07 November 2019

First principles revisited

Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the U.S. presidential election that gave us Donald Trump. On that election day, Judy and I were still living in Elektrostal, Russia, and our votes had already been cast by e-mail. Around the time that we sent in our votes, back in October 2016, I wrote on this blog:
In arguing against Trump, we are not simply advocating a choice among several normal candidates. We are making a choice against authoritarianism and we should say so clearly.

I'm not advocating scare tactics. It's possible that "it can't happen here," to adopt the rose-colored title of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, given our vaunted system of checks and balances, but the very process of coping with the commands, whims, and misdeeds of a rogue president could plunge our country into constitutional crises on a weekly basis, and thereby prolong our legislative paralysis at the very point we're also destabilizing our ties with the rest of the world.
It didn't take unique prophetic insight to write this -- almost everyone I quoted in that post was saying similar things, along with many other commentators. They were simply drawing conclusions from Trump's campaign pronouncements and his uncanny hold on his core supporters.

So ... despite losing the popular vote, the authoritarian candidate emerged victorious thanks to the Electoral College. Ten weeks later came Trump's inauguration. On the eve of that day, I proposed some first principles for "shaping our discipleship" to meet the challenges of the Trump era. Here they are in all their earnest clumsiness, ready to compare with the experiences we've already had in these past months and years of a rogue presidency. What additions or improvements would you make?



January 19, 2017: I'm writing on the eve of the inauguration of the most unqualified, most thin-skinned, bullying American president in living memory, or perhaps ever. Many people I know in the evangelical community are consulting with each other on shaping our discipleship in light of this reality.

In designing a campaign, I learned from my marketing apprenticeship at Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. (who are not responsible for my politics!!) how important it is to create first principles. Here are some possible first principles: please suggest additions, deletions, improvements! (I'm slightly scared that I'm taking it all too seriously, too!)

1. Don't hide from the truth. It would be wonderful to imagine a presidential outsider finally disrupting the establishment and its conventional wisdom in favor of wildly creative ideas that could truly address the dangerous levels of income inequality in the USA, the stark challenges of global climate change, the replacement of democratic institutions by the ever-growing apparatus of the National Security State, and our imperial habits on the world stage.

In each of these areas, our actual new president shows no evidence of any such capacity -- indeed, in sector after sector of presidential stewardship, he seems to signal retreat (more moneyed people at the top), denial (who needs energy R&D and climate science?), and dangerous levels of chaotic improvisation (national security and international relations).

I see two enormous and more or less opposite dangers (please tell me how I'm wrong!!) ...
  • the era of Trump will totally enthrone the interests of those who see themselves benefiting from the marginalization of vulnerable people and elimination of the social advances associated with the sneering term "political correctness"; or
  • the era of Trump will come to an abrupt end as the top operatives of the National Security State decide that this incredibly loose cannon is too big a risk for the Empire to tolerate. 
As institutions adjust to new leadership, as different levels of government maintain their boundaries, as legislators and lawyers tug at their various ropes, and as our international allies impose their own reality checks on us, we may have better outcomes than this pessimistic summary suggests. Miracles can and do happen. But as a first principle, I want us to remain sober, clear-eyed and vigilant, drawing intelligent conclusions from the evidence.

2. Do not divide the country into pro- and anti-Trump populations. This is crucial! First of all, given the millions of potential voters who stayed home, only 27% of the eligible voting population chose him. And of that 27%, whatever their reasons for choosing Trump or rejecting his opponents, few if any were actually voting in favor of chaos, self-dealing, bankruptcy, or wholesale incompetence in high places. Part of his constituency does support an unprecedentedly authoritarian leader, but even they expect competent performance.

In any case, regardless of our various choices at (or not at) the polls, the whole country is in the same boat -- even, arguably, the super-rich, whose golden eggs might or might not survive a meltdown among the rest of us. The new president has the same job description and the same responsibilities as his predecessors, and it's up to us to hold him to these expectations on behalf of everyone. If he cannot make good on his fabulous campaign promises, it would be a terrible mistake to mock his voters and wait gloatingly for their disenchantment. Seek the good of all!

Friday PS: Part of me honestly hopes that Trump's most fanatical followers do become disenchanted. But massive disenchantment with him doesn't guarantee reconciliation with the rest of the nation. It's up to us to demand and build trustworthy institutions, recognizing that, sadly, some extremists will probably reject reconciliation on any reasonable basis.

3. Resist the degradation of civil discourse. Meryl Streep's thoughtful Golden Globe speech gave one vivid example of what that degradation looked like to her. Trump's reaction to her speech (hurling insults at Streep and her community) just proved her point. Trump's opponents, in turn, often give as good as they get, and we're off to the races ... to the bottom.

Resisting degradation of discourse requires honesty and self-examination. During the presidential campaign, Trump came in for some well-deserved criticism for his arrogant sexual vulgarity, and many of us probably assumed that socially conservative people, perhaps especially evangelical Christians, would be alienated by this behavior. But then I heard a BBC interview with a woman in the American Midwest who totally shrugged it off. Interviews like that one reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with a blue-collar worker in Richmond, Indiana, maybe twenty years ago. When he found out that I was a Quaker, he smilingly informed me that he and his circles took it for granted that Quakers (who had founded the city and who were still generally pillars of Richmond respectability) were the people in charge of making sure nobody in Richmond had any fun. He invited me to hear his favorite local band at a hotel bar. I came a bit early and heard a stand-up comedian telling a sexually explicit story that was beyond raunchy. People laughed! I didn't recognize any Quakers or Earlham College people in the audience. I was shaken by the social distance that was represented for me by that comedian's casual vulgarity and his audience's equally casual indifference.

