David French on Donald Trump

by Glenn on April 22, 2020

On Sunday, 19 April 2020, David French wrote a provocative editorial on the president, which I think is worth thinking about. He begins with the report of a “horrifying milestone” on April 15, which was the fourth day in a row where “COVID-19 was the single leading cause of death in the United States.” He juxtaposes this fact against reports that the president was reluctant “to come to terms with the crisis that wasn’t just forseeable, it was foreseen by members of his own administration.” He gives the president credit for banning travel from China, but criticizes him for the way he “actively spread misinformation about the virus throughout the month of February and into March.” A report can be seen here.

This seems both factually correct and fair criticism. That has been one of the infuriating parts of this episode. We have a leader who enjoys speaking in front of a microphone but doesn’t seem to worry about message accuracy or consistency. We were told early on the COVID-19 was just like the cold or flu. Was that a demonstration of incompetence or an inordinate desire to protect the stock market? Unknown. What we do know is that it’s extraordinarily contagious and quite dangerous for those with compromised health conditions. This week New York’s daily death count finally went down. “Only” 500 people died one day and that was an improvement.

French recalls the president’s primetime address where “he finally began to acknowledge the scale of the emergency,” but then misstated his own administration’s policies. See here.

The president has daily press conferences. My own feeling is he should play a minimal role in those briefings, but from the little I’ve seen, he can’t help himself. He appointed the vice-president to lead a task force but then overshadows the task force. French points out that these media events “have featured a parade of presidential overstatements, misstatements, and outright falsehoods.” And there is the fact that now there are upwards of 22 million who are out of work now because of this crisis.

Along with a worsening crisis and an inconsistent leader, French adds a third element. He writes,

“Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the presumptive next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a man I respect a great deal—spoke from the midst of a ruined economy, soaring death rates, and presidential blundering and said . . . four more years.”

The video from which he gets this can be seen here. I haven’t watched the video clip, but I take French’s summarization as an accurate representation. In short, the left is so left that Mohler will “almost certainly support Republican presidential candidates the rest of his life.”

Mohler supports Mr. Trump because of his “pro-life decisions” and judicial nominations. He also says that he didn’t always support him out of concerns over moral character. But that was then. This is now. French says Mohler “has now decisively changed course.” He references the Southern Baptist Convention’s statements during the Clinton presidency that said holders of public office must “demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.” And he quotes Mohler from 2016 as saying,

“If I were to support, much less endorse Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.”

French reflects and comments, “I do wonder if Mohler will apologize. He absolutely should.” French laments that when it comes to the suitability of Donald Trump as president, he has “lost the character argument.” White Evangelicals supported Mr. Trump at 81% in 2016. Meanwhile, the rest of the Evangelical community tends Democratic. French quotes C.S. Lewis on the subject of courage and says that while white evangelicals say that character matters the real test is when “a commitment to character” involves “a real political cost.”

Of course that gets us into the problem of “binary choice” and the “lesser of two evils,” concepts which French complains “appeared nowhere in the grand moral announcements of the past.” His indictment:

“Many millions of Trump-supporting white Evangelicals no longer care about character (though a surprising number are still remarkably unaware of his flaws). That much is clear. But the story now grows darker still. As they’ve abandoned political character tests, they’re also rejecting any meaningful concern for presidential competence.”

I wish French would say more about the binary choice at this point. I think there is a wide swath of Evangelical Christians who, in 2016, voted for Donald Trump because they didn’t see another choice. It wasn’t even a lesser of evils. There was (and is) so much about Donald Trump that is indefensible. But for them, Mrs. Clinton was unthinkable. It seems wrong to say that these people didn’t care about character when the two political candidates had questionable character. I would say that Mrs. Clinton couldn’t tell the truth and Mr. Trump didn’t care about the truth.

French identifies “a narrow political philosophy” which focuses our support on the candidate who checks a few items on a policy list. But he says that our current pandemic points to the fact that “the job of the president extends well beyond the culture war.” He goes one step further, now:

“Indeed, there are times when a president is so bad at other material aspects of his job that he becomes a malignant force in American life, regardless of his positions on white Evangelicals’ highest political priorities.”

