrary, the FBI proved that her negligence was dangerous and put Americans’ lives in danger. Like Richard Nixon and numerous morally deficient leaders before her, Clinton chose to serve her own interests instead of those of the American people as she violated necessary and important statutes. The difference is that in previous cases the American people have been outraged by such blatant inequity in government, but in Clinton’s case we are going to elect her for it.
In many ways Jesus Christ had more effect on civilization that any other person in history. Regardless of what one may believe about his alleged divinity, few would argue the notion that Jesus made a powerful and profound mark on history. The effects of his life continue to this day, as Jesus remains the main character in the most widely read book in the world. Christianity, the religion that considers him the Son of God, continues to be the largest on the globe. A positive outlook of Jesus’ life spans even this faith as the Qur’an explicitly names Jesus as a “great prophet” and “blessed messenger of God” worthy of perpetual esteem.
Despite this profound influence on history, Jesus rarely focused on accumulating power and prestige for himself. Instead of articulating ways to gain worldly fame, Jesus valued outsiders and the poor as he preached about the importance of the soul. He closely examined the inner beings of every person he interacted with, and in many cases Jesus exposed previously hidden motivations for their actions. As a result he taught his followers to value people, places, and things in a manner very different than the rest of the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ interpretation of a poor widow’s offering (Mark 12 and Luke 21). The gospels claim that Jesus was at the temple of Jerusalem when he observed an unnamed widow giving two small copper coins to the offering. Instead of dismissing this negligible offering as worthless, Jesus prized it and praised the woman’s sacrifice. He specifically contrasted this seemingly minuscule gift with the large sums of money donated by other temple-goers. Jesus claimed that the widow’s offering was worth more than theirs as he boasted that she had “put in more than all the others.”
This story exemplifies the central place that Jesus gave to inner conviction and steadfast virtue. As Christ explained, the widow exhibited faith not because of the monetary impact of her gift but because she was giving from poverty and trusting God with her livelihood. In this story Jesus showed that true virtue could be found in an unlikely person having seemingly little to no effect on the larger world.
The ethics that Jesus taught in this story were profound but not unprecedented; in fact many previous scriptures had demonstrated God’s value of intention, belief, and virtue. The Bible as a whole exudes the same focus, as the passages below make clear:
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the LORD weights the motives.” – Proverbs 16:2
“I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” – Jeremiah 17:10
“…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." – 1 Samuel 16:7
What the attentive reader finds throughout the Bible, then, is a God who desires to move past the exterior and into the very center or spirit of human beings. While He does acknowledge the importance of results, the God of the Bible makes it clear that what He values most is the intention to do what is right, both in ends as well as in means.
This notion of soul-centered ethics is particularly important because so much of our contemporary lives seem to be dominated by alternative considerations. In American politics especially, effects-centric ethics seem to reign supreme. Leading political networks preach a message that casts inner motivation, mindset, and methodology as worthless if they don’t produce the desired effect. A “wasted” action in their estimation is one that doesn’t produce result in their goal. Accordingly our modern mindset would likely be the first to argue against the widow in Matthew and Luke; our worldview would claim that her paltry contribution had a negligible impact on the temple’s budget and did little good for anyone including herself.
The problem with Christians falling into this type of thinking is that it can easily lead us to compromise our moral standards. We can become so focused on achieving a desired end state that we become willing to adopt any kinds of means to get there. We will soon find ourselves justifying decisions we would never make otherwise, as we use non-Biblical moral justifications like “the ends justify the means” or “we must choose the lesser of two evils.” Such decision-making leads us away from the virtue to which Christ calls us and into a moral calculus of vice, something the Bible specifically warns against.
The decay of morality along these lines is evident in the modern Christian left as many liberal Christians continually disregard scandal after scandal from Hillary Clinton. Despite her repeated lies, distortions of the truth, and willful manipulation of the political process, Clinton’s defenders continue to look past her disqualifications. The most common argument they offer is that her mistakes pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s equally glaring weaknesses. In many liberal Christians’ minds, offering support to a corrupt candidate is justified because of the effect it will have in preventing the Republican from winning the White House.
