Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Trump Presidency in Retrospect

To begin this post, I want to share a post I wrote on Facebook shortly after President Trump’s election in 2016. As many of you who know me well can testify, I have loved Presidential History and American history from the time I was first able to read, and I have read 30+ full-length biographies of American Presidents. With that perspective in mine, I offered the following:

Did you know...

That the United States once had an election between a political outsider with no elected governing experience (and barely any elected experience - only a brief job from which he resigned) and an established and qualified leader?

Did you know that outsider committed bigamy and then hastily remarried his wife once her divorce was finalized?

Did you know that outsider fought in duels with multiple people, including one where he killed a man?

Did you know the outsider and his followers accused his political opponent of rigging the election and making insider moves to maintain power?

Did you know that the outsider's opponent was a respected public servant from a well-established political family?

Did you know the outsider was (rightly) accused of being an exploiter and oppressor of minority groups, including both African and Native Americans?

Did you know that the outsider's followers and several prominent government leaders preached that only he could restore power to the people?

Did you know that his religious faith was considered to be nominal at best and non-existent at worst?

Did you know that upon his election, the outsider's followers threatened his opponent and had to be deterred with alcohol?

Did you know that, upon his inauguration, the outsider's followers literally trashed the White House?

Did you know that people throughout the country feared that the outsider would take away their freedoms, abuse his powers to punish his political opponents, and ignore the causes of minority groups?

Well, all of these statements are true. The outsider's name was Andrew Jackson and we survived EIGHT years of his Presidency. In fact, his Presidency is generally judged by historians to be a mixed bag, some good and some bad was done, and the young and vulnerable United States lived on. He WAS a terrible President for minorities, and the church and his opponents did a poor job standing up to his actions against people such as the Cherokee nation. However, Jackson was also willing to stand against government officials when they wanted to get their way by nullifying the constitution or promoting a national bank at the expense of personal liberty. Ironically, his stubbornness and strength became a source of inspiration for anti-slavery Presidents such as Martin Van Buren and Abraham Lincoln.

I am not saying that Donald Trump will be another Andrew Jackson. Even if he were, everyone would still be wise to guard against the tragic mistakes made in the Jackson years being made again. What I am saying is that we, as a nation, have survived some CRAZY stuff before. We can survive it again, and we can hope and pray that God will use the leaders we enthusiastically elect/reluctantly support/vigorously oppose today to give us BETTER leaders tomorrow.

To be honest, I am not sure how my comparison of Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson aged. Believe it or not, despite the spectacularly disastrous finish, I do think the Trump Presidency could have gone worse. While not being able to get us out of any foreign wars, Trump did not get us entangled in new foreign wars (though we have yet to see how the assassination of an Iranian state leader and a thawing of a relationship with North Korea’s dictator leader will finally shake out). Trump oversaw an economic rebound that may have been at least partially fueled by his historic tax cuts, but we have yet to see how the significant corporate tax cuts his administration enacted will affect the nation in the long term. Also, in my analysis of past Presidencies, I would tend to give credit for sustainable economic rebound to the decisive actions of whoever was in power 3-4 years before that growth occurred. This is, at the very least, a matter for debate, and I’m willing to grant some credit to President Trump and his administration for encouraging a robust economy. President Trump established the Space Force, restored defense funding, signed the First Step Act – an important bill designed to help alleviate mass incarcerations, made important steps to combat human trafficking and the heroin epidemic (even this past week moving to approve a drug to help those using opiods as medication avoid addiction) and his administration oversaw the completion of a five-year plan begun in the Obama administration to destroy the ISIS caliphate, successfully relegating the terrorist organization to the sidelines of world politics. President Trump also deserves credit for brokering historic peace deals in the Middle East. We are still waiting to see the long-term impact of deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, but, if they lead to lasting peace in the Middle East, this will be a lasting legacy for Trump's administration. He also appointed three Supreme Court Justices and some two hundred plus federal judges, and, obviously, we will wait to see how they end up influencing the nation. For my readings of opinions and observations of the three Supreme Court jurists, Gorsuch appears to be a solid choice, Kavanaugh seems somewhat shallow in his reading of the laws, and Barrett is too inexperienced and new overall to know much at all for certain about the influence she will have on the court. I hope and pray she will use her obvious intelligence and strong faith to be an influence for justice and sober interpretation of the law. It is too early to know with any surety how any of these three will impact the court in the future.

