26 January 2016

The Tragedy of Donald Trump. Or, Dordt College Helps Make News

Over the years, several of my posts have mentioned my undergraduate alma mater, Dordt College. (Check here and here for some examples.) Given its location in Iowa, Dordt has offered the B.J. Haan auditorium to all candidates running for their party's nomination in the Iowa caucuses. Of this year's Democrats, only Larry Lessig took advantage of the opportunity (bonus points for anyone who can honestly say he or she even knew Lessig was running) and that the day before he dropped out. (Lessig was the only person who could make Martin O'Malley look like a serious candidate.)

More Republicans have taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by Dordt, perhaps because it's located in Sioux County, 80% of whose residents reliably vote Republican in presidential elections. A few days ago those interested in one of the leading Republican contenders, Donald Trump, managed to fill every seat in the auditorium as well as several remote viewing locations. Known more for his rhetoric than his insights, Trump managed to leave even a supportive audience scratching their heads with this well-reported remark:

I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's like incredible.
For news reports about his remarks check the Sioux City Journal (here) and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (here). A recording is available on YouTube here.

Two matters about Trump's remarks cause some regret. First is the risk that some folks who don't know about Dordt's open-door policy for presidential candidates will mistakenly conclude that the college in some way support Trump or his views. Such were the concerns express in Jason Lief's blog here. I frankly don't think that's likely to be the case, especially in light of the remarks of Eric Hoekstra, Dordt's president:
Each time a candidate comes to campus, I have a certain sense of “cringe” for what it says to our students—political speeches are always full of broad-brush promises about what the candidate will do. There isn’t a candidate or party that can be 100% biblical or reformational—at least it seems that way to me. Opening our facilities to political candidates in no way implies an endorsement of their views.
Our choices are:
1.    To invite no candidates and have none of them on our campus
2.    To allow every candidate in good standing with their party equal access to our campus
3.    To pick and choose those who are worthy of having access to our campus and those who are not
We’ve chosen path no. 2. To fulfill our mission (equipping students, alumni, and the broader community to work effectively for Christ-centered renewal), this seems the best path with regard to political candidates. Certainly, option no. 1 would be to abdicate our mission. I don’t believe option no. 3 would be obediently responding to our calling as an educational institution. It would also violate our status as a nonprofit institution because it would be considered political speech.
The vitriolic nature of Trump's remarks and the vacuous nature of his "solutions" causes me greater regret. On a variety of issues Trump speaks to matters that are very real to a large number of Americans. The decline in numbers of jobs for working class Americans is real. The shrinking middle class is real. The ever-deepening penetration of the national-security state is real. Yet, Trump's bombast and undisguised opportunism means that discussions of new solutions to these concerns are (and certainly will be) shunted aside when the Trump balloon bursts.

Populism has a long and storied history in American politics (e.g., William Jennings Bryan, Wisconsin's "Fighting" Bob La Follette, and, more recently, Ross Perot). While its leaders were serious, populism as a movement failed to provide practical solutions to the problems its leaders identified.

More invidious than previous populists, however, is Donald Trump who is not serious. He is a corporatist who has used the power of the government to line his own pockets and is now masquerading as a friend of the people. Frauds regularly populate American culture (and sometimes American politics) but the real damage Trump will leave in his wake is a discrediting of non-liberal solutions to the problems animating his followers.

American political life is currently dominated, on the Left, by Progressive (state-centered) and, on the Right, by neo-liberal (corporate-centered) approaches. Neither a top-down nor a side-over approach to human society fundamentally addresses the real concerns of many real people. Neither is likely to cultivate communities in which human flourishing can grow and thrive.

Thus, Trump's flamboyant personal aggrandizement will in the end serve only to promote more of the same. A same that in which we see a withering of virtue and community and a never-ending growth of social atomism and end-less consumption.

Fred Siegel puts it well in the New City Journal here:
Trump’s a big-city guy with a big mouth who made his money from casinos and TV shows and went bankrupt twice. His appeal lies in his brashness—his willingness to violate politically correct conventions that are widely despised. It was said in mistaken defense of Joe McCarthy that, unlike the liberals, he at least understood that the Communists were our enemies. True enough, but as Obama understands, liberals dined out for decades on the inanities of McCarthyism. Obama hopes that Trump will serve the same purpose. (Emphasis added.)

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