Baker Academic

Friday, November 11, 2016

Post-Trump Political Consciousness

I have been vocal about my opposition to Mr. (now President Elect) Trump. There are lists and lists of reasons why I believe he is unfit to be president. Some of these are directly related to the teachings of Jesus. I am committed to try to love my neighbor and even my enemies wherever it is possible. But my prime motivation for opposing Trump isn't directly related to Jesus. It is because I've spent the last two years studying the actions and inactions of Christians during the rise of Hitler.

Mr. Trump's rise to power is not similar to Hitler's rise to power in every respect. But the two have enough in common that I cannot deny the parallels. I realize that I break one of my own rules in saying so. I usually try to avoid bringing the Shoah or Hitler into any discussion that isn't primarily about the Shoah or Hitler. Still, if I am honest, comparisons to Hitler ran through my head as I canvassed and voted for Secretary Clinton last week.

I don't suppose that the following will be compelling to Trump supporters; I'm just explaining how and why I voted. My political consciousness connects historical moments, draws analogies, and see particular personality types. I think that one of my Jewish friends said it best when he told me, "It may not be appropriate to say that Trump is Hitler. But I am going to do my best to act like a righteous gentile living in 1933 Berlin."

Now let me point out a few key similarities and differences between 2015-16 America and 1930s Germany. Both settings manifest a perceived cultural crisis. Germany's crisis was exacerbated by the failure of the Weimar Republic and the great economic depression of the post-WWI period. People were hungry, felt trapped, and looked for a particular source of the problem and blamed a people who represented the "problem." Centuries of hatred toward Jewish people and (caricatures of) Jewish ideas were easily exploitable. Christians played a large part in this collective hatred. Nazi ideology was not Christian. But there was a concerted effort to manipulate the populace using theologically motivated hatred. In other words, the Nazis trafficked in the currency of hate minted by centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Through various (sometime innovative) media strategies, National Socialism fanned a very old prejudice.

Apart from media manipulation, xenophobia, and Christian culpability, today's America and 1930's Germany are worlds apart. America might be experiencing economic stagnation, but our "crisis" looks altogether different than 1930s Germany. Another difference: Mr. Trump will not have the power to enact the domestic policies he has promised (at least not right away). But he will have all of the power afforded to the Commander-in-Chief when it comes to foreign policy. Hitler did not have nuclear capabilities, but President Trump will. So the parallels with Trump and Hitler are limited because of context.

What then is the American "crisis" that made a Trump candidacy viable? First, there is a key racial element that is unseen (I hope) by most Trump supporters. This article is very revealing and well worth a read if you are curious about the massive upturn in white voters from rural America. I would also recommend this book to understand how and why evangelicals contribute to racial fault lines in America. And this book if you want to understand why significant segments of the white populace fear a loss of culture.

Second, we have witnessed a steady but disturbing decline in political consciousness. I'm not certain about millennials and I don't want to put baby boomers on a pedestal, but us GenX folks have been egregiously uninvolved. I agree entirely with this assessment by Michael Rosenblum:
Donald Trump is going to be elected president. The American people voted for him a long time ago. They voted for him when The History Channel went from showing documentaries about the Second World War to “Pawn Stars” and “Swamp People.” They voted for him when The Discovery Channel went from showing “Lost Treasures of the Yangtze Valley” to “Naked and Afraid.” They voted for him when The Learning Channel moved from something you could learn from to “My 600-lb Life.” They voted for him when CBS went from airing “Harvest of Shame” to airing “Big Brother.” These networks didn’t make these programming changes by accident. They were responding to what the American people actually wanted. And what they wanted was “Naked and Afraid” and “Duck Dynasty.”
While the Tea Party and white nationalists were organizing, creating and disseminating false narratives, and rallying against any policy that Obama was for, most of America was sedating itself with heavy doses of American Idol and fantasy football. Don't underestimate the fact that Trump's road to the Whitehouse was paved through reality TV. I really cannot imagine a more different context between ours and 1930s Germany. Our national crisis wasn't widespread hunger, it was the widespread starvation of our collective political consciousness. Out of 231,556,622 eligible voters 46.9% didn't vote.

