Christian Intellectuals for Trump

Two items came to my attention recently, both concerning Trump-supporting "intellectuals." (I'm afraid I just can't avoid the scare quotes, given the non-thinking and credulity they tend to display.) The first was Kelefa Sanneh's New Yorker profile of a number of them: a survey of the alienated academics, anonymous self-styled philosophers, white supremacists, and talk-radio barkers who have convinced themselves that Trump will make America great again. 

The essay focuses most of all on Publius Decius Mus, who wrote an infamous essay called "The Flight 93 Election," published by the Claremont Review of Books in September. The profile was subtly and even amusingly damning. Sanneh sardonically points out, for example, that the pseudonymous author "called himself Publius Decius Mus, after the Roman consul known for sacrificing himself in battle, although the author used a pseudonym precisely because he hoped not to suffer any repercussions." Unlike those whose memory he cynically deploys, Decius seems not terribly brave—invoking patriotism and courage while not even putting his own name to his opinions.

There's also this little gem about First Things senior editor Mark Bauerlein, who views Trump as a response to political correctness and who is described as seeming "perplexed" by Trump's plutocratic cabinet appointments. Sanneh observes that Bauerlein "once wrote a memorable essay about the indignity of overhearing curse words on an airplane; Trump has promised to 'bomb the shit out of ISIS.' When Bauerlein was reminded of this, he merely sighed." A rather plaintive response from an editor of a journal dedicated to bemoaning the vulgarity and declining standards of our public life, I'd say.

All this did make me wonder what Bauerlein thought of Trump's boast of sexually assaulting women on the Access Hollywood tape. Sanneh didn't ask Bauerlein directly, but did record this seemingly catch-all reply to Trump's inevitable disappointments: “There are some things in politics that you say, ‘This runs against what I believe.’ ... You have to suck it up.” Given all we know about Trump, you have to wonder just what he could do to lose Bauerlein's support, though it's probably a meaningless question—from this posture of servility, nearly anything could be rationalized. 

The overall impression, which Sanneh never quite says explicitly, is that all of these intellectuals are projecting their hopes onto Trump in ways that are sure to be frustrated. Consider this passage:

It is difficult to predict the outcome of any Presidency, but with Trump the worst-case scenarios seem particularly plausible, because he is so uninterested in the safeguards that might prevent them. His reliance on his own intuition is part of what Trumpists love about him, because it frees him from the tyranny of technocracy, but it also makes their job much more difficult. There is a profoundly asymmetrical relationship between Trump and the Trumpist intellectuals, who must formulate their doctrine without much assistance from its namesake; Trump’s political brand is based on his being the kind of guy who would never feel the need to explain himself to a bunch of scholars, no matter how supportive they were.

The task of the Trumpist intellectual is to make coherent Trump's incoherence; to find a throughline amidst the to-and-fro of his whims; to concoct an ideology for a man who is only appetite and insecurity; to defend the indefensible. In short, it can't be really done, at least not with rigor and honesty. To be sure, the rudiments of a more nationalistic conservatism can be debated and argued. But it seems folly to do so in the service of such an impulsive and corrupt man, making them inextricable from Trump's own vulgarity and wickedness—along with the bigotry he enables, the violence he has encouraged, and the incompetence he already has displayed. Trump debases and degrades everyone who works with him and for him, who joins his cause—Chris Christie provides the obvious template here. That certainly will be the fate of the intellectuals who provide this uninformed authoritarian with cover.

Speaking of being uninformed, the second item about Trumpist intellectuals worth noting is this interview at the Atlantic with First Things editor R.R. Reno, who finds himself "guardedly optimistic" as Trump takes office. (To make such a remark after paying even minimal attention to Trump's transition is amazing, to say nothing of his campaign, but let's move on.) The interview should be read in its entirety—and Emma Green, the Atlantic editor who interviewed Reno, deserves credit for being so well-prepared. You can't say the same of Reno.

Reno, you'll recall, along with Bauerlein, endorsed Trump for president, signing the "Scholars and Writers for America" declaration. As part of his pro-Trump efforts, Reno also wrote a painfully bad post at First Things this fall comparing Trump to—wait for it—the nineteenth-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli. But even that pales in comparison to what Reno offered in this interview.

After Green asked Reno about the anxieties and fears of Muslims and immigrants who could be deported, the following exchange occurred:

Reno: We’re fortunate in the United States: We have a small Muslim population, and we also have a strong tradition of civil liberties. That combination makes me optimistic that we won’t have mass deportations or internment camps. That’s not a rational fear.

 

Green: But Trump and his surrogates have suggested these things are very possible. Like when a Trump surrogate went on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show and pointed to Japanese internment as the legal precedent for a Muslim registry—a policy Trump has appeared to support. Or Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who may be considered for an administration position, carrying a memo into a meeting with Trump detailing how immigrants and refugees will be tested for their belief in Sharia law.

 

Reno: I can never get my hands around what the concrete worry is. Mass deportations? That seems so far from anything that’s possible; it strikes me as an irrational worry.