And then he turns to the voters and says our approach to politics “is so much more difficult and challenging than merely listing a discreet subset of issues (even when those issues are important!) and supporting anyone who agrees to your list.” He references the prophet Jeremiah who told the nation of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

French admits this is complicated. He introduces the statistic that says white Evangelicals and Black Christians are split in their political preferences. And he asks, rhetorically, if one group is more or less Christian than the other. The two groups certainly have different histories and experiences in this country. French is concerned about white populism and those Evangelicals who unfailingly support Mr. Trump but will not listen to the concerns of those who do not share their skin color.

He ties things together by saying that there is something more important than a checklist when it comes to the president: competence. The president’s job is difficult. And French points out, “It’s a fact that a number of democracies have struggled even worse than America to respond to the coronavirus (some have done much better), and economic damage will be felt worldwide.” French’s trouble with President Trump is that he “was warned and warned and warned” and “day after crucial day he chose to mislead Americans about one of the most significant threats to their well-being—to their ‘welfare’— in the modern history of the United States. He faced a key test, and he did not rise to the moment. And when he failed, he did real damage that even later course corrections could not entirely fix.”

At this point French returns to the idea of “binary choice” and explains that when he walks into the voting booth, he won’t see two names. He will also “have a choice to write in a name.” He “will not have to compromise [his] convictions to cast a vote for president.” For those who want to talk about “binary choice,” though, he goes back to the impeachment where Evangelicals made a choice between Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence and chose Mr. Trump. His claim: “They chose Trump when they would have certainly sought to impeach and convict a Democrat under similar facts.”

White Evangelicals have a lot they are happy about with this president. They have access to the Oval Office. They are getting judges they like. They are getting rulings on religious liberty and the protection of the unborn that they support (with the caveat that French considers the prolife rulings to be marginal improvements and that the actual battle is being fought in the culture, not the courts).

But there is a downside. With the gains, there are losses. When we can’t say that character matters, “we’ll have more politicians of low character.” When we allow hate speech from the president, we can’t claim we love our enemies. When we vote for a person like Donald Trump, we both squander “any argument that competence matters” and, worse, “force more incompetence” on the country. French considers white Evangelicals as “one of the most politically powerful religious movements in the entire world” and says that power should not be used “to maintain and ultimately renew the authority of one of the most malignant and incompetent politicians ever to hold national office.” He adds this lament, “They shouldn’t, but they will.”

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This may be the most persuasive piece of writing I’ve seen on the issue of re-electing Donald Trump. In one sense I didn’t need to be convinced. I wish Donald Trump was not the president, now, (although that does not mean I wish Mrs. Clinton had won) and the spectre of four more years, while not terrifying as it is for many, is not pleasant to consider. One of the things that Mr. French left out of his article is the two times (I am aware of) Mr. Trump has used double-entendre in his Corona Virus press conferences (one time intentionally, the other time …?) apparently for levity. It’s unprofessional at best, gross at worst. I find myself in conflict with friends who like or at least have an easier time looking past Mr. Trump’s brashness and fearlessness and think he is doing good things for our country.

But I do have that “binary” problem. The problem, of course, is that this year is shaping up to be another one where the contest is between two undesirable candidates, although my feelings about the alternative to Mr. Trump this year are very different. Mr. Biden just seems too old for the job. Is it wrong to wish someone running for what has got to be one of the most difficult jobs in the world was, you know, only middle- or retirement-age? Mr. Biden has always seemed to me to be a little gaffe-prone, but the times I’ve heard him speak recently have left me concerned.

I found Mr. French’s insight that the binary choice for white Evangelicals was not just between a Republican and a Democrat. Earlier this year it was between Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence and we still “voted” for Mr. Trump.

What French has done in this article is raise the stakes for me. It’s not simply about what we gain by voting for Mr. Trump. It’s what we lose in the process. We lose the ability to demand character. We lose the authority to claim that we love our enemies. Perhaps, even, as we have lost the idea of competence, we lose lives.

Of course, all of this is moot if we don’t have a country or an economy. One of my problems is that neither political party seems particularly interested in limited government and living within a budget. Whenever we get out of this crisis of health, we will have another crisis of economics. Shouldn’t that be a consideration in our deliberations.

Still, what Mr. French has done in this article is make a third way—the way of exile. When neither candidate is good enough, I can write in my vote for someone I think is good enough.