President Trump had a very mixed record on the issue of being pro-life. He offered full support for those seeking to enact laws to restrict abortions and appointed judges who are seemingly likely to be sympathetic to those laws. His ability to avoid entanglement in any new foreign conflicts should be noted, again, here. However, he also oversaw 13 federal executions, more than any President in 120 years, a tragedy in my understanding of Jesus’ words on the value of every human life. Finally, I will discuss later in this post the President’s record on issues of racial justice and climate change, which are also pro-life issues where I found his administration lacking.

On the negative side of the ledger, I have many, many thoughts. First of all, President Trump certainly did not bring dignity or decorum to the Office of President of the United States. As a regular consumer of his Twitter feed, I often observed personal, profane insults of people who criticized the President, promotion of conspiracy theories, violations of the Hatch Act for political gain, and constant re-tweeting of the videos and posts of supporters who happened to be white nationalists, QAnon believers, radical right-wingers, and the like. “So what?” Many might say. “He might be a jerk/buffoon, but he gets things done. It’s not about the man, it’s about the mission, not about the person, it’s about the policies.” Many of President Trump’s shortcomings came to prominence in 2020, which ultimately, I believe, led to his defeat. When the President said that there were “fine people” who marched with the white nationalists to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, when he constantly described those trying to cross the border illegally as “animals” and generally very bad and dangerous individuals, when he described all those peacefully protesting police brutality by kneeling at the anthem as “sons of b-‘s,” he ramped up racial tensions in our country instead of doing what he could to bring a sense of connection, empathy and reconciliation for a nation that has clearly been reckoning with the racism embedded in our country’s past for some time now. All of this came to a head after the murder of George Floyd. As protests and national outcry surged, President Trump could be seen screaming for “LAW AND ORDER!” and quoting racist leaders of the past by saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Rather than asking Black leaders of all backgrounds across the nation to come and meet with him and listening to their pain and anguish, President Trump presented himself as the defender of the American way and protesters and “Antifa” members as the greatest threat to democracy; all while his own FBI director said that white supremacist groups were the greatest domestic terrorist threat the country faced. President Trump failed to show any significant empathy or compassion toward the cause of racial injustice, instead doubling down by attempting to remove any instruction on the racial problems of America’s past from federal institutions. Prominent politicians who were people of color were told to go back to their country of origin if they didn’t like how it was here in America. I find this very disheartening and tragic, but not nearly as disheartening as the unwillingness of Christians who voted for President Trump to stand against this divisive and harmful rhetoric.

        I think President Trump’s strategy of painting himself as the victim of people wanting to commit racial violence almost worked. I think many in America saw the President as the defender of the police, not recognizing how his unwillingness to acknowledge the concerns of those crying out for racial justice and reach out in compassion to find common ground actually put police and the citizens of the country he served at greater risk as tensions rose among both radical left wing and radical right wing groups, and those peaceful protesters were left feeling unheard and unwanted. Having just read a biography of Lyndon Johnson as the Floyd protests began, I was struck by the contrast between Trump and LBJ. Johnson, as a Texas politician had some serious racist issues of his own, showed a willingness to hear and respond to the needs of Black leaders, and used a lot of political capital to throw his support behind the Civil Rights Act. I do not believe that history will look on President Trump’s handling of a similar crisis fondly; we will see whether or not President-elect Biden finds a better solution in the years to come.

        President Trump also failed to address a few other issues of major national interest. The national debt continued to skyrocket under his administration, despite during his campaign repeatedly assuring those who voted for him that he would deal with the debt. He also did not believe in the science of man-made climate change, and so has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and other initiatives designed to help combat our negative impact on the environment. Whether it is carbon-sequestering or driving initiatives for renewable energy sources and environmentally friendly products, President Trump has not offered any substantive leadership, and, instead, has set the nation back in terms of these goals. President Trump worked to make the nation energy independent with great success; however, this effort will have little benefits in years to come if our consumption of those fuels is, as scientists say, contributing to lasting damage to our planet that will cost millions or billions of human lives. The long-term effects of the Trump administration’s failures to address both the debt and climate change will not be known for several decades, just as they will not be known for previous administrations who shared those failings at one level or another (including Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama).