If I'm reading this correctly, after Green gave him specific, concrete examples of why Muslims in this country might be worried, Reno replies by saying he can't get his "hands around what the concrete worry is." Does invoking Japanese internment camps and supporting registries for a religious minority really not bother Reno? Why not just say, unequivocally, that the kinds of policies Green describes have no place in a decent America? It really isn't irrational to fear mass deportations from Trump, either; in the slightly different context of immigration from Mexico and Latin America, what else could ejecting 11 million undocumented people really mean? If nothing else, I thought Reno's supposedly deep commitment to religious liberty would compel him to be more attentive to the treatment of a religious minority under threat.

Strangely, given how prominently Trump's nationalism and stance on immigration feature in Reno's support, he doesn't seem to have a well-thought out position on it. Note these comments on the matter:

Green: But what’s the argument against people from Nicaragua being able to come here, escape poverty and violence, and make a better life?

 

Reno: Well, how many?

 

Green: I guess that’s up to you. What’s your ideal level of legal immigration?

 

Reno: That’s a policy argument. I’m not sure I have any dog in that fight. We are a nation that has always had immigration—no one is arguing that we should not have immigrants.

 

Green: But you think a low number of new immigrants is probably better?

 

Reno: Moderate... 

To reiterate: when it comes to key issue driving his support of Trump, Reno can't offer even the most minimal of specifics, which he dismisses as "a policy argument." Which, by the way, is a fight he claims he doesn't have a dog in. Does this make any sense at all? I can't imagine feeling so passionate about a topic yet knowing so little about it, or claiming an issue figured so importantly in my support of a candidate, then waving away any discussion of it beyond the most vague generalities.

Here's another telling exchange: 

Green: Does being a Christian affect your views on immigration? When there was a surge on the border in 2014, and particularly children fleeing violence in Central America, Christian organizations, including Catholic dioceses on the border, were often the first groups to offer them places to stay. How do you merge your viewpoints as a citizen of the United States and a Christian public thinker?

 

Reno: It’s a mistake to expect the laws of the country to reflect the imperatives of the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount. I applaud the efforts of the Church to provide for people in need, regardless of where they’re from or how they got here. But I think it’s a mistake to turn around and expect a nation to act that way. Americans are uniquely tempted to imagine that we are a church, and that we are a universal nation. This is one of the reasons why we’re such a dangerous country.

It is good, I suppose, that Reno doesn't invoke Christianity to explain his support for a man like Trump. And at a certain level, he's not entirely wrong: the United States isn't a church, and our laws won't and can't be perfect expressions of Jesus' teachings. But that's not really what Green asked him—she asked how being a Christian effects his views, a more capacious question than Reno seems willing to consider. It's just peculiar for a Christian intellectual to find the message of Jesus so politically irrelevant.

Moreover, why the sudden squeamishness about injecting Christian commitments into political debates? I suppose that, since the issues under discussion don't have anything to do with sex, hardheaded realism is in order. (As one acquaintance pointed out to me, Reno only said it was a mistake to expect the Sermon on the Mount and the New Testament to be reflected in our law—but he didn't say anything about Leviticus.) I trust this religious humility will remain in force when future controversies arise. 

There are other remarkable passages, too. A favorite is Reno's argument that the United States isn't a multicultural democracy. To her credit, Green reacts with what seems like some surprise. She asks him why our diversity of religions, diversity of ethnic backgrounds, diversity of national origins, and diversity of individual political ideologies didn't count—didn't make us a multicultural democracy. (I'd add our geographic diversity further adds to our cultural complexity.) Reno's answer is that when you meet an American abroad, you can strike up a conversation and find you have a bit in common. I remember once, sitting at a cafe in Paris, smoking a Gauloises cigarette as I people-watched, when an American couple took the table beside me. We exchanged pleasantries, asked where each other was from, discussed the restaurants we had tried. Who knew I was refuting the existence of a multicultural America?

As I've watched the debasement of these intellectuals in the service of Trumpism, I keep thinking about Irving Howe's classic essay, "This Age of Conformity," especially these words:

The most glorious vision of the intellectual life is still that which is loosely called humanist: the idea of a mind committed yet dispassionate, ready to stand alone, curious, eager, skeptical. The banner of critical independence, ragged and torn though it may be, is still the best we have. 

It is true that Howe, a Jewish socialist, was not describing the Christian intellectual in particular. But I don't think his vision of the intellectual life and the Christian life, especially when it comes to politics, are incompatible. After all, the very distinction between the City of Man and the City of God allows to us to see the former for what it is—it is not the site of our ultimate loyalties or final devotion. That should free us to never be impressed by power, to never put ourselves at the service of petty tyrants or even reality television stars.

The cruelty Donald Trump and the Republican congress are about to unleash on this country likely will be severe—millions left without health insurance, social security benefits cut, massive tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans, to say nothing of the dangers of Trump's already reckless approach to foreign affairs and the kinds of policies that target vulnerable minorities that Emma Green pointed out to Reno. It's disappointing that any intellectual would support Trump; that so-called Christian intellectuals find him worthy of leading this country especially so. At the risk of citing a figure whose teachings they don't find particularly relevant to these matters, it's worth asking: "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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