Unfortunately, this election season many Christian members of the right have been equally guilty. Despite observing ethical failings that would cause them to immediately decry a Democratic opponent as unqualified, many Christian leaders have twisted their ethical centers into pretzels to try and justify voting for Trump. Their argument is always the same: the effect of not voting for Trump outweighs the suspect decision of aligning American Christianity with a morally deficient candidate. Whether it’s to secure conservative Supreme Court justices or prevent another Clinton White House, the same Christian leaders who long emphasized the importance of character in politics now seem to be the quickest to dismiss it for the sake of a potential victory.
Christian ethics, we must remember, involves a wholesale rejection of these effects-centric calculations and compromised standards. As evident in the case of the widow, Jesus believed that the value of our decisions could not be judged solely by results. In the widow’s case it was her faith and commitment to do what was right, regardless of worldly value, which gave her offering its value. As Jeremiah 17:10 makes clear, God looks not only at the end state of our goals but the entire process of our decision-making in judging us. He considers the “results of the deed” only after “searching the heart,” “testing the mind,” and giving “according to [a person’s] ways.” To focus exclusively on a desired effect, and accept any means necessary in the process, is to invite vice into the equation.
In the coming weeks many God-fearing, devout Christians will be casting their votes in the US presidential election. My hope and prayer is that every one of us would examine our innermost selves and deepest convictions before we make our decision. I pray that we would each take time to consider the morality of the candidates in addition to the effects we want to achieve by electing them. Ultimately, I pray that we would each consider the example we are setting for others, and ask ourselves questions such as these:
Is it courage or fear that motivates me to choose a candidate?
Am I calculating my vote based on what others might do, or am I following my conscience regardless of the election’s results?
Am I maintaining steadfast virtue and integrity, or am I compromising my standards in the hopes of winning an election?
Am I allying myself with someone shameful in the hope of achieving something good?
In examining our souls in this way, I pray that we as Christians will rediscover the truth that the methodology of our decisions matters just as much as their effects. As our Savior teaches us, a truly Christian ethics leads us to do what is morally right no matter the cost.
According to German legend, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a rat catcher who owned a magic pipe. The Piper could play his magic pipe to seduce any creature he wanted into following him. For a large fee the Pied Piper offered his services to the town of Hamelin, which was facing a terrible rat infestation at the time. The town accepted the Piper’s offer and afterwards the Piper played his magic pipe to lead the rats to a nearby river and drown them. However, upon the Piper’s return the mayor of Hamelin believed that the Pied Piper had originally caused the infestation in order to become rich. He accused the Piper of being a conman and refused to pay him. The Pied Piper retaliated by using his magic pipe to lure away the town’s children. Depending on the version of the story, the Piper enacted revenge by either killing the town’s children or holding them for ransom.
Thanks to certain Clinton campaign emails obtained by Wikileaks, we now know that the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a metaphor for how leading Democrats viewed Donald Trump. In a leaked memo entitled “Strategy on 2016 GOPers,” assistant campaign manager Marissa Astor referenced the campaign’s strategy to “elevate” certain candidates to the Republican nomination. Rather than fearing Donald Trump or his anti-establishment message, leading Democrats actually wanted the real estate mogul and television star to win the Republican nomination. They purposefully didn’t want the media or campaign to “marginalize the more extreme candidates” and instead preferred that they “take them seriously” and elevate publicity for their campaigns. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats believed that a Pied Piper nominee would prevent Republicans from gaining the board coalition necessary to win the general election.
The formula was simple. Hillary Clinton’s campaign would stimulate Donald Trump's nomination chances with extensive media coverage and lure conservatives away from mainstream, wide-appealing beliefs. A volatile candidate like Trump would exhibit personal vices and lead the Republican Party into extremist, untenable positions that would severely limit crossover appeal. By the time Republicans realized that they had been duped into an indefensible candidate, the Pied Piper nominee would feel entitled to support and seek vengeance for any questioning of his credibility. The result would be disastrous for Republicans and give Hillary Clinton the easiest possible path to the presidency. Today, with the Republican Party currently in chaos and Clinton surging weeks before the election, the situation seems to have played out to the letter of the campaign’s design.
This leaked memo means that conservatives now have proof that Donald Trump’s campaign was subsidized and favored by the same Democratic leader that Trump aims to defeat. The memo means that Trump supporters, the very same conservatives and independents who have been most vehemently anti-Clinton, have been playing into the Democrat's gameplan from the beginning. Conservatives must understand that the Clinton campaign preferred to face off against candidates with “scandals or ethical lapses” and an anti-establishment message, and of course in Trump’s candidacy they found the best possible scenario they could imagine.