        President Trump’s volatility and overconfidence showed up prominently in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As his interview with Bob Woodward demonstrated, President Trump understood that this disease was serious, deadly and nothing to play around with LONG before he was willing to share this information with the public. The President’s reasoning – that he didn’t want anyone to panic – displayed an appalling lack of confidence in the American public and a transparent desire to promote economic growth over personal safety. His early, limited ban of travel from China was a significant yet insufficient effort to stop the virus from spreading, and he was slow to get the Strategic Defense Fund moving to get PPE to needed providers. The allocation of federal funding to getting a vaccine is commendable, of course, but we are all seeing right now the disastrous results of not having a nationwide plan for contact tracing, universally available testing, and a funding plan in place for businesses that are not able to safely operate in a pandemic. Additionally, eight months into a pandemic, President Trump was not able to use his political authority to get more than one bill passed to help folks suffering economically in the pandemic, until finally getting an additional bill passed over the holidays. Over 402,000 Americans have died, with current projections putting us over 450,000 dead by March. Meanwhile, President Trump refused to wear a mask on a consistent basis (providing cover for a wide range of people who refuse to believe the science of mask-wearing), constantly assured the public that the virus will just disappear, undercut his health officials at every turn, and conducted incredibly unsafe political rallies throughout the nation during his campaign. The greatest crisis of President Trump’s term of office was the COVID-19 pandemic and we saw all of his flaws come to the forefront in his disastrous failure to provide the strong leadership the country so desperately needed. I believe history will rank this Presidential failure right alongside Hoover’s failure to respond to the Great Depression, Andrew Johnson’s abandonment of Reconstruction principles, and James Buchanan’s refusal to offer any sort of substantive counter-move to the obvious signs of impending Civil War.

        President Trump is an authoritarian figure. I would hope even those who support him could acknowledge that he loved the authority he has been given and that he rested his policies and actions on that authority. In this manner, I think he has, to some degree, amplified some of the less than stellar aspects of the Obama administration. Too often, President Obama was willing to resort to executive order to accomplish his agenda instead of seeking compromises and working with the legislature. Now, we may say that the conservative legislature left President Obama no choice, but the precedents of aggressive, executive ordering set by both President Obama and President Bush have been taken up eagerly by President Trump. And, frankly, I hope this is a wake up call to everyone that we need more compromise and accountability between the executive and legislative branches. Liberals and conservatives, Progressives and strict constitutionalists need to find common ground from which to govern for the good of the American people and the President needs to be a leader in this effort.

        President Trump ended his time in office by refusing to accept the results of an election whose outcome is clear, and sowing seeds of doubt in the electoral process. We all knew that voting received by mail would cause the results for certain states (in which Republicans advocated against counting ballots early) to arrive late. We also knew that, because of the President’s own aspersions cast against the reliability of voting by mail, that the votes received late would favor Vice-President Biden. Yet, all of this has now been portrayed by the President as evidence of widespread voter fraud, all while political officials from both the left and the right in both Republican and Democratic states have assured the public that the elections were conducted properly. It is a huge hit to the Trump brand to suffer a loss, so he has to portray that loss as a theft, an unjust scheme to deprive him of his rightful win. I don’t think this is a good move for him long-term. I think he should chalk the loss up to the pandemic, an event that occurred beyond his control (though, the response was certainly something over which he had significant responsibility). Eventually, he can take credit for the speedy availability of a vaccine and argue that the infections and deaths we experience were unavoidable (leaving folks to debate whether or not that was true). But, this kind of advice clearly did not win the day in the White House.

        I wrote most of the above before the tragic events of January 6th, 2021. On that day, President Trump revealed himself as an authoritarian who gladly flirts with Fascism as he willingly released a violent, angry mob on the Capitol, in explicit hopes of intimidating legislators and the Vice President into overturning the Presidential election. One has only to listen to the various video feeds of the mob to realize that they understood themselves to have been authorized by President Trump to take over the building. He stood idly by as lives were put in danger, and was reluctant and slow to say anything to stop the mob. When he finally released statements, they were surrounded by further reminders of his belief that the true people at fault were those who stole the election from him. We cannot support someone like this. This is not how a rational person reacts to losing an election. It is not helping his political future, it is not helping the country, and it is causing drastic harm to the evangelical church, which is seen as supporting him.

