Thursday, January 26, 2017

Confessions To a Friend

Dear Charles,
Good to hear from you. Thanks for asking my thoughts about the recent inauguration, protests, and the events in the first week of the Trump Presidency.
First, I confess that living in Washington makes me different in only one respect from anyone living, say, in Kansas. And that is that the people around me are by and large liberal and progressive. Even the Republicans here tend to be sane and Eisenhoweresque. I’ve lived in other places where that was not true. But I don’t have an inside track on what is actually going on or how people are reacting, except through what I read in various places, principally the internet, news outlets (I tend NOT to read The Washington Post because I find it so aggravating, but instead read The New York Times online). And The New Yorker, of course.
But you ask my reaction. Joe and I were in New York with friends and his sister from Thursday through Monday, so we were happy to miss all the goings-on, although snarled traffic might have been the worst of it. I somehow felt that being away from it all was a form of protest. We did some shopping on Fifth Avenue, and as I neared Trump Tower I found myself feeling viscerally ill, the way I have sometimes felt passing through Catholic University’s campus, especially when Benedict XVI was about as awful a pope as Trump is a President.
I was present at the first Obama inauguration, on one of the coldest days imaginable. I nearly froze, but happily so. I was standing just yards away from the Washington Monument and there were about as many people behind me, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial as there were in front of me. And the crowd was jubilant. I’d take nothing for having been there. In contrast, Trump drew die-hard supporters who, I suspect, are about as full of hate as he is, although I don’t necessarily assume that. I suspect that a good many of Trump’s supporters are people who have hopes that they cherish as much as I cherished mine when Obama was inaugurated. But who knows?
Nothing that has happened in the week since has astonished me. I think that Trump thinks that he can do anything he jolly well pleases and is thus setting about making changes that he either believes or has come to imagine will correct all wrongs and straighten up the world. As I predicted, he is having the opposite of the desired, or desirable, effect, from his point of view. Precisely because he has great performance timing but little political sensibility, he knows nothing about working for consensus, and is thus stirring up one after another of hornet nests that are beginning to unleash their full strength in reaction. Really. If you had to exacerbate all the anger, piss off everyone imaginable, alienate allies, invite lawsuits (the Muslim ban will certainly be challenged in court—the ACLU has bared its teeth already—and the flagrant espousal of torture in the news today is a demonstrable show of support for breaking international law), what better a series of plays could you make than what Trump has already done? My prediction is that he will create a disaster both physically and politically if he gets behind (or leads) the Republican assault on slashing Medicare and Social Security as well as abolishing without replacing (how would they even imagine doing the latter?) “Obamacare.” It was easy, if not smart, to keep voting to repeal the ACA when they knew Obama would surely veto them. That way they could bait their base, claim to have done something, and pay nothing for it. It was all about Obama anyway, not about medical care. So now they have to either pay up or eat their words. Guess which they’ll choose. And the cost will be magnificent.
Any political analysis of this country has told us for years that we are pretty much equally divided between left and right. If anything, the “hard core right” accounts for less than a fourth of the populace (or maybe it's the voting populace). You saw how quickly George Bush’s second term deteriorated when things began to go sour. I predict that you’ll see it again. My hope is it won’t be in a second term for Trump. And I have no prediction to make about 2018 or 2020.
I called this morning to register my support for DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in standing firm in support of immigrants. I don’t know that Washington as a city has ever taken a stance, but many congregations, including St. Stephen’s, have been openly supportive of the Sanctuary Movement. While I was Senior Priest, St. Stephen’s became a sanctuary church. (We never had during my tenure a sanctuary person or families using our facilities, but we were prepared to do so if the need had arisen.)
Now, all of that said, the thing in this whole mess that has me most worked up is the support that Trump has been getting all along from the “Christian conservatives.” They have somehow excused or overlooked the most egregious things, telling themselves that the Supreme Court was somehow Ground Zero for God and Satan. Whether or not they will stick with Trump is their decision. But I look for no change. And I will take them on at every turn with every means I have (which admittedly aren’t many).
I think the women’s march was powerful and effective. Perhaps its effect was more that it seems to have energized and catalyzed many of its participants and their supporters than that it showed anything to Trump and the Republicans. Speaking of the latter, I think they are using Trump the way Trump has used the disenchanted and economically oppressed (largely white) people. I think that the Republicans despise him, know that he is unstable and utterly self-absorbed. I think they will use him to obtain a whole bunch of things that they have been salivating for for years: tremendous tax cuts for the wealthy, gutting social programs, building up a huge defense budget (really a war chest), rolling back regulations, unfettering the banking industry even more. A great part of me says, “Let them.” If it weren’t that so many people would suffer greatly, I’d be 100% in favor of their wreaking havoc on the American people to the extent that there would be no way that they could ever be elected again. I certainly have no fantasy that there is much of a way to stop them, though I think it is prudent for the Democrats to stall, delay, oppose, block every possible move every possible way.
Speaking of which, I am not one of these people who itches for fights for fights’ sake. I think that the Democrats ought to pick their battles wisely and strategically and keep their eye not on Trump (whose gift is Distraction) but on the people who are really hurt, or will be hurt, by Trump. There are some superb Democrats in Congress, like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Unfortunately too few. There are even some surprises among the Republicans, like Lindsay Graham, who is showing spine that I didn’t know he had.
So, Charles, that is my take. Although I don’t know that it is necessarily representative of the Washington DC frame of mind, take it for what it’s worth. In some ways I think it is far more important for people to raise hell in Kansas City, Toledo, Des Moines and other places in the heartland than it is for liberals like me to spout off in Washington. People expect me and my confreres to say these things. Not so much from people in “normal” places. My counsel: don’t underestimate your power.
I’ll close by saying that, optimist that I am, I am married to someone who has taught me some of the values in being realistic. And in my more sober moments I fear for the world. Trump is, after all, just the American version of what is happening in Europe, and what has been happening around the globe. It feels as if the great lessons that were thought to have been learned in the twentieth century are now giving way under stresses and pressures not unlike those that produced World War II. Some of this is a growing, and now decades old, reaction to the melding of immigrants into a polyglot society that doesn’t come easily. But some of it is, I think, the failure of liberal democracy to listen and respond creatively to the forces that Marx long ago correctly identified, chief among them being the utter disparaging of the true cost of labor and the resulting inequality built into capitalism. I’ve often said that the biggest enemy of Christianity is affluence. Or, in the immortal words of Dunn’s Law of Christian Functionality, "Christianity works in inverse proportion to the affluence of its adherents in a given time and place.” It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, to be equally true of democratic institutions. The more people move into affluence, the wider the gap grows between haves and have-nots. And the less responsive the system is to the latter. Much of the rhetoric, even among liberals in this country, including Bernie Sanders, is based on the assumption that “getting into the middle class” is what life is all about. But as the standards of “middle” get higher and higher, the harder it is for those at the top to share. So it really is pretty much the same situation as the contemporary American Church finds itself in. Money. That’s the name of the god we serve. And, like the title of an old Cold War book about communism, our god is just another example of “The God that Failed.”
In truth,

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