This truth offers little solace or comfort amidst an election nearing its end, but it should be broadcast to the American right as a warning for the future. It is worth noting that the reason the Clinton campaign favored Donald Trump and anti-establishment candidates was because Democrats explicitly feared the message and credibility of up-and-coming establishment candidates. The “fresh ideas” of Marco Rubio, Rand Paul’s “appeal to millennials and communities of color,” and even Jeb Bush’s “concern about average Americans” were touted as threats to a Clinton victory. Establishment or mainstream candidates like Rubio, Paul, and Bush may not have promised as much immediate change as Trump, but few if any would now dispute the notion that they would have fared far better than the failing general election performance thus far.
In the future, perhaps we conservatives should take vetted candidates more seriously before we throw our support behind a Pied Piper and play ourselves right into the hands of Democrats.
Republican candidate and former military general Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated his Democratic opponent Aldai Stevenson in 1952 in an electoral landslide. The election marked a turning point in American politics as Eisenhower's victory marked the first time in 20 years that a Republican president would be residing in the White House. After over a decade of enforcement of New Deal policies and accompanying regulation, Eisenhower won the country’s support largely on his campaign promise to roll back bureaucracy and tackle widespread corruption.
Once in office, Eisenhower worked with Senator Robert Taft to gather a group of top federal and state legislators as well as academic scholars to examine how his White House and the Republican Congress could go about cutting government programs. The group, known as The Commission on Intergovernmental Relations or Kestnbaum Commission, declared its purpose to be that of studying “the proper role of the Federal Government in relation to the States and their political subdivisions” and ending the “confusion and wasteful duplication of functions and administration” caused by the rapid establishment of numerous New Deal programs.
In their report the commission’s members began by recognizing the severity of the Great Depression and World War II. Given the circumstances faced at the time, the members recognized why the federal government took steps to respond strongly and quickly to these crises. However, the commission members argued against maintaining the government under such a nationally-centric system for the long term. Instead the commission members proposed that the Eisenhower administration reconsider the American founders’ original idea of embracing federalism, or split sovereignty between the states and national government. The importance of federalism, the members suggested, was that it served to balance government functions and allocate duties to the proper level.
The commission argued that clearly defined federalism is the best government system for “promoting individual freedom, mobilizing consent of the governed, providing a democratic training ground for citizens and officeholders, and permitting diverse laboratories of policy experimentation.” Rather than eliminating agencies entirely, the Kestnbaum Commission recommended that government be streamlined to the lowest levels possible in order to focus on empowering citizen involvement and responsiveness from the ground up. To enact such change, the commission offered the following simple rule:
“Use the level of government closest to the community for all public functions it can handle; utilize cooperative intergovernmental arrangements where appropriate…reserve National action for residual participation where State and local
governments are not fully adequate and for the residual responsibilities that only the
National government can undertake.”
According to the commission, Eisenhower would fulfill his campaign promise and experience success if he and his administration could find ways to marry the framework of the American founders to the current times. By leading the country back to a clearly defined federalism, Eisenhower's administration could retain national power for future emergencies while also empowering state and local government for routine tasks.
Eisenhower approved of the commission’s report and responded with the creation of an Advisory Board on Intergovernmental Relations to execute the proposal. Eisenhower also established an intergovernmental affairs office within the Bureau of the Budget, a Joint Federal-State Action Committee, and separate Congressional committees on intergovernmental relations to monitor progress. Over the course of Eisenhower's tenure, and due in no small part to these changes, public functions and federalism blossomed as his administration began to worked increasingly well with state and local governments. Together the various levels of American government cooperated to enact the nation’s first highway system, aid programs for elementary and secondary school construction and education, and effective public health, agriculture, and urban renewal grants to stimulate growth.
Gradually, however, Eisenhower’s initiative to streamline intergovernmental relations through federalism faded away. Under Lyndon B. Johnson the government unwound cooperative federalism as his administration vastly expanded centralized regulations and mandates. Eisenhower’s network of intergovernmental offices and committees were largely disbanded in order to make way for increasingly nationally-focused governance. The renewed preference for national mandates, moreover, was by no means limited to Democrats as it continued well into the 1970's and beyond. One need look no further than George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act to see a continued bipartisan preference for top-down mandates at work.