        Here, I would like to make a personal appeal to my friends who are conservative, Republican voters. In the past, I voted and campaigned for George W. Bush. I voted for John McCain. I voted for Gary Johnson. I have supported many Republican and Libertarian candidates in the past for many different offices. As a note here, I would describe myself as a generally conservative voter who prefers a smaller federal government and larger, active state governments, and who believes that systemic racism and man-made climate change are real and should be addressed in some meaningful manner by all levels of government (which, in the eyes of many, makes me a radical leftist, sadly). So, I do not believe that I speak as someone who opposes the agenda of the Republican party in general (though I find myself identifying more with a small third party called the American Solidarity Party of late – Google them!). But, ultimately, my primary political affiliation is simply - I have no King but Jesus. With that said, I think it is time for the GOP to make a clean break with Trumpism. Many of you opposed President Trump vehemently in the 2016 Primary. Remember WHY you opposed him, then, because everything that he has done that disappointed us had its precedent in the words and character he has displayed from the moment he stepped on the national stage. We need to disregard the trappings of nationalism, populism and ethnocentrism. We need to realize that we have large groups of first-generation Americans among the immigrants who are here in our communities who do NOT support socialism and would like to vote for a pro-family, pro-life, pro-freedom agenda, but don’t see the party that preaches those things offering a welcoming message to them. Republicans should be the number one advocate of immigration reform that allows more immigrants to come into the country to work hard and establish their lives here. Republicans should be pushing for tax breaks for initiatives to make our country both energy independent AND reliant on renewable energy sources. In Ohio, you have to pay a tax for buying a hybrid vehicle to make up for the savings on gas taxes you get from owning that vehicle. I find that sad. We should be offering huge incentives for anyone willing to make even small sacrifices to help with the climate crisis. Republicans should push for huge tax breaks for individuals and corporations who are doing what they can to lower carbon emissions and keep the air and environment clean. Republicans should start showing their investment in urban communities to provide for residents there to get better education and work opportunities so they can be incentivized to pursue the American dream. Currently, Republicans focus solely on rural and suburban communities, but there is immense opportunity to bring conservative values and local/individual solutions to urban communities IF Republicans will show a true desire to understand and embrace the needs of urban residents. Finally, Republicans need to recognize that we are a global society, whether we like it or not. The question should not be “how can we separate ourselves from the world?” but “how can we lead the world in embracing the causes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – happiness, meaning not just individual good, but a collective good that uplifts each individual.” I don’t know about you, but to me, these changes in thinking are pretty much the opposite of what President Trump has promoted for the past four years when he spoke of “America First.” That’s why I am looking for conservatives who distanced themselves from President Trump and articulated conservative values in a manner markedly different from him to lead the party beginning in 2021. The “America-first” values and white-ethnocentric agenda of President Trump are not a winning message for young people and a nation that will see the majority of its people become non-white by 2043. The values of the Conservative party should be “life-first, family-first, character-first” for all people from all nations who come to form a life and identity here.

        Finally, I want to send a thank you and an apology. First, thank you to President Trump for helping me realize some things that I have long been avoiding; most prominently, the ways that I have been unconsciously trained to fear and distance myself from the concerns of Black Americans. Because of my horror over the overt tones of ethnocentrism in the President’s speeches, I dedicated myself to reading history and literature written by people of color, whom, it turns out, experienced the history of this country far differently than I did and far differently than did the white historians, biographers and novelists I had read for most of my life. I think I have President Trump to thank for my realization that the great thing about the United States was and is not who we HAVE been, but who we COULD be. And, I feel excitement over the idea of reaching out to people who are different than me during the rest of my life to learn what they are bringing to our country and how it will make us a better place for everyone, and to learn how I can best advocate for their rights, voice, and the value of their lives. I honestly don’t know how long it would have taken me to embrace this perspective had my revulsion at many of the things President Trump said and did not pushed me in this direction. Finally, a related apology – I am sorry to all my friends who were in groups that felt marginalized by President Trump’s campaign in 2016 that I did not fully recognize the danger he posed to you. Naively, in my position of privilege, I hoped and believed that things wouldn’t be as bad as what you feared. I also apologize to the families of those who died because of the reckless way this administration mishandled the pandemic. Although, every day, I prayed and struggle about how best to speak out against the unrighteous and harmful policies of this administration, I can’t help wishing I’d have done more for the 402,000+ now dead from COVID-19. I pray I will be even more courageous in speaking against future Presidential administrations, including President Biden’s, when they advocate for policies and principles that oppose the truths of the Gospel. Given that these U.S. administrations are all empires of the earth, geared toward human political power and the strength of self-will, I am sure I will have plenty of opportunity to do so in the days to come, just as faithful Christians have done from the beginning days of the church. For now, I pray sincerely for just, peaceful, righteous, humble and servant-hearted days ahead for the United States of America.

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