Election Notes

by Glenn on December 18, 2016

From the time that the primaries determined that the choice of our next president would come down to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, until now—just over a month after the election—the only position that I’ve understood is the one that says that Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were terrible candidates, neither of whom should be anywhere near the Oval Office.If that was your position, then you’ve been pretty sad, for quite a while now. (Or you’ve been drinking heavily. Or both.) And the election didn’t really change your affect much. I was prepared to be a little discouraged regardless of who won.

In a sense, it didn’t really matter who won, because neither person should be president. To my mind, one was unqualified and the other was disqualified, while both are compromised, albeit in different ways. Or as some clever person put it, “Whoever wins, America loses.”

What I didn’t expect were riots on the one side, or racially-motivated taunts on the other. The worst election in my lifetime has been followed by truly ugly reactions.

Normally, with presidential elections one candidate wins and their supporters rejoice; one side loses and is bummed. But both sides get up the next morning and go back to work. Not this year.

I best understood the people who were voting against a candidate. If you told me you were against Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I could relate. I heard one pastor announce, after the election, that he had voted for Mrs. Clinton because Mr. Trump “was dangerous … Trump is not a well human being … he shouldn’t be running the country.” I am sympathetic to that point-of-view. But on the other side were people saying Mrs. Clinton’s policies weren’t well, and that made sense, too.

What was especially difficult about this election was hearing from people who were for one of them: in my circle the woman who said she was voting for Hillary Clinton “because we women need to stick together,” or the man who was voting for Donald Trump because he was the candidate of change (who, rather, most of the time felt like the candidate of chaos). You had to look past too much to be on board with either candidate.

To say one candidate was better than the other was meaningless. To be better than the worst isn’t goodness. I resonated most with the guy who asked me, “You mean to tell me that in a country of three hundred million people this is the best we’ve got?” Did you want the guy with no experience and character issues or the woman with experience and character issues? Who was the least bad option? For me this was arguable, though I know this puts me at odds with many people.

If you were for either of these candidates, then you were in the difficult position of having to defend the indefensible.

Mr. Trump

Mr. Trump is a walking contradiction. He has been on either side of issues, sometimes back and forth, sometimes in the same day. Early in the primary season I worked at a conference where I heard Mr. Trump give a speech. At that point he was doing well in the Republican polls. And he told his audience just that, by which I mean only that. The substance of his speech (before he took some questions) was 15-20 minutes of talk about how well he was doing in the polls. And then he concluded his “prepared” remarks by saying, “But polls don’t matter.” Why talk about things that don’t matter when you’re running for the highest office in the land?

Let’s stipulate that anyone running for president is going to have some ego strength in measures well beyond what most of us will ever understand. However, I felt like Mr. Trump’s candidacy was based on an extreme narcissism and megalomania, playing into our country’s obsession with so-called reality television.

We were told America would be great again (enter pundits to tell us we’ve never been great or we’re still great) and we didn’t need to know what that meant or how it would be accomplished. What we knew was that Donald Trump had said it and certainty came because he had said it: “Believe me.”

And what to say of how he speaks about and to others (especially his Tweets)? For starters, it’s reckless, undisciplined, and hurtful. Among the great ironies of this election was Melania Trump’s statement after the election that as First Lady she would campaign against cyber-bullying. (This of course, after the irony—or perhaps hypocrisy is better—that while Mr. Trump campaigned against illegal aliens, his own wife once worked in The United States illegally.) I loved this two-page spread in The New York Times, listing many of the “highlights” of Mr. Trump’s Twitter Campaign.

The worst aspect of his candidacy was how unprepared he seemed to be on issues and how little that appeared to bother him. What I learned of his debate prep turned me off to watching the debates. Here’s how The New York Times captured it:

“Mr. Trump … is approaching the debate like a Big Man on Campus who thinks his last-minute term paper will be dazzling simply because he wrote it.

“He has paid only cursory attention to briefing materials. He has refused to use lecterns in mock debate sessions despite the urging of his advisers. He prefers spitballing ideas with his team rather than honing them into crisp, two-minute answers.”

Mrs. Clinton

Mrs. Clinton had her problems—the main one, for me, being that she always seems to be in the midst of a scandal of her own making where we can’t quite get a straight (read truthful) answer. (Here is a list compiled by NPR.) If the Peanuts characters were political metaphors, Mrs. Clinton would be Pigpen, with stuff swirling about her. It’s wearying.

Her health was also a concern. After Mrs. Clinton’s fainting spell at the 9/11 Memorial, Bill Clinton was asked about it: “Frequently — well, not frequently, rarely, on more than one occasion, over the last many, many years, the same sort of thing’s happened to her when she got severely dehydrated …” Which answer was the answer? Was she suffering from effects of serious head trauma or not?

