Many of Trump’s supporters feel disempowered by the elites

We’ve all been doing quite a deal of waiting of late – whether it be for the lifting of lockdown restrictions at a time of pandemic, or for the outcome of this week’s US presidential election.  And all the time, we believers are waiting for the coming of the Kingdom with signs of its breaking in here and now.  What does it mean to be a sensible person in waiting?  What are the signs of a foolish community in waiting?

The night after President Obama’s election 12 years ago, I happened to be in the Mall in Washington DC.  I joined a throng of people who were waiting for this new president with great expectation.  Activists had erected a wooden, prefabricated wall between the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial. The wall carried a banner headline that echoed the refrain from Obama’s Grant Park Chicago declaration the previous night: ‘Yes we can’.  The wall had been up for a few hours only. Thousands of people had already signed it, attaching photos and messages. The central message on the wall read:

As citizens across the world, we congratulate you on your election, and celebrate your campaign commitments to sign a strong new global treaty on climate change, close Guantanamo prison and end torture, withdraw carefully from Iraq, and double aid to fight poverty. No one country or leader can meet the world’s most pressing challenges alone, but working together as one world in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, yes we can bring real and lasting change. 

Twelve years on, we would have to admit that some of these key hopes were never realised or were later dashed.  Were we wise or foolish to entertain such hopes, to proclaim ‘Yes we can’?

While awaiting this year’s US presidential election result, I attended yet another Zoom conference, this one hosted by Magdalene College Cambridge.  The main speaker was Rowan Williams, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, addressing the topic ‘Overcoming Political Tribalism’.  We were welcomed by the Master of the College, Sir Christopher Greenwood, a charming and excessively polite Englishman. He looked familiar.

Back in March 2014, Sir Christopher had been a judge of the International Court of Justice ruling against Australia which had seized legal papers belonging to Timor Leste and its lawyers.  In his judgment, Sir Christopher had offered this damning indictment of Australia’s behaviour: ‘In view of the seizure of papers which clearly related to legal advice and preparation for the forthcoming arbitration from Timor-Leste’s lawyer, it is entirely understandable that Timor-Leste is concerned that there might be future interference and it sought an assurance from Australia that there would be no such interference. To my surprise, the undertaking from the [Australian] Attorney-General makes no mention of this matter. In the absence of any undertaking not to interfere with Timor-Leste’s communications with its lawyers in the future, I accept that there is a real and imminent risk of such interference which requires action on the part of the Court.’[2]

The other night Sir Christopher told his largely Australian audience that lawyers can tend to be too narrow in their thinking, confining considerations of justice to procedural due process.  Rowan Williams told us: ‘There is in humanity something to which justice must be done.’  In his paper for the conference, Williams wrote: ‘It is essential for an intelligent, compassionate, and sustainable political democracy to focus more on manageable solutions to specific unjust situations rather than being paralysed by maximalist general demands.’[3]

No matter how objectionable many of us may find the antics of President Trump, we need to acknowledge that more Americans turned out to vote for him than for any other candidate in history, other than his opponent Joe Biden who has outpolled him by more than 4 million votes.  Despite Trump’s mishandling of the COVID pandemic resulting in 236,000 deaths, more than 70 million Americans who are not compelled to vote turned out to vote for him.  Americans live in a very polarised society.  We all live in a very polarised world.

Waiting for the bridegroom to arrive we know not when, and perhaps even as late as midnight, we have to ask what is it to wait and prepare sensibly for engagement in such a polarised world.  Rowan Williams has identified the problem with those foolish bridesmaids who engage in what he calls political tribalism which shrinks the scope for mutual recognition in a polarised situation.  The foolish bridesmaid is the one who says, ‘I resolve not to think of the other’s view as sharing any of the moral anxieties or emotional tensions I experience.’  He warns against that political tribalism that ‘inexorably moves towards de-legitimising the other in debate’ and which ‘is a fertile seedbed for totalitarianism’.  The wise bridesmaid is the one who is looking for a shared language in uncertain times of waiting and conflict.

With his finest English equilibrium, Williams says ‘this is not a bland appeal for civility in political debate’ but rather an investment of the stranger.  Williams is not wanting to ‘relativise or weaken commitments or to accept an indefinite standoff’.  Rather he is trying ‘to discover what the “grammar” of another’s moral energy has in common with my own, as the condition for intelligent action’.  Most of those who voted for President Trump do not engage in his objectionable antics, nor do they approve of them.  Despite Trump’s antics and despite 10 million COVID cases, they think he acts ultimately in their interests, many of them feeling disempowered by the elites.  The wise bridesmaid needs to be able to understand and engage with persons who think their interests are better protected by a Trump rather than by a Biden.  This is not just about politics, and it’s not just about reducing ourselves to being citizens.  We are also religious people.  We are Christians. We are Catholics.  While we wait, we have a mission from God.  Williams reminded us this week that ‘the truly emancipated citizen is someone who is not just a citizen.  Civic virtue is bound up with affiliations and convictions that have more than just civic roots and sanctions’.

While we await a concession speech by Mr Trump, whether grudging or gracious, let’s refill our lamps seeking to ‘salvage an intelligent, compassionate, and pluralist democracy from the wreckage of so much political habit.’ Let’s be sensible believers in waiting.  Let’s maintain the hope that wisdom is near at hand.  Let’s pray for wisdom in the hearts and minds both of Trump supporters and Biden supporters and also in the hearts and minds of the rest of us who look on, aware that the choice of an American president affects more than the affairs of those entitled to vote in the 50 states of the union.’

Extracts from Homily by Frank Brennan, Newman College, November 8, 2020

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Frank Brennan AO is a Jesuit priest and Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute at Australian Catholic University and an Adjunct Professor at the Thomas More Law School at ACU.

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