The rise of Donald Trump has baffled many people. Lots of people wonder how it is that someone so xenophobic, misogynistic, mendacious, and generally odious could possibly be the presidential nominee for the Republican Party in the coming election? One answer put forward by a certain sort of progressive is that large swathes of the American populace must likewise be xenophobic, misogynistic, mendacious, odious, sociopathic [insert continued trail of polysyllabic slurs].
To be sure, such people do exist and some of them support Donald Trump. But to attribute the rise of Donald Trump to the support of millions of purported regressive bigots is to fail to see the larger issues at play, foremost among them the dissatisfaction that many in the middle class have with a government they see as not attuned to their interests. One of the best pieces that I’ve read about Trump is by Walter Russell Mead, who argues that Trump is the candidate of the ‘control-alt-delete’ – in other words, a candidate for those who want a restart on the American political establishment.
Over the last forty years, productivity in the American economy has been steadily rising, but the proportion of that productivity going to wage-workers, especially those in the middle and at the bottom, has been decreasing. This has led to great increases in inequality. Consider, for instance, that the Walton family – heirs to the Walmart fortune – have more assets than the bottom 40% of Americans combined. And this inequality has entrenched itself politically through campaign contributions, lobbying, and promises of lucrative employment to elected officials; all of this has had the effect of further tilting government to the interests of a small minority at the top. (For a very good summary and exploration of these issues, see Robert B. Reich’s Saving Capitalism.)
It’s no wonder that large numbers of people are angry and want to hit the reset button on American politics. This is not an exclusively American phenomenon, as the recent Brexit vote can also be seen as the effect of middle-class anger at political elites. Rage on its own, though, is not a healthy political force and has the dangerous potential to be quite destructive. For a sense of some of this destructiveness, see George Saunders’ ‘Who Are All These Trump Supporters?’ in The New Yorker. Saunders’ piece is reflective, but fails to adequately explore the rage of people who feel left-behind economically, I think.
What then can Christians do in the face of this rage?
The Church needs to play a meaningful role in the local community and to recover that role if it has lost it. How does the Church help those who have lost their jobs, those whose families have fallen apart, and those who are disengaged from the community around them? These are questions that need to be taken seriously if the Church is to be present to the world around it – and, to be sure, is taken seriously by many Christians.
Surely dangerous forms of populism, like that embodied by the Trump phenomenon, flourish when people feel unanchored and uprooted from their community. It seems to me that politics, in many ways, is leaving behind the traditional left-right dichotomy and moving to a new divide between those who prosper economically and those left-behind in the new economy.
I’m not an American; but if I were, I’d feel like I couldn’t vote for either of the major candidates in the upcoming election in good conscience. I’m sure that other Christians feel the same. But this isn’t cause for hopelessness, for the Church still has its mission to love the poor and to extend mercy to the marginalized. The Church can bring hope to those who have lost it. And in so doing, the Church can serve as a useful bulwark against dangerous forms of populism.
All this to say, Christians should not think that their sole or even primary political obligation is to elect a good government – though this is certainly something desirable. Rather, Christians should continue to welcome and love the poor and broken in their midst and, in this way, to build up and serve the community around them.