The people who surrounded Mrs. Clinton embraced a win-at-all-costs mentality which I found objectionable. And the people running the Democrat Party (Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile), were biased in favor of Mrs. Clinton, the former disenfranchising Bernie Sanders’ voters and the latter cheating in the debates.

Of course, it was troubling that the FBI inserted itself into the election, especially in the last days of the campaign. No doubt this hurt Mrs. Clinton, although you’ve got to ask yourself why a person under FBI investigation would run for President. (I’d ask why the Democrat Party would put forth such a candidate, but then you need to ask a similar question about the Republican Party.)

If you’re going to be upset about the investigation, though, then you should be fuming that former President Bill Clinton met privately (and, at the very least, most inappropriately) this past summer with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who ultimately was responsible for the disposition of the case. This made it at least appear that there were two standards of justice in this country. If you were connected, you could get a break.

I heard intelligent, thoughtful people say (and continue to say) that the email controversy didn’t matter or at least didn’t matter in light of who the Republicans had nominated. For me, this was the disqualifier for her candidacy.

When FBI Director James Comey spoke to the issue back in July, everything about his remarks indicated he was building a case to recommend her indictment. But then he created a loophole around intent. In his statement, Director Comey said,

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Is it fair to translate this as “They mishandled classified information, which is a crime, but they didn’t mean to”? You wouldn’t think that intent would matter when it comes to national security. Meanwhile, it was clear that she had lied about the whole thing. (With revelations that President Obama knew that Mrs. Clinton had a secret server and was, himself, sending classified information to her through his own off-government email, there was little chance that Mrs. Clinton would be indicted.)

Bottom line: I don’t trust Mrs. Clinton and the thought of four years of dissembling and equivocation was unthinkable.

But you can’t really trust Mr. Trump, either. What kind of election is it when you have to decide, “Which untrustworthy candidate should I trust?”

I appreciated people who tried to bring some levity to the moment. While I didn’t like the nihilistic attitude, I did understand the sentiment expressed in one bumper sticker:

Nihilistic Bumper Sticker for 2016:

The only slogan I liked was a t-shirt I considered wearing that said, “Elizabeth 2016—Make America Great Britain Again.”

Humorous distractions aside, we were stuck with the conundrum of who to vote for/against. I know people who wrote in a candidate because they couldn’t “in good conscience vote for either of them.”

My Theory of the Election

I was stunned to see the returns coming in on election night. Most polls showed a very difficult, perhaps impossible, path to victory for Mr. Trump. Certain states (Florida, especially) had to go his way or it would be a very short night for him. Surprisingly, they did. (The one poll that showed some ambiguity was at RealClearPolitics. Their view of the Electoral Map on election day showed more states in play than many others.)

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-2-04-40-pm

And then our country’s obsession with reality TV took us to a place we’ve never been as a country, with an unprepared president-elect, a man who it appears wanted to get the job more than he wants to actually do the job. (My theory of why he ran is a revenge story based on the treatment he received at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. One Seth Meyers joke from that evening: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”)

I think Mr. Trump’s victory comes down to three things:

1. Mrs. Clinton was a particularly bad candidate for whom many people didn’t show up to vote. Anecdotal, of course, but I don’t recall an election where I saw so few bumper stickers and yard signs, even here in Portland, Oregon—a city that votes Democrat overwhelmingly. (I actually saw more bumper stickers for Bernie Sanders—holdovers from the primary season.)

2. While evangelical Christians had/have a difficult time with Mr. Trump as a person (How could you not hear that tape from Entertainment Tonight and not be repulsed?), I think many of them voted for him as an affirmation of the stand on late-term abortion that he made during the third debate and hoping that his picks for the Supreme Court would be more in line with their idea for the direction of the country than Mrs. Clinton’s. Basically, it was a vote in support of the man’s positions, to the extent they were known, and not the man himself. (I heard someone from Florida describe a bumper sticker he saw in his state: “Vote Trump: No one has to know.”

(It was fascinating to see the tension in the evangelical world, witness the president of Liberty University, Jerry Fallwell, Jr., endorsing Mr. Trump’s candidacy, and the student body of Liberty University express thoughtful and honest disagreement, which of course brought you back to the central quandary of this election—if you didn’t want him/her to be president, then you had to vote for her/him.)

3. A large swath of our country is looking for hope. Globalization means good-paying manufacturing jobs have left the country and hurting people were looking for someone who cared about them and promised to do something about it. Whether Mr. Trump can do something remains to be seen. (A recent EconTalk episode touched on this issue, pointing out that more problems with finding jobs for people are coming, particularly for people without college degrees, who will be replaced by workers in other countries or by technology.)

The only rally of Mr. Trump’s I watched was his last one in Michigan in the early hours of election day. Brimming with confidence Mr. Trump makes some extraordinary promises to the Michigan voters. One minute of listening will tell you how he connected with the people of Michigan.