With a return to such national centrism, it is no wonder that Americans today feel increasingly distant and isolated from their government. The 2016 election cycle in particular has showcased increasingly vehement calls for change. On one end, Republican voters have demanded an end to career politicians and the Washington bureaucracy that seems to ignore their concerns. These demands have been met with a Republican candidate in Donald Trump who relishes his role as a Washington outsider. However, Trump’s proposed solutions thus far do not appear to be in any way similar to the type of structural change needed to redirect the system. Instead, the majority of the real estate mogul's platform tends to be focused on relaxing government regulations for businesses and cutting taxes without any alternative for restructuring government function or encouraging participatory democracy.
On the opposite spectrum, Democrats have experienced their own sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Many initially flocked towards a socialist candidate in Bernie Sanders who decried the present system as unjust and unfair to the working class. Following his defeat, many Democrats openly voiced their dismay at Hillary Clinton’s inability to offer a sound plan for government renewal. Clinton’s proposals have indeed focused primarily on cementing the additional mandates put in place by Barack Obama and avoiding the destruction of progress she claims a Trump administration would bring.
What is lost from both sides of the debate is a purposeful, comprehensive plan like Eisenhower’s to reestablish participatory democracy and redirect government efforts to the citizens’ level. Eisenhower’s administration proved that American governance can perform admirably when it sheds its preference for top-down solutions and personality-driven politics. The Kestnbaum Commission in particular focused on ensuring each layer of government worked well within its boundaries, and its final report explicitly stated a vision for government performing efficiently at the lowest level in conjunction with an involved populace.
To truly make America great again, and to be stronger together, we as Americans must first define what these terms mean. They cannot simply mean a partisan preference for an outsider or a politically-aligned leader; if that is their only significance then we will continue to experience frustration with our government's structure. "Greatness" for Americans must mean breaking loose of Washington’s obsession with national centrism in both business and politics, and "strength" must be found in government working in active collaboration with its citizens. As the Kestnbaum Commission proved, successful and responsive government can exist in the form of cooperative federalism that purposefully balances public functions and elicits citizen involvement.
In following the founders' model as well as the precedent laid by the Kestnbaum Commission, we too can make America great by ensuring that our political strength originates not simply from our government working on behalf of its citizens -- but in active collaboration with us as well.
For nearly a year, hardline Trump supporters and members of the so-called “alt right” have labored tirelessly to defend the vulgar words and precarious political positions of the reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump. They have argued that America’s current political system, which relies heavily upon the power of representative government and centralized federal power, casts aside any serious concern for the wellbeing and perspective of ordinary Americans. They have claimed that Donald Trump, admittedly an unorthodox candidate, is the leader America needs to wreak havoc upon a corrupt system that manages to find ways to excuse the incompetence and corruption of the likes of Hillary Clinton. They delight at the prospect of this ‘bull in a China shop’ wrecking havoc upon the decadent establishment of big government and big business based out of Washington, D.C.
But on Friday the bull got too wild for the taste of almost anyone. The release of Trump’s 2005 remarks on his way to a soap opera appearance, dated as they were, have now sunk the campaign to a new low. It isn’t simply that Trump’s words are “lewd,” “vulgar,” or examples of “locker-room talk” as much of the press initially reported. If that were simply the case, Trump’s surrogates might actually feel emboldened by them. Donald Trump’s bashing of political correctness has in fact been a major source of his appeal.
These remarks, however, are different in that they cross a very serious line. In the exchange Trump is heard not only boasting about infidelity and the access he has to various women. He goes further, actually defending sexual assault and his choice to ignore the importance of consent. The deplorable nature of this dialogue is most evident when Trump states, in regards to making intimate moves towards unsuspecting women, that “I don’t even wait.” In no locker room, politically un-correct rant, or parallel universe anywhere are such remarks those of a man who should be President of the United States.
As a result the anti-establishment candidacy of Donald Trump is now in danger to its very roots, and it has everything to do with the link between power and sexual assault. As any sexual assault prevention course will tell you, sexual assault begins with one person having particular strength, power, or leverage over another. The perpetrator, possessing a strong sexual desire for the victim, loses any regard for the interests and rights of others. He or she becomes consumed with desire, and then abuses the power they have in acting without consent.