I have a colleague who escaped North Korea as a refugee as a child. He's seen a few things in his seven decades. He's seen dictators rise to power. He's seen seemingly good people rise to power and then become dictators. Yesterday he told me that "America is finally awake."

So now that we've stirred a bit from our Reality TV stupor, what sort of political consciousness will we embrace? I will suggest that we begin with a very old definition of politics.

In his Politics, Aristotle declares that the human, by nature, is a political animal (Pol. 1253a). By this he meant that the polis ("city," or "city-state") represents the most natural environment for the human being. People of a polis orbit it's cultural center by way of custom, law, commerce, etc. Moreover, he believed that nature (which does nothing in vain) targets this goal for the human. A network of villages—with a shared commerce and central governing body—is the natural outcome of language. Language leads to partnership, which leads to households, which leads to villages, which leads to larger networks. The opposite of this is what Homer called the “clanless, lawless, and hearthless man” who is essentially anti-social and a “lover of war” (Aristotle quotes Homer on this point). Aristotle is describing human nature by analyzing binary opposites: either one is social (and thus living according to nature) or anti-social (and thus living contrary to nature). I'm not generally keen on binary opposites. But let's start somewhere, shall we?

We need each other. Even more, according to Aristotle, we are meant to live in relationship with each other. But he also tells us that if we cease to be just, we will be not be oriented to our common good as nature intended. (I probably don't need to tell you that justice is also a biblical ideal.) This is important because politics has become a dirty word in America. Moreover, for us, "politicians" are thought to be unnatural creatures; we expect them to act unjustly, out of self-interest. This was not Aristotle's vision for governance the polis. In his view, there is nothing more natural than drawing together in a common community, culture, and commerce. Being "political" wasn't for elites or crooks. It was the natural inclination of every human.

This is why, although I am political, I try to avoid Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. I enjoy a good jab at the competition. In fact, I love political humor. But most simply aren't funny enough to pull it off. I when I sense a steady stream of hatred for an ideological opponent, I think language ceases to be "political" in the way Aristotle defined the concept. We argue, we strategize against, we lose our cools, but in the end we govern together. After eight years of obstructionism in congress, I am convinced that Washington hasn't been nearly "political" enough. Though I am not a fan, I quite appreciated what Maher said a couple days ago:
I know liberals made a big mistake because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world. And he wasn't. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way. I gave Obama a million dollars because I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn't have changed my life that much or yours. Or John McCain.  
They were honorable men who we disagreed with and we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf and that was wrong. But this is real. This is going to be way different.
I have a different view of Bush and McCain because I tend to focus on foreign policy when I vote. But I do agree that Trump is a different sort of animal and far more dangerous. He is essentially apolitical. Trump is the “clanless, lawless, and hearthless man” that Homer warned us about, the "lover of war." Trump's vision for America is what Hobbes called the condition of war (the condition that often leads to literal warfare):
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
This is what Trump's insecure, erratic, and self-interested behavior is already creating. But we liberals must shoulder the burden of blame too. We left scorched earth behind in our relentless alienation of our republican neighbors.

Today I was emailing a conservative friend (who opposed Trump because of is unconstitutional statements about the first amendment) about the conservative/liberal divide in America. My friend wrote, "They're [Democrats] convinced that everyone on my side is evil. So fuck them, I guess they get Trump." Most would hear this as a political statement. I hear it as not nearly political enough.

Yes, we get Trump. We get Trump because we've failed to be political in the only way that makes sense: politics is about learning to live together and creating policies that promote our common good. Take a look at Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat and you'll have a sense of what I mean by political consciousness.

So now to a most central problem. I think that Trump (in his intentions to commit warcrimes and praise of war criminals) is far too similar to Hitler for me to stay silent about it. At the same time, how do I say so without implying that my conservative neighbors are akin to Nazis? How do I stand up for the hundreds of people who have been targeted for hate speech and beaten in the name of Trump (complete with swastikas in some cases) and then sit down to fellowship with my neighbors who are exultant about Trump's rise to power?

It may well be impossible to maintain political ideals when an authoritarian is in power. But in four years we will get to try again. My hope is that we are willing to try again. In the meantime, let us fight for politics in Aristotle's sense of that concept.