The best line of the speech comes at around the 16-minute mark:

“It used to be the cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the @&#! water in Flint.”

I stayed up late the next night to watch the election returns. They were fascinating, but so were the reactions of television personalities. (Wait for it.)

Clearly most broadcasters were shocked. We ended up watching Fox’s coverage for the most part because it was overwhelming to see and hear so many shaken and sad broadcasters on the other networks. A friend of mine sent me a clip of Van Jones on election night. His in-the-moment candor is both thoughtful and hard to dismiss.

Aftermath

If the election wasn’t troubling enough, then you had the aftermath, which included disheartening protests (in my opinion, the time to protest was before this election as there wasn’t going to be an acceptable outcome), the efforts to persuade electors to vote against the wishes of their states, and complaints about the Electoral College itself, which I’ve heard as recently as last week on John Hockenberry’s introduction to his show, The Takeaway, on OPB Radio.

On the latter, it feels a bit like someone complaining that their football team scored more times than the other team and, therefore, they should have won the game. But the rules say touchdowns count more than field goals. Insufficient simile aside, the popular vote outside individual states is irrelevant when the election isn’t determined by a national popular vote and suggesting that it should feels like sour grapes.

The hardest part of the aftermath, though, has been what I’ve heard from the Church, which I am still trying to process.

I’ve heard three responses from church leaders to the recent election.

Response No. 1 | Psalm 118

The Psalm 118 response was “the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.” For these members of the Church, the election was a miraculous answer to prayer—a sign of God’s providence and care for the United States of America. As one rather famous believer put it,

“Americans have spoken but I believe God has moved. I see what happened in this election as being a tremendous movement of God in answer to prayer.”

It’s hard to understand this attitude in light of everything we know about Donald Trump (as well as the things we don’t know—tax returns, for example, that make you wonder what he is hiding). I can understand a measure of relief that Mrs. Clinton won’t be president, but don’t see any cause for rejoicing in the specter of a Trump Administration. Interesting, it wasn’t that many years ago that Ronald Reagan was on the ballot for the presidency and I remember concern from evangelicals about the fact that he had been divorced. I’d say we’re well beyond that, now.

But just as one part of the American Church was rejoicing, another was despondent.

Response No. 2 | Crisis/Lament

Joshua Butler blogged about the message he preached at Imago Dei Community the Sunday after the election. I actually liked what he said, especially the fact that he wasn’t trying to put a “God is control” Band-aid on what must have felt like a major laceration. People were upset and he spoke into that pain. And the internet being what it is, I can only rejoice at a thoughtful Christian using words well. Also, Mr. Butler self-identities as Latino, and I appreciated hearing his perspective.

Still I found myself bristling because it appears that the only reason this message was given was because Mr. Trump won the election (blog title, “Sunday After Trump”). Would this message have been preached had Mrs. Clinton won? Would there have been “Sunday after Clinton?”

Delivered before the election, this sermon would have been a prescient and prophetic word about how Christians should view an election that promised to be divisive, no matter the outcome. There was nothing revealed by the election—especially the divisions in the country and the American church—that wasn’t known and available for comment before the election. Instead, it felt partisan and reactionary. In spite of the actual content of a sermon that I thought was fair-minded, there was a subtext of “Oh, no,  an orange-skinned crazy person has been elected president. Where is God? What do we do?” Again, the time to mourn our choice was before the election.

Response No. 3 | “Get in line, people”

The “Get in line, people” response came from a reading I heard a pastor give from Romans 13:1–7:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

The reading was given without much commentary. It was certainly a Biblical response, if not exactly empathetic with those who were struggling with the outcome of the election.

A Christian Response?

All this makes me wonder what a Christian response to the election actually is or should be?

Or perhaps the variety of responses is something like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. We have red and blue states in this country; the American Church, too, is red and blue. Our view of the election may have a lot to do with how we view this country.

For my part, this election has caused me consider to what extent I am idolatrous in a political sense. A tell-tale sign has been the fact that my dominant affect this entire year has been a kind of sadness that I’m still trying to shake off. I have taken pride in this country in the “shining hill”/American exceptionalism sense and have cringed at the thought of seeing either a President Donald Trump or a President Hillary Clinton on those posters of the presidents that you see in elementary schools.

I preached a sermon the Sunday after the election and included just one paragraph on the election after acknowledging that while the election was settled, clearly people aren’t.

“I say this to myself today: ‘The bigger our view of Jesus, the less distressing this election is. If after the election you are dismayed, feeling all is lost, your view of Jesus is too small. If after the election you are excessively elated and believing for one minute that through a human being all our dreams are going to come true, your trust may be in the wrong place.”

My favorite response to the election, though, came from Ernie Johnson at TNT. I found his words (and the underlying courage) moving. He gets the final word:

 

 

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