In the aftermath of Trump, beware of rubble
Throughout the rise and rule of Donald Trump one headline returned to my brain repeatedly: “The Destroyer Cometh.” Its title came from a syndicated column by National Review editor Rich Lowry that appeared in February 2016. Although I later convinced myself that David Brooks had written it, the biblical undertones of the title accurately lodged in my brain, along with the basic theme: There’s no way this Trump thing ends well.
Lowry was right about the outcome but wrong on its mechanics. He predicted Trump would be defeated in the primaries or at the convention through an expensive and fracturing exercise. Alternatively, if Trump won the nomination, many conservative voters would stay home in November and Republicans sharing the ballot with him would avoid his frayed coattails. The thought of the guy actually winning the White House was not really taken seriously. The thought of the guy still dominating the party after losing in 2020 and sparking a riot was unfathomable.
But this piece is not one in which I quibble with Lowry on the details in the middle of his column. He opened with “Donald Trump is running riot in the GOP china shop and gleefully tearing the place up,” and closed with “It’s all very entertaining — but so are demolition derbies.” That’s prophetic enough for me, and it was those foreboding three words at the top that I could not shake.
From whence did “The Destroyer Cometh” come? Some translate Daniel 9:27 as “The destroyer cometh over the summit of abominations.” John Darby translated Job 15:21 as “The sound of terrors is in his ears: in prosperity the destroyer cometh upon him.” One could riff on those verses and Trump for quite a spell, but neither seemed to be the source. In hindsight, the word trio probably lingered in the back of Lowry’s mind from a 2014 Kevin Williamson National Review piece of the same name. Williamson—who was referencing Job— rightly lamented the rise of the overly-laurelled Jon Stewart and his brand of “fake news.”
[F]or the Left the point of journalism is not to criticize politics or to analyze politics but to be a servant of politics, to “destroy” such political targets as may be found in one’s crosshairs. For the Left, the maker of comedy and the maker of graphs perform the same function. It does not matter who does the “destroying,” so long as it gets done.
Not to be outdone, two years later the Right elevated the clownish Trump to Commander in Chief and gave him the metaphorical and literal nuclear codes. Destroy he did.
An ocean of ink has been spilled on how Trump destroyed the integrity of the white Christian Right. I’ll spill just a bit more. The Stream, published by James Robison, moved from leaning against Trump in 2016 to going full-Kraken in 2020. The Christian Post was among the popular outlets that followed a similar path. R.R. Reno, editor of the more refined First Things, went from warning against “Trumpster diving” to coexisting rather comfortably amid the refuse.
The pro-life movement showed early signs of integrity. Angela Denker, the left-leaning author of Red State Christians, went to the 2017 March for Life in D.C. expecting a “thinly veiled Trump rally” but found only a handful of MAGA hats among the thousands. That ambivalence was consistent with what right-leaning Tim Carney chronicled during the 2016 primaries. “Trump was weakest,” Carney wrote in Alienated America, “among those Republicans who go to church the most.”
But the wariness did not last. With some notable exceptions like Beth Moore, the leadership and much of the pro-life, church-going masses eventually gave Trump the bear hug he craved. At least Trump delivered on his key promises to them. Three Supreme Court justices who may well overturn Roe v. Wade is more than the “try again next time” consolation prizes Republican presidents have often provided. Prior to Trump the pro-life cause was enjoying solid support among the young-and-not-yet-cynical, a demographic also concerned about racial inequities and sexual power abuses captured in the “me too” phenomenon. How their full embrace of Trump wears over the long-term is a question that looms large, especially during an era in which church members are now a minority group.
Trump’s version of what he called “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL” channeled white supremacist and QAnon fever swamps toward the mainstream of the GOP, drowned out traditional conservative concerns about the national debt, and then closed with a waterfall of “Stop the Steal” lies. By 2021, the norms of Washington—admittedly far from beautiful before 2016—resembled Dresden after World War II.
Some of Trump’s bombs hit targets worth targeting. A free-trade-first, libertarian economic ideology was exposed as a stowaway rather than the legitimate captain of the conservative ship. Many in the media and technology sectors had any veneer of objectivity blasted away as their “by any means necessary” mindset led to the inflation of anti-Trump rumors and the suppression of valid stories that might reflect poorly on Joe Biden. Female accusers from the past were to be believed unless named Tara Reade. Questionable foreign ties merited deep investigation unless found on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
The unfortunate result was an ecosystem of mistrust that allowed all sides to point to selected hypocrisies. “Whataboutism” replaced introspection, and institutions eschewed internal housecleaning to become mere flop-houses of the fringy. The GOP, an organization that once dared to call itself “the party of ideas,” was reduced to “the pissed-off party.”
While the Religious Right embarrassed itself by suppressing discussion of Trump’s glaring flaws, the Religious Left sadly followed suit with Biden. After decades of supporting the Hyde Amendment, Biden flipped to embrace public funding for abortions in 2019. The final fig leaf covering supposedly “pro-life” progressivism was removed. Yet, the formation of Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden made clear that, for some, the Democrats’ absolutism on abortion would not be a bridge too far.
Biden began keeping his pledge of pro-abortion fealty immediately: Trump’s pro-life executive orders were reversed. Then trillions in deficit spending were passed along partisan lines without the protection of the Hyde Amendment. Richard Mouw’s subsequent statement that the group felt “used and betrayed” was laughable; apparently, the expectation was that Biden would flip back after “engagement” with them. Given Biden’s long history of plagiarism and other infidelities, perhaps there was some reason to hope he was again lying on the campaign trail. Yet, Mouw’s complaints sounded like those of an adulterer miffed that his illicit lover refused to divorce her husband. If the GOP is now married to Trump, the Democrats are as firmly bound to abortion.
“Put not your trust in princes.” Those are words for all to hear.
The destroyer came. The reconstruction begins. Sometimes things can be rebuilt better than before. In the short term, though, the rubble provides plenty of stones for all sides to throw, and we may not be building together for a while.