The idol of ideology, part 1: The desperation of the Supreme Court justification for Donald Trump

In the past week, the electoral tides have turned against Trump in a way that might be definitive. There are still 24 days until the election. But the last presidential debate is on Wednesday, and the intervening time since the last one has been dominated by Trump’s systemic meltdown—a yowl of desperation, the belligerency of a playground bully who’s just been dragged off by his ear in front of everyone he’s ever kicked around. How they laugh, now. How the tides have turned in such a short time.

And yet, there remains a significant portion of America who watch this situation with fear. He’s not a bully, some say—he’s just roughing the other kids up a bit to help them toughen up. He IS a bully, others say—but we need him around to stand up to those other people, the dark ones, the ones who would threaten us, who want to hurt us. He is a bully, still others say— and we don’t like him, but the alternative is even worse.

How is the alternative worse? Asks the teacher who drags him off by his ear, and the third group falls silent. So does the second. The first group is still shouting, but the bully being dragged off by his ear is their leader, and they’re loyal to him.

Let me say this. Defending Trump on the grounds of his Supreme Court nominations is abject foolishness. It is desperation. It is willful blindness. It is all manner of things you, Christian, do not want to tie yourself to. And I sincerely urge you to stop.

But I also know full well that asking nicely probably won’t get me the results I want to see. What I want is for you, and everyone you care about, to vote for Hillary Clinton. And the reason—singular, just one—is this: because say of her character what you will, her actions over many decades attest to the fact she is a very, very competent civil servant. She is rational, good at negotiating, and even-tempered. And she will not severely disrupt the United States as you currently know it: just as the country has not ceased to exist under President Obama, it will not cease to exist under President Clinton.

Now consider the alternative. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that a president’s job does not begin and end with appointing Supreme Court justices. And yet, listening to so much conservative rhetoric over the past few days seems to make that exact case. But this is incredible to me, not just in the narrowness of its understanding. Conservatives in the United States have a long, storied tradition of advocating judicial restraint. Known also as original intent, this is the practice of judges ruling on cases according to the meaning the Founders intended the Constitution to be read with. And here they are, advocating judicial activism, as though the last hope of the nation rested in the Supreme Court—which has to wait for the issues it rules on to be raised and passed down by others.

I look at this and am absolutely baffled. This is the same nonsense that causes fearful Christians to get all worked up over the assault on religious liberty and then turn around and make the case for screening refugees based on their religion. This is what causes people to rush to the defense of the unborn and then turn their backs on those children when they grow up impoverished and can’t find a way out. This is, in other words, ideology. This is tribalism: conservatives who fear what the world is becoming, and so cling to the last vestiges of a world that is already gone.

One of many reasons this idea of “making America great again” resonates with people is because it calls to mind a time when America was more united. Wartime and post-war myths show the United States as a prosperous, Christian nation of successful people and families. But this narrative overlooks the fact that sustaining those smiling faces in classic billboards and films was only possible on the backs of American blacks, still disenfranchised and segregated. It ignores the decimation that manufacturing, that backbone of American prosperity, wreaked on the environment. And it is completely blind to the position the United States had at the time of the world’s Rome, the looming giant to whom the rest of the world paid tribute. America can only be “great” like it once was if it holds others down. And that makes it a farce. It’s not a coincidence that the demographics pulling strongest for Trump are the same ones who most benefitted under the old regime, who have the most to lose if it falls.

I look at this and am amazed by the ignorance that so many are willing to put on in service of an institution that cannot, that will not, preserve the version of America that those still pulling for Trump after everything he’s said and done are so desperate to lose. I am especially baffled because of what this says about their willingness to give this man the keys to the most powerful nation in the world—which still is the world’s Rome, albeit a Rome that is beginning to sputter with age. They are willing to cosy up to the snake who says this America is holding out on them—who promises what he has no intention of delivering, for whom the only thing he wants to make great is himself. They are willing to concede all this, to concede America’s public face, to concede the continued mistreatment of those most in need of help, to concede the surrender of the version of America that has the world’s respect and attention for reasons it can actually be proud of—in service of Supreme Court justices, or worse, of hypothetical justices, as though this man has any more reason to be trusted to deliver their salvation than a tiger left alone with a young child.

a_very_different_golden_calf_by_nemo_ramjet

“A very different golden calf,” by DeviantArtist nemo-ramjet

The problem with tribalism is that it views the field as zero-sum: that if we’re not winning, we’re losing, and we have to start winning again. No cost is too high, no depth too low. The fact Christians are still supporting Trump is testament to this. But what does justifying him really accomplish? Do you realize that if he’s elected, that you will be held responsible for the outcomes of his actions, that appointing justices is a tiny fraction of the president’s job? The only thing that can come from this continued us-versus-them nonsense is the collapse of any vestiges of America that were ever great. In recent years, the disease of ideology has rotted our country out from the inside. And it’s getting worse, not better, because almost no passionate adherents of either major ideology will admit to being part of the problem.

I am tired of arguing. I am tired of watching Christians make fools of themselves by dressing up in their ideological tribal garb that clashes with the message of Jesus. And I’m tired of those who have realized their own inconsistency and who have left their damaging addictions to ideology behind not speaking up more about the idols that are tearing our country apart. It is not liberals who are destroying America. It is not conservatives, either. It is ideology. It is tribalism. And it is the inability to look critically at what we believe and recognize these faults for what they are, and overcome them.

We have the candidates we deserve. We are the children on that playground. And now, we know what so many other countries have known for generations: what it feels like to have no hope for the outcome of an election. Perhaps this longing for America Past is somewhat warranted. Perhaps what we really want is to go back to a time before we realized what we’d become. The good thing is, though, that it’s not over. There is an out. But first, this thing must be called by its name.

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