Given what was known about Donald Trump prior to the 2016 election, one has to wonder how he managed to make his way into the highest office in the free world. True, enough of us had grown tired and disgusted with “Washington politics,” to the point where a fresh player in the game who was decidedly not a politician stirred our wishful thinking, that maybe our country could be moved out of its deep, slow ruts.
In the meantime our impressions have been confirmed – in spades. Trump is definitely not a politician, if by that term we mean someone who is a civic leader or public servant.
If we were hoping that his business acumen would apply the business principles of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and sustainability to our various national commitments, he did get busy right away with pulling us out of international trade agreements, rolling back environmental protection laws, and tearing up corporate tax regulations – all of which made Wall Street tingle and our 401Ks get erect.
Something inside us probably knew that all this mad rush for short-term gains might cost us down the road. But hey, this is how Donald Trump built his business empire, right? He knows how how to do it, he’s done it before, and he’ll bring us all together into the promised land of wealth and power. Trump would “make America great again.”
He wasn’t the first candidate and president to pull this mythic illusion of a once-perfect time over our eyes, but we were now more desperate for it than ever before.
And what did we get? Not only someone with no sense of civic leadership, but also an abject business failure who has been running his investments into the ground, taking on enormous debt, and leaving both contractors and investors without their shirts. He’s been dodging his tax obligations for decades, as well as laundering his wealth through off-shore investments, foreign banks, and by “employing” members of his own family. His very public words and behavior expose him as a racist, a bigot, a megalomaniac, and a hypocrite.
So who voted for him in 2016? Many of the same people who will be voting for him again this November. I call them the Five Tribes of Donald Trump.
I want to be careful to discriminate between professional Republicans and citizens who believe in the democratic philosophy of republican government. The latter recognize the strategic importance for a sustainable democracy of electing leaders who represent not just the will of the people, but their collective wellbeing as well. American democracy has operated by this model of a republic since its beginnings, and to be a Republican has long translated into a concern for strong, representative, and visionary leadership in government.
The tribe of Professional Republicans consists of those who were elected to their positions as representatives of their individual states, counties, and cities, but who have little or no concern for the wellbeing of our nation as a whole. They are at the table for their constituents only, and in the interest of staying in office for as long as they can. Sidling up to Donald Trump has meant a bigger piece of the pie and an opportunity to stand in the winner’s circle. As long as they kowtow to Trump, he promises to push more of the pie in their direction.
Over the past four years, the Republican Party has steadily relinquished to Trump both its philosophical vision and its spiritual soul.
Trump has cultivated the image of a wealthy capitalist for years, even though his wealth was largely given to him by his father or extorted from business partners (in the form of investments) and city officials (in the form of tax abatements). Capitalism is one of the seedbed traditions of the American Experiment, the other being democracy. It plays the economic priorities of private property, financial profit, and individual prosperity in creative tension with the democratic principles of equal rights, distributed wealth, and community service.
Trump’s election signaled the ascendancy of capitalism and its associated values over the longstanding ideals of democracy.
Wealthy Capitalists admire president Trump because he also wants to make money, invest money, make more money, and bank (or hide) as much money as possible. They don’t like the idea of giving a good chunk of it back to the government, to be sunk into social welfare programs and given away to people who don’t deserve it. The democratic principle of distributed wealth is seen by them (and him) as one of the things that’s really wrong with America. Everyone should have a chance to get rich, but they need to work for it – unless, of course, they are fortunate enough to inherit their wealth.
Why would any Christian support and vote for Donald Trump? Wasn’t Jesus all about breaking down walls, welcoming the stranger, and loving our enemies? Isn’t the message of Christianity that god wants all people to be healthy, happy, and whole – not just insiders but all people, everywhere? How can believers in such a god, who claim to be followers of Jesus, stand behind a man who despises the poor, humiliates his opponents, antagonizes his enemies, and misleads others with empty promises and false claims? Is it because he invokes god’s name once in a while, or poses for a photo op in front of a church with a Bible in his hand?
The darker truth is that the character of Donald Trump reminds evangelical Christians a lot of their god.
Not all that nonsense of “a preferential option for the poor” or universal love and forgiveness, but of the one who stands above the world in judgment and is motivated out of a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners – unless they can satisfy the conditions of salvation by confessing their sin, converting to the one true religion, joining the fellowship of a church, and holding fast till the end, when Jesus will come through the clouds and gather them up into heaven and they shall live forever and ever, Amen. Also as part of The Deal, their enemies and all unrepentant sinners will anguish in torment for as long. Division has the last word in this worldview.
The racial conflicts in America of White, Black, Red, and Brown are older than our Republic itself. Colonialists kidnapped Africans and sold them into slavery. Native Americans were decimated and banished to reservations. Latinos have long struggled to find their place in the landscape of Anglo-European cultures.
Whether we want to admit it or not, there is in each of us a preconscious reflex to be more cautious around people who are different from us. We can’t be sure just by looking, just how deep our differences might go, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
When this preconscious reflex gets taken up and coded into our morality, our institutions, our social attitudes and worldview, it plays out through an ideology known as racism. The tribe of White Supremacists who voted for Donald Trump believe deep down that America would be better off without Black, Red, or Brown people. These different colors and lifestyles are a threat to our national security and racial purity. Never mind the fact that large numbers of them suffer in poverty and crime outside our gates as a direct consequence of our historical exploitation and oppression of them as a nation. White Supremacists want them gone. Now.
This fifth and last Tribe of Donald Trump is less well-defined than the others. They represent a percentage of the population in any empire, nation, or organization who feel that the system is somehow rigged against them – or at least it’s not set up in their favor. Antinomian means “against the rules,” and an opportunist is someone who suspends moral principles for the sake of making a profit, gaining an advantage, getting even, or just having a little fun. To some degree we all come into the world as opportunists, taking advantage of every opportunity to get what we want. The imposition of morality by those in authority prompted us to be on the lookout for unlocked doors or gaps in the fence.
Donald Trump is all about breaking the rules when there’s something to gain for himself.
His Tribe of Antinomian Opportunists likely saw this in him and expected that he would break the rules in their favor as well. There’s no disputing that things have gone this way for many White Supremacists, Christian Evangelicals, Wealthy Capitalists, and Professional Republicans. But for the larger majority of Antinomian Opportunists, many of whom are excluded by the other Tribes, Trump’s example gave them license and opportunity to engage in vandalism, theft, arson, and violence. They brazenly hijacked peaceful protests and turned a democratic process into domestic terrorism and anarchy.
The Five Tribes of Donald Trump can be thought of as separate populations of Americans living in different parts of our country. But in truth, two or more – even all five – Tribes might live inside a single individual, making his allure all the more irresistible to them.
With four years to observe president Trump in action and test the sincerity of his campaign promises, the American