The British journal The Spectator muses that Donald Trump has driven the liberal press in America crazy. The inmates of this particular subculture cannot believe that this election occurred in real time and that the parade of Trump and his underlings, which forces itself on our attention every time we switch on our TVs, is a collection of real people rather than characters in a political horror show in the liberal imagination. I am neither press nor liberal, and I’m appalled by what Trump has achieved in the first weeks of his presidency—a probably illegal executive order barring millions of Muslims from entering the United States; the start of a massive deportation drive against “undocumented aliens,” ready to separate parents (who are “aliens”) from children (who are citizens); authorizing the building of a wall along the southern border and telling the Mexicans to pay for it (adding insult to injury, to a nation that still has a sense of honor); dismaying our allies throughout the world; and accusing both the mainstream press and the U.S. intelligence services of peddling “fake news.” All this is bad enough without adding imaginary features to the construct “Donald the Monster.” There are others, but I will only mention three.
1. “Trump is a Fascist, who wants to overthrow the republic.” Hardly. Some of his moves may well fail constitutional muster, but Trump did not defy the Federal judge who issued a temporary injunction against Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban (although Trump insulted the “so-called judge” who stopped the chaos at the airports). Rather, some of the most egregious aspects of the ban were stopped right away, and Trump set out to rewrite the whole order to make it legally acceptable and somewhat more humane.
2.“Trump is an anti-Semite.” This a thunderously implausible characterization. Bernie was born in Brooklyn, in a secular left-leaning Jewish environment. In his youth he went to Israel and lived briefly on an ideologically Marxist kibbutz, on the far Left of the Zionist political spectrum. I knew a young man who had joined the same kibbutz (before he jumped over the wall and became a sort of hippy in Tel Aviv). He told me that at the time he was proud of owning nothing, not even his underwear. On the appointed day he would turn in his dirty laundry and in exchange would receive underwear of the same size, not usually a set he had worn before. Since that little episode socialism always meant for me an arrangement where you didn’t buy your own underwear—it was allocated to you. Bernie’s much-admired Denmark was never socialist; it was and is a capitalist country with a very generous welfare state.
But I’m not really interested here in Bernie Sanders’s confused ideology. The enemy was always “fascism.” Donald Trump, in that perspective is a “fascist.” As such, by definition he is an anti-Semite. That, however, is a mistake. Trump, alas, is a number of unfortunate things. An anti-Semite he is not. He clearly cherishes his Jewish grandchildren and his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism. That is very touching (during the campaign, asked if there is anything at all she admires in Trump, Hillary mentions his love of family). Trump also attacked the retailer who dropped Ivanka’s fashion line—also touching. It curiously imitated President Truman, who in 1950 scathingly attacked a reviewer who had criticized a concert performance by Truman’s daughter Margaret.
Less touching, I’m afraid, is Trump’s reliance on his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner for advice on the Middle East. Kushner is close to the settlers’ movement in the West Bank, which is unlikely to be helpful in the achievement of what Trump has called the “biggest deal of them all”—peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Be this as it may, Trump’s defense against the charge of anti-Semitism dominated the most embarrassing news conference of his presidency thus far. On February 16, 2017, Trump’s staff invited one reporter who had never been to one of these events, to make sure that there would be at least one friendly reporter asking a question. He was a very young man from an ultra-Orthodox publication. He appeared in full Hasidic uniform—yarmulke, side-locks, white shirt. He was oozing shy deference. He said that he hoped that Trump would comment on the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since Trump’s campaign began. He wanted Trump to strongly condemn anti-Semitism and showcase his pro-Jewish position. Instead Trump put on his most disapproving face, cut the young man off, adding that he knew where this was going and that the question was very unfair. Trump then said that he was the least anti-Semitic person you could ever meet. In effect he loudly proclaimed that he was not an anti-Semite. The scene was a surreal repeat of President Nixon’s famous statement, also on national television, “I am not a crook.” Both the young reporter and his editor were appalled. It struck me that Trump’s thin-skinned readiness to sense offense had just lost Trump the few Jewish votes still in his corner. I could see Steve Bannon, Trump’s Machiavellian strategist, watching this scene and texting Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, “There goes Brooklyn!”
3. “Trump is a sexual predator.” Of course in the mind of Bernie Sanders, the fascist Trump must necessarily be a sexual predator, too, as it were by definition—Commander in Chief of the “War against Women.” The proof text for this charge is an interview of Trump taped in 2005 by Access Hollywood, a publication of NBC Universal. The tape was lying in some archive for about ten years until the Washington Post acquired and published most of it on October 8, 2016. In pretty lewd language Trump described how, as a “reality TV” star he was free to kiss and grope women as he pleased. Right after this publication a number of women went public to report similar behavior by Trump. He immediately apologized—from reading what he said it is somewhat unclear whether he was apologizing for the behavior or for the way he talked about it. He became a little clearer the very next day when, during a scheduled debate with Hillary Clinton, he dismissed the tape as “locker room talk, never acted upon.” This, he claimed, is not what he is really like. Clinton pounced on him: “It represents exactly what he is.” True to form, he went on the attack: Comparing Bill Clinton’s alleged behavior with women with his case, Trump’s behavior was in words, Clinton’s in action. To increase the pressure on hapless Hillary, Trump invited to the debate several women who had accused Bill of assaulting them.