This is particularly relevant and damaging to Donald Trump because his entire candidacy is built upon his presumed ability to wrestle power from the corrupt. Trump argues that he is a patriot who can be trusted with the office of the presidency since he will always keep the interests of ordinary Americans in mind. Unlike the Clintons, whom he casts as the embodiment of corruption, Trump claims a personal resiliency to the temptations of corruption. Donald Trump is different, he and his supporters say, because he is a traitor to the Washington establishment and an elixir to America’s woes.
But now we know better. Behind closed doors Donald Trump is just as much an abuser of his celebrity status as Bill Clinton. As as the video shows Trump has clearly not had the interests of the women he encounters in mind; how then can he be trusted without the entire citizenry? Trump in fact purposefully talked about trying to seduce a woman to commit infidelity against her husband, and then he bragged about the access his celebrity status gave him. This is not the character of a patriot; it is the character of a man who will use power for his own gain and satisfaction.
Consequentially, GOP leaders now face what may be the darkest days in the history of the Republican Party. They are forced to recognize that their chances of winning the 2016 presidential election with Trump are over, and that they now have even bigger issues to face. The GOP will soon decide its moral future and soul by determining exactly how much tolerance its leaders have for blatant misogyny and defense of sexual assault. Amidst such chaos, Republican leaders like Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, and Mike Pence will gradually move away from electoral calculations and more towards conviction of their own hearts. For what decent and honorable man, when considering his own family, can in good conscience conjure up any argument for what he has seen and heard besides complete and utter disgust?
As Americans we aren’t accustomed to facing a lack of options. The home of the free and the land of the brave also happens to be the oasis of choice – everywhere you look in your average American town you find a flourishing of options for any given need or want. Later today, for example, I will visit a local grocery store where I will choose between numerous options for items as simple as milk. Shall I buy chocolate or plain? 1%, 2%, Vitamin D, or whole? Almond or dairy? Like every consumer I will decide this within seconds and move on to the next item. Of course an even greater diversity presents itself to me for bigger, more complex choices like investing in cars and homes. And in our society even relational choices are expansive -- popular dating websites like Match.com open one’s options well beyond those presented otherwise.
With so much choice, it is easy to see why most Americans are struggling over their limited options for the presidency. On the left, Democrats are trying to reconcile the fact that the party of change has now nominated a lifelong establishment candidate. They try not to consider the fact that the person President Obama called “the most qualified candidate in history” is someone beholden to the same banking system that Bernie Sanders railed against. Besides not sharing their ideology, progressives know that Clinton has overlooked egregious lapses in judgment in an effort to contort her political image. Her closest advisors’ “extremely careless” mishandling of classified information smacks of hypocrisy, as we all know she wouldn’t have excused such actions for Republicans. That she knowingly lied about this, and has since faced no punishment for it, badly blunts the purist progressive surge that Obama rode into the White House.
On the right, conservatives are trying to find ways to justify the candidacy of a man who seemingly shares none of their values. The same members of the once Moral Majority who decried Bill Clinton for his infidelity are now trying to excuse similar behavior, as they claim their own candidate just happens to be “a good man with flaws.” The irony is thick with Christian leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr. now arguing in favor of an unrepentant, promiscuous strip-club owner for America’s next president. Others like Wayne Grudem have performed rhetorical somersaults to try and convince readers that voting for Donald Trump is morally defensible. In his recent piece for Townhall.com, Grudem argues that “Trump’s character is far better than what is portrayed by much current mud-slinging” even as Grudem himself calls Trump “egotistical, bombastic, and brash.” Such advocates want conservatives to believe that Trump’s ignorant, racist, and juvenile statements are correctable mistakes while his red-meat politics are instead heartfelt and trustable.
When honest with themselves, however, conservatives know a true believer when they see one; and like the progressives they know that their current nominee isn’t anywhere close. And Christian leaders, despite what they may pretend, know that Donald Trump falls far more into the mold of a self-righteous, unrepentant Pharisee than a humble, penitent follower of Christ. The problem for many people isn’t discernment, ignorance, or corruption-- it’s a lack of options.
We as Americans desperately want an option we can rally behind; we crave it because we are a society of action and we must have something to do. Without a legitimate option we aren’t sure where to turn. We are completely unfamiliar with doing nothing; to us it smacks of little more than cowardice. The Trump and Clinton campaigns know this, and it is why they are almost exclusively making their case by smearing their opponent. Both campaigns are attempting to bypass the quite obvious flaws of their candidate and convince voters that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. You must choose, they say, between horrible and worse.