I will leave you with a passage from Jeremiah that has been on my mind. I read it as a call to political consciousness. . . . one that doesn't end well.

"Thus says the Lord: 'Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, 'We will not walk in it.' Also I raised up sentinels for you: 'Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!' But they said, 'We will not give heed.'" (6:16-17)


Anthony Le Donne (PhD, Durham) is the author of Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.


  1. There is a lot of good information here. My constitutionalist leanings are offended by your liberal leanings. But that's okay. Your comparisons to the rise of Hitler remind me of something you have left out. That is the Jews were marginalized and blamed for the ills of society. Over the last few years conservative Christians have been marginalized and blamed for many ills of society (hatred of gays, racism, economic decline, etc.). A fear that has been felt, if not voiced outright, is that the left might engage in more severe persecution of Christians in ways worse than suing business owners for not violating their conscience. Conservative evangelicals have voted for Trump to stem that tide. The problem is that there are many on what is now called the alt-right (who used to be identified on the left, meaning no one wants to associate with the nuts) who want to marginalize others as the source of the ills of our society. Their voted for Trump in hopes he would do something about the gays, Mexicans, and a-rabs. So you have two forces coming together with vastly different hopes: stop the tide of marginalization and marginalize others. I am not sure if I am right about this, but that is my sense.

    But, I can say with 90% certainty that a Clinton presidency would have lead to more marginalization of Christians as she pushed liberal policies and conservatives pushed back. The increased tension would be blamed on Christians for being obstructionist and unwilling to get with the times.

    1. Dear Unknown, I do not doubt that you feel marginalized in some way. But let's be clear: there is persecution and there is hurt feelings. Let's not confuse one with the other. I have Christian friends in Egypt who have been hit in the head with rocks. I'd be very surprised to learn that anything like this has happen to you or anyone you know. On the other hand I read last week of a Muslim man who was killed outside a bar in Michigan. And a gay man who was beaten bloody in Florida. Please do not compare American Christians to 1930s German Jews. Nobody is going to round your family up and put them in a camp or deport them. I'm a Christian too. Sometimes I get my feelings hurt. But I enjoy a place of historic privilege in America. I am not persecuted and neither are you.


    2. Anthony, you missed my point. Before Jews were killed, they were blamed for the ills in society. Due to that anti-Jewish sentiment, Hitler was able to push his murderous agenda. The left has been pushing an anti-Christian sentiment in a similar fashion. I don't know if it would lead to mass murder of Christians any more than Trump being president is going to lead to mass murder of Mexicans or Muslims. It would lead to jail, fines, or confiscation of businesses. No where near as bad as torture or murder like fellow Christians endure. But, if you fast forward the situation a few years and things could look as bleak here as it does in China or did in communist Russia. Even if such circumstances don't get that bad, it might be just as bad as Christians in the Roman Empire in the late first to early second centuries, where their inability to participate in the immoral and idolatrous culture left them financially vulnerable and socially outcast. I guess I'm trying to point out that if we are not careful, either "side" might end up engaging in horrors because they went down the path of marginalizing a group for the purpose of political ambition. I'm also trying to show that an odd coalition of people fearing marginalization and those wanting to marginalize coalsed behind Trump.

      You also downplay the extend that Christians are persecuted in America. Removing the ability of a family to provide for themselves by taking away their business for not abiding by the values of the culture is a very dirty trick. Using fear of financial ruin and the inability to feed one's family is quite cruel. Yes, it's not as bad as being raped, stoned, etc., but it's still trying and painful. Rejecting the mark of the beast is just as trying to the faith as facing martyrdom. That's why Revelation deals with both.

    3. Hillary Clinton is a Christian. Obama is a Christian. These people are not marginalizing Christianity. They might be practicing Christianity differently than white conservative evangelicals do (the division between evangelicals across race was huge and may have irreparably damaged the community. White conservative evangelicals voted out of selfishness and from a place that has nothing to do with Jesus. They voted for a man who has been divorced many times. White conservative evangelicals are simply mad that their interpretation of the Bible that is informed by white supremacy, patriarchy, and nationalism is no longer accepted by all people. They are angry that they are being forced to deal with the consequences of their actions (which is a phrase they like to throw at others.) This community has sadly shown itself to be morally bankrupt. All in the name of trying to save a version of Christianity that is less than 200 years old and came out of a reaction to the Enlightenment and modernity.