Of course I have no idea what really happened in either case, though in Bill Clinton’s case there was a sort of trial in the impeachment proceedings presided over by Judge Kenneth Starr, though it must be noted that Bill was not found guilty of whatever he did with Monica Lewinsky but for lying about it. But what intrigues me about the “locker room defense” is that it can be interpreted in quite contradictory ways: Either as saying “I did this, but I was very young, and boys will be boys,” or as saying “I was just bragging, I really didn’t do anything.” Morally and legally speaking, committing sexual assault is much more serious than falsely bragging about it. Again: I don’t have an informed opinion on what Donald Trump actually did some ten years ago. But the second defense is more intriguing: Trump put on what can only be called the persona of a lout, and not just in his attitude toward women. It obviously appealed to an important portion of his base. If you are applauded for loutish behavior, you will be under pressure to act or pretend to act like a lout. But let me, with a sense of relief, leave aside these salacious matters for what may develop into a much more serious problem for the Trump presidency—the question of the Russian connection.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have been saying nice things about each other for some time (though so far Trump has spared us the sight of himself riding on a horse with his shirt off). While all these manly salutes were being exchanged on the summits of power, official relations between Washington and Moscow were steadily deteriorating. Hackers close to the Russian government penetrated the communications of the Democratic National Committee, which contained materials harmful to Hillary Clinton and were promptly leaked. Previously the United States imposed sanctions on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine. The initial investigation by U.S. intelligence could not say definitely that the hacking was intended to interfere with the election in Trump’s favor. And of course, not even the CIA could determine that the Russian intervention caused Trump to win the election. More will likely come out about this, but already the word “impeachment” is being whispered among Democratic optimists in Washington (pessimists are researching Canadian immigration law). But “Kremlingate” was getting worse.
On January 20, 2016, Trump appointed Michael Flynn, a general with major intelligence experience—and the most Russophile individual in Trump’s entourage—as National Security Adviser. A few months ago Flynn gave a major address in Moscow and sat next to Putin at a festive dinner. On February 13, 2017, Trump asked Flynn to resign for having lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with known members of Russia’s intelligence services. Trump used the occasion to attack the press (“an enemy of the American people”) for leaking classified information. As in the classical Watergate case, the important question is now “what did the President know and when did he know it?” Worse was to come. Reince Priebus, the White House Chief of Staff, said that a high FBI source had told him that nothing incriminating had come out in the investigation of the relations between Trump officials and the Russian government. Priebus asked the FBI to issue a statement saying that “nothing has come out of its probe of the Russian matter.” James Comey, the newly appointed head of the FBI (appointed by Trump) refused, saying that he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. On March 3 the Times reported that Jeff Sessions, Trump’s newly appointed attorney-general recused himself from any role in the investigation of the “Russian matter”—which did not stop the Democrats from demanding his resignation.
On February 28, 2017, Donald Trump gave the most important speech since the inauguration, addressing a joint session of Congress. I watched it on television, with mounting fascination. I was surprised, and so evidently was every commentator, including some who had been vocal critics. Somebody asked, “Is this, finally, the new Trump?” He first began the address in a very matter-of-fact tone, sticking close to his text, then (perhaps responding to the frenetic applause of his Republican supporters, he spoke more freely). He opened by mentioning Black History Week and recalling the progress made on civil rights. There were none of the usual attacks, rather calls for reaching across the aisle and many religious references (including to “our Muslim allies”), ending with the emotional statement “We are all created by one God.” Trump seemed almost humbled. Strange to say, I almost felt sorry for him. One must never expect Trump to be predictable. Conceivably he will soon be back in full attack mode. But is it also conceivable that the bitter taste of reality, after a delay of some weeks, has finally produced the legendary “Oval Office effect”?
If only as a sociologist of religion, I’m fixed in my mind on the statistic that 81 percent of American Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Some were genuinely enthusiastic, others held their noses while voting for him as what they saw as the lesser evil. Many must have been repelled by what earlier in this post I called Trump’s “lout persona.” A prominent Evangelical leader, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, believed that God intervened in the election to make Trump President. Religion News Service reported that on February 18, 2017, Joel Tooley, a lead pastor of the very conservative Church of the Nazarene, attended a Trump rally at the Orlando airport with his eleven-year-old daughter. There was a lot of religion at the event, but it impressed Tooley as manipulative and insincere. There were hostile protestors, who were hatefully berated and roughly ejected. Tooley’s daughter was sobbing in fear, and he felt that he was at a celebration of devil worship.
Evangelicals often claim to detect supernatural forces, be it of God or the devil, at work in natural events. Others less sure of such interventions may not want to endorse either Jeffress’s or Tooley’s views of the Trump ascendancy. But they might agree that the emergence of a more moderate Trump would be a good thing for the country and its various religious communities. One of my political heroes was the late South African politician Helen Suzman, for many years the only anti-apartheid member of the (all-white) parliament in Cape Town. As a leader of the opposition party she sat right across from the government, speaking directly to their menacing faces. On one occasion she said to them: “You should really visit one of the townships, to see how blacks live in our country. I suggest that you go disguised as human beings.” I believe it was Confucius who wrote that it is better to pretend human-heartedness than not to have it at all. Words matter.