The Name of Progress

Carson Holloway, a visiting fellow with right-wing think-tank (which is, admittedly, a redundant turn of phrase) has this compelling lede in an article in the conservative Catholic journal First Things this month:

Last year, Christian conservatives had serious reservations about Donald Trump. I was among them. But many of us voted for him anyway. For most, the calculation was straightforward. The end—protecting ourselves, our children, and our country from an increasingly hostile ­progressivism—justified the means, the Trump presidency. This raises a crucial question: May Christians make such a calculation? Or did those of us who voted for Trump on those terms forfeit our Christian principles?

It will disappoint some and surprise no one that Holloway has absolutely no intention of honestly exploring the answer to either of the questions he poses here, so I have some of my own, for him and for others who think like him. Holloway spends his word count carefully masturbating about Niccolo Macchiavelli’s The Prince, a work of genuine profundity to the college freshmen and a code-word for tiresome conversation ever after.

Trump is either a “benign Machiaveillian,” in which case it was wise to vote for him, a “dark Machiavellian,” in which case it was reasonable if unpleasant to vote for him, or “a truly dark Machiavellian prince bereft of moral principles,” in which case there was no choice but to vote for him, because “[t]ruly principled statesmen… are rarely available.” Indeed,

In supporting Trump, Christians may be doing something unwise—there are no guarantees in public life. But they are doing nothing un-Christian.

But of course this is horseshit of the rankest vintage and Christians who voted for and publicly support Donald Trump ought to beg God and their fellow man for forgiveness because Trump is not even an ordinarily venal and contemptible politician but a despicably wicked person who has undertaken for his entire career to enrich himself at the ruinous expense of the vulnerable and destitute and now proposes to inflict this project on the country at large.

If his loathsome mistreatment of women does not disqualify him in the eyes of a Christian church that, admittedly, has little use in its current form for the sex that bears children, perhaps people who supposedly take into account the opinions of Jesus Christ ought to be disturbed by the behavior of someone who sold the dream of wealth to the very poor for tens of thousands of dollars, with special emphasis on black people, through infomercials, high-pressure sales tactics, and positive student evaluations obtained by duress through his unaccredited and unlicensed Trump University.

Perhaps it ought to bother people who claim to have any familiarity with the Gospels that Trump systematically refused to sell apartments in his buildings to black people, or that he took out an ad in the New York Times calling for five black children to be executed as punishment for a crime of which they had been falsely accused, or that he told his supporters to beat up protestors, and that a number of those supporters happily complied, beating Hispanic and black people at his rallies.

When someone brags, not in private, but in an interview with a national news network, that he strategically refuses to repay his creditors in order to enrich himself and calls himself “The King of Debt;” when he says that not returning public money to the IRS “makes him smart;” when the Mafia, for some unexplained reason, builds his casino with undocumented Polish workers who charge far below the going rate, work 12-hour shifts, don’t wear hard hats and eventually sue him for refusing to pay them even their meager wages; then, perhaps, we can begin to reliably infer that at the time of Jesus’ suggestion in Mark 10 that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, the image in the mind of our Lord, of someone whose girth exceeds the diameter of heaven’s gate, might have borne a passing resemblance to Holloway’s supposed champion of conservative virtue.

And, additionally, once we have considered for that quiet moment that Christ’s imprecations against progressivism are difficult to locate using Cruden’s Concordance, it might behoove us to look back on the nature of most of these offenses with a little introspection: Why doesn’t it bother us that Trump stole from black students or refused to sell condos to black house-hunters or bought ad space to demand that the state murder innocent black children? Why do we find ourselves unmoved or even uninformed about the white nationalist who assaulted a black woman at a Trump rally? Why do we roll our eyes when we hear people suggest that there might be some sort of nasty, subsonic valences in Trump’s imprecations against the inner cities and his invocation of murder statistics in Obama’s home town of Chicago and his repeatedly mislabeling Ferguson, Missouri, Brooklyn, New York and Oakland, California as “among the most dangerous [places] in the world?”

Perhaps there is a common thread there.

These are just Trump’s personal statements. His policies are, if anything, worse in their systemic immiseration of defenseless people. And yet Christians yawn at the deportation of Americans brought here by their parents as children, including the adopted children of missionaries. Kris Kobach, the politician responsible for purging black people from voter rolls, has been enfranchised with a special commission that will enable him to operate on a national level—fine. 22 million of our fellow citizens will lose health insurance if Trump’s crushing legislative agenda, such as it is, passes its first hurdle in the Senate—all right.

It’s said often in both progressive and conservative circles that the presidency is most useful in domestic terms as a figurehead; a sort of example to the world of the kind of place our country is, or ought to be. In Trump, his voters, largely wealthy and middle-class baby boomers who will be the final American generation to better themselves socially without college degrees, have found a particular kind of avatar, and not of faith in Jesus.

The most fundamental act of Christianity, clearly, is confession; Trump, for all his sins, is notable for his refusal to apologize except in the most perfunctory fashion and under the harshest duress. When he was for a moment shamed into addressing a recording of his bragging that he could grab any woman he wanted “by the pussy” because he was a celebrity, he denied, absurdly, that his clandestine admission of the kind of mistreatment a dozen women had already accused him of perpetrating constituted an admission of guilt. He said “I apologize” but he didn’t say to whom or ask anyone for forgiveness. If there is a system of belief opposite in every way to the humble practice of Christianity, Trump demonstrates it in his person and his policies.

Finally, what is this “increasingly hostile progressivism” that so frightens Holloway that all of this is somehow the lesser evil? If it is a set of policy positions worse than the above, I applaud its creators for their vivid imaginations.

If, as I more strongly suspect, it is an inchoate social force that promotes a cultural pluralism with no higher good than to live and let live, and seems to privilege the unconventional for sake of pure novelty, and the coruscations of unfamiliar desire that pleasurably accompany that shock of the new, I suspect the name it wants, the name that struggles and fails to deserve it, is America.

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