      But as Jesus commands me, I am to love my brothers and sisters in Christ who strayed so far from the Way that Christ taught. I shall pray that compassion and love enter their heart. I also need to forgive them for the damage that they have done to me and my family as people of color, LGBT people, and immigrants.

    4. Unknown, do please consider your choice of words in the future. In your initial comment you used the word "persecution" and compared European Jews to American Christians. There might be a time in the future when Christians are a persecuted minority in America (as they are in Egypt). But can we agree that persecution is the wrong word to use now? Moreover, European Christians (for centuries) would attend passion plays and then march out to burn a synagogue down. They called these pogroms. Liberals aren't doing this sort of thing to Christians in America.

      When this sort of thing happens in America it is a white nationalist targeting a historically black church. The folks targeted for violence in this country include the LGBTQ+ community and Muslims. To compare your fantasy of some future persecution to people who are experiencing actual persecution is in very poor taste.


    5. Anthony, it's a crime you make a judgement on Christians whom you obviously have never even bothered to speak to in order to find out what they are really thinking.

      It's a crime left-wingers have captured universities. Must kill you that so many young people, despite your best, have turned or stayed conservative.
      Go Trump!!

  2. Entering the sacred (and internet-free) space of Shabbat. I'll react to this at greater length when I emerge. For now ... these are words that speak more and more powerfully to me as I read and re-read them:

    "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

    Mario Savio, speech, Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley (1964-12-02)

  3. Absolutely wonderful blog. Thank you.

    I visited the Holocaust Museum in Chicago (Skokie) this summer expecting to assuage my fears about Donald Trump. Unfortunately while standing in one of the train cars which had transported Jews to Auswitchz, I felt a terror I had never felt before. I rooted for Bernie in the primary and lost myself in the corruption narrative of DC which left me warring against Clinton. However, my husband and I left the museum hardly able to talk and sure of one thing: We would be voting for Hillary Clinton and fighting against Trump. Since childhood I have been fascinated by the holocaust and took a course which analyzed the rise of Hitler, yet it never felt real until this year as I considered the state of our own country inside the museum. The Germans thought it would pass. That Hitler didn't really mean the radical things he said. They believed that he and he alone could bring their nation back to pre-war greatness. They sold their souls and their nation to a good showman and thanks to the restriction on press managed to bury themselves in rational ignorance as millions burned to death. Yes, we do tread dangerous ground indeed. Fortunately our government is stronger than theirs was and for that I believe Trump will not have absolute power. However, that doesn't really comfort me. We can't know what damage and danger we face.

    I am very concerned about the future of Muslims in the western world and if Hitler managed to tap into beliefs of Jews already soured, I tremble to imagine exactly how people could be mobilized against Muslims (and by extension anyone who remotely looks middle eastern) as fear over terrorism continues to grow. It's no understatement to say things have changed. In fact, there are so many things to fear that we would need to write a book actually cover each concern. You're right. Americans have been sedated and unfortunately the most vulnerable in our country and world will pay the heaviest price. I pray that the church wakes up but I know at least that a remnant already has. Speaking of which, your teaching in Pauline literature at college helped me to wake up and I thank you for that. Truly.

  4. Your colleague Chris Keith has produced a book on Jesus against the Scribal Elite. I would suggest that this model can be applied to Donald Trump.
    Journalists and commentators are the scribal elite who ridicule the heretical outsider.
    A short while back the Clinton-Trump debates were televised live at about 2am in the UK which was too late for me. So I got up early the next morning and watched them in full on youtube without knowing in advance what the media reaction had been.

    On both occasions I marked Trump down as the clear winner.

    Much to my surprise when I then looked at the media headlines, Clinton was declared the clear winner.
    And this was the verdict passed on by the BBC, The Times etc.
    Was I mistaken? Or was the scribal elite utterly biased and anti-Trump?

    (It reminded me of when critics usually savage the opening of the Oscars. I like to judge for myself. The Internet now gives UK viewers this opportunity. Often I found that the opening monologues in the Oscars show were extremely funny despite universal condemnation by critics.)