Grudem’s article, for example, argues for precisely this. While opening by giving ground on Trump’s flaws, he then proceeds to try and change the issue from “Can I as a Christian voter support Donald Trump for president?” to questions far more palatable for his readers to answer. Among these are “Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?” and “Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?” Grudem goes on to delve into a particularly existentialist form of ethics (as opposed to the Christian form he claimed as his expertise), to say that making any choice besides voting for a major party amounts to “doing nothing.” He then declares a non-vote for Trump to be a “direct vote” for Clinton, and oddly misapplies scripture (Obadiah 1:11) to say that voting for anyone other than Trump is an abdication of Biblical moral responsibility.
But Grudem is wrong; a non-vote for Trump is by no means a vote for Clinton. An actual direct vote for Clinton, of course, involves walking into a voting booth and marking the box next to her name. To pretend anything else is to base our actions on predictive polling and the expected outcomes of others’ private choices. It is to delve into the indirect effectual nature of utilitarianism and take the focus away from the true basis of Christian ethics – the intentions of the heart. In so doing we fall into “ends justify the means” morality rather than doing what we know to be right and trusting God with the outcome. And it is ultimately to take a great leap down a very dark path. For where, I would ask Grudem, does such justification end? Imagine, for example, were the race solely between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Would not those same existentialist, calculating voices like Grudem’s be arguing on behalf of Clinton as the “good but flawed” life-long Methodist versus her atheist, socialist opponent?
Instead, Christians must make our choices on the basis of our conscience. In so doing we must have a threshold, or lines of integrity we will not cross no matter the outcome. What this means is that there must be a level at which our political options cease to exist and we exit or refuse to participate in the majority system. For myself, I came very close to this threshold in supporting Mitt Romney in 2012. His lack of understanding of conservatism, his personally lavish lifestyle, and his obvious flips on important issues like healthcare and abortion disturbed me greatly. Much like Grudem I made the practical decision to support him, but I resolutely told myself no further – to continue voting Republican I must have a candidate who better understood and respected our nation’s founding principles and shared my values. Mitt Romney was my threshold. The next candidate didn’t have to be perfect, but he or she needed a better record of adherence to sound principles and consistent moral discernment. I was delighted to find among the 2016 Republican primary field that all but one person met that criteria; yet, alas, it was precisely that one person who achieved victory.
And so like many voters in this election I have reached a political limit. I find that of the two most powerful nominees neither comes anywhere near having the moral integrity, commitment to principle, and devotion to public service that would qualify them for the American presidency. What am I to do? Of course, both of their campaigns and advocates are quick to dismiss the viability of a third party. They decry “writing in” a man or woman of noble character as cowardice and slam such a move as no better than not voting at all. But third parties, write-in options, and the long-established democratic practice of abstention were created for precisely the political quandary we face today.
To abstain, as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is “to hold oneself back voluntarily, especially from something regarded as improper or unhealthy.” An active abstention is that action in which a present voter takes a stand, not against one option or the other, but against the entire field. Unlike “staying home,” abstaining requires a presence and with it the devoted time and attention. It signals that the abstainer has the knowledge, presence, and capability to make a vote but is choosing not to for some larger reason. Historically, there are hundreds of examples of groups abstaining from electoral politics for the purposes of boycott or to make the point that their interests were not represented. And philosophers such as Jason Brennan have made compelling moral arguments for why an informed citizen should abstain rather than vote when a nomination process produces no viable options.
Abstaining, of course, can be an act of cowardice just as the major campaigns will claim. To abstain without reason is indeed worthless; the burden is squarely on the abstainer to articulate their moral imperative and make the purpose of their boycott clear. One must be adamant, resolute, and unequivocal in their abstention for it to have any effect. This in fact is what separates an active abstainer from the person who would hide behind the option or shirk civic responsibility by remaining idle.
Citizens who vote third party or write in names like Bernie Sanders or Marco Rubio will be called abstainers and boycotters in this election. And so we are, but cowards we are not. To make this point clear we must be resolute and explicit in our action. Active abstention signals that we respect the American system of government and its Constitutional electoral process, but we find no valid options among the leading nominees. It is a statement that we as informed American citizens believe that we deserve better candidates than what the Republican and Democratic nominations have produced. And given that neither of those party’s candidates meets the threshold of viability, our act of abstention is the only morally sound, defensible option we have left.