Here's where the honesty comes in: intellectuals and self-identified sophisticated people can be equally vulgar, just not usually in the same settings. (Recent example: the chortles and puns I heard from liberal commentators discussing the raw intelligence apparently gathered by a retired British spy reporting on rumors of Trump's activities in and with Russia. Don't know what I'm referring to? Give thanks!)

Vulgarity is, among other things, a stress reliever. Different people experience different kinds of stress and have different kinds of training and upbringing to draw on in coping with it. In any case, if we are going to conduct a principled campaign of discipleship in the Trump era, we have to stay civil, whatever the provocation, refusing either to blast back in kind or to retreat into smug elitism.

4. Count the cost of protracted resistance, and organize accordingly. Some of us are Quakers in part precisely because we dislike this kind of combativeness. We will probably need to help each other learn some new skills and disciplines in the area of a dignified ferocity and persistence in engaging in needful conflict for the sake of our social values and priorities. In the division of labor that's inherent in the New Testament concept of spiritual gifts, I hope some of our pastorally-gifted Friends will stay mindful of the psychic cost of being in nearly constant conflict. How will it affect those of us who are naturally inclined to rage, or are even addicted to rage? How will it affect those of us who are totally conflict-avoidant?

If we succeed in muddling through these next years, avoiding those two worst case scenarios or other catastrophic outcomes, it might be because, in seeking to stay grounded in truth and reality, we overestimated the dangers and underestimated the nation's resilience. But it might also just be because we have been practicing love and resistance and truth-telling and prophecy and ethical evangelism and creative confrontation in season and out of season. I see no rest for the Christian community and our allies except as we care for each other and spell each other and heal each other, and extend the same care and vigilance to those who might come unexpectedly into our spheres of influence.

Another source of potential exhaustion will probably be internal conflicts in the resistance. There's no reason to panic about this; learning to conduct conflict ethically is always a useful thing, and we might as well practice among people whose concerns we share. We will probably learn that no one approach or philosophy will ever command unanimity, but that our own vigilance must include the values we see absent from the regime and which we cannot abide seeing absent from our response: not just avoiding vulgar discourse, but being stubbornly unwilling to lie, to use violence, to objectify and bear false witness, and so on. Or to put it another way, our vigilance will be fueled by our modesty and joy in our own creatureliness, as we try not to stray from the Living Water constantly offered by our Creator.

(Thank you to David Finke who read an early draft of this post and encouraged me to publish it. He bears no responsibility for its deficiencies, especially since its length has more than doubled since he read it!) 

(Original post.)



(Back to the present, November 2019.) I think and confess that, in all my bleak scenarios of this era, I underestimated the levels of routine corruption that we would encounter, even as our predictions of the more dramatic dangers of authoritarianism, abuse of power, incompetence, and bias toward wealth, all came true. And maybe in God's economy, that corruption has finally come around to bite itself -- perhaps fatally -- as the Ukraine/Giuliani/Biden scandal has finally made impeachment almost inevitable.



Update on our Hebron kittens: Today they had their first taste of (relatively) solid food. They gobbled it up, and now we anxiously wait to see whether their little systems are ready for it. They seem happy and playful and affectionate but are still gaining very little weight.



Danny Coleman on anecdotal Christianity.

A Quaker, Gretchen Castle, is the new chairperson of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions. (More coverage in The Friend.)

Paula White-Cain joins the White House staff -- but what does that mean? What does she think of Trump's opponents? (Somehow I don't recognize myself!) What does her leadership tell us about shifting relationships among Pentecostals and evangelicals?

A profile of Kennette Benedict, who has devoted most of her adult life to nuclear disarmament.

Never mind Trump ... what's happening to the universe?

Michele Berdy is expanding her Russian linguistic horizons.



Albert Collins in Dortmund, Germany.

2 comments:

kfsaylor said...

Hello, you reflect on the President as authoritarian. Would you define your meaning of the term? Also, would you give specific examples to support your reflection of him as authoritarian? Do you affirm that this outward intellectual construct guides and informs how you relate to the president?

Johan Maurer said...

By "authoritarian" I mean: tending to centralize decisionmaking authority in oneself; making executive or policy decisions alone or with personally-chosen insiders instead of relying on customary institutions and procedures; practicing abuse of power against critics by attempting to cause intentional harm to their reputations, or ordering or encouraging retribution against those critics without due process of law.

Some examples:

- abrupt and sometimes undignified dismissals of members of his administration (Yates, Bharara, Comey, Sessions, Priebus, Nielsen, Tillerson, Yovanovitch, Shulkin)
- ordering staff to expedite land acquisition and construction of border wall
- undercutting colleagues and allies in international relations, particularly with North Korea, Russia, Syria, Ukraine, NATO, EU, Canada, Germany, etc.
- setting and revising tariffs
- constant stream of intemperate comments and insults directed at perceived (and real!) opponents, including cabinet members, representatives, senators, and journalists
- promising personal intervention in response to gun violence, and then failing to either delegate or take personal responsibility
- failing to prepare diligently for high-stakes negotiations, claiming that he is a genius who can read the room and make spontaneous judgments.

I regard the word "authoritarian" as a diagnostic term (in a political science context), not an "outward intellectual construct" which "guides and informs" my relation with him. His disregard for norms and transparent process is, to me, an objective danger to democracy. If he decides one day to build a more reflective, responsive, collaborative, transparent, and modest relationship to the nation, the diagnosis will be revised.

I'm fascinated by the kinds of questions you ask me when I post about Trump. Do you think I am unfair to him, or do you think that fairness or unfairness isn't even the issue? How do you relate to public figures and to the task of holding them accountable to the public trust? Do you have a sense of vocation to teach a different way of relating to such people?