    When I say that Trump clearly won the Presidential debates, I don’t mean that I would vote for him or that I agree with his policies. In my country I usually vote Labour or abstain. I just wanted to assess the two candidates as public performers.

    Clinton tended to drone on. She had that annoying rictus smile. She kept giving all the politically correct all-inclusive progressive answers to satisfy as many groups as possible.

    Trump was looser and unconventional and fought back against the interviewer and did not allow himself to be pushed around. He was much better at the quips and put-downs. Clinton stood to one side with that inane goofy grin.

    I felt he won the gunfight.

    Clinton came across to me as a hypocrite. Not so long ago, she was against gay marriage. Now she was all for it.
    She claimed she was fighting for the people against the banks, but behind the scenes she was a highly paid collaborationist, a Quisling for Wall St. (Thank you, Wikileaks.)

    Even so, all the polls, we were told, predicted an easy victory for Hillary. Trump’s campaign was supposedly falling apart.

    On election night, Clinton arrogantly chose this glass ceiling palace with a specially built Americana stage. No doubt she had a prepared speech which would culminate in a triumphalist declaration of how at last a woman had broken thru this glass barrier.

    But she never had the guts to show up. She abandoned her young supporters many of whom were in tears.

    She was completely out of touch with middle America. (That silent majority, as Tricky Dicky once called them.)
    When she eventually showed up to give her surrender speech, she came out with the trendy reference to the LGBT community. The emphasis on transgender rights irritates me. It's not that they don't have rights - of course they do - but this minority within a minority has been given centre stage. It is now the be-all and end-all of political correctness.
    In defiance of this trend, those without work are the ones facing an identity crisis and this is where the focus should be placed.

    Finally, and this is the clincher, Trump was not fooled by comedian Ali G when he came to America to trap and ridicule celebrities. That's got to count for something.

    1. It is pretty hard to judge a country when you are not in it. It is especially arrogant to come to this site and talk about how smart you are when my Muslim friends are being called names as we speak, as rainbow flags are being burned, as hate crimes have exceeded post-9/11. I am so glad that you were correct but forgive me if I don't entertain you, I have a country to go try to save.

    2. Dear RJS,

      Debates are an odd genre. Some people judge by the number and value of the arguments put forth. Others judge by the character presented. And some view a show of strength to be virtuous (cf. your gunfight metaphor). Others view coolness or authenticity or sense of humor to be more virtuous. So I tend to have multiple internal conversations going in my head when I'm watching presidential debates. I used to think that the "clear winner" was someone who seemed (subjectively, of course) "presidential". But the fact that some folks thought that Trump scored points with put downs demonstrates that I was wrong.

      But - in keeping with my emphasis above - I don't think that Trump's debate performance (or the poor showing by Clinton) was the reason why Trump won this election. He won because (1) his team tapped a racist populace that doesn't otherwise vote. It turns out that 30% of the Republican party and a larger number of Democrats too like the idea of a candidate who makes white people feel special. (2) And he won because almost 50% Americans do not vote.

      And, yes, I am ashamed that both demographics are predominently Christian.


    3. *I meant to say "large number of Democrats" - not "larger".

    4. Why did you bother to watch the debates? Your mind was already made up.

    5. Bex, I watched the debates because I wanted to see what both candidates would say and how they would say it. One of them was going to become president and I want to see if they live up to their promises.

  5. Sigh. What alternative to Trump did Christians have?
    Clinton is immoral and supports abortion.
    As far as the Hitler comparison, it's just silly for a professor at a university to make such fear mongering comments. There's only so many times you lefties can insult conservatives and people before they've had enough.
    May I suggest that you get out of your ivory tower (any university in the western world) and talk to people outside your circle of left-wing professors (is there any other kind?)

    1. Anonymous, I am not employed by a university. I do not teach at a university.

      There are, indeed, conservative professors in western universities. I know a few.


  6. Do you ever feel guilty about saying most if not all Christians who are conservative are racist?
    You are the reason Trump won.

    1. I don't feel all that guilty about this, no. Most post-enlightenment people perceive the world through racial constructs.

      I'm not sure that "most if not all Christians who are conservative are racist." But enough seem to be in American to make Trump's candidacy possible. I wish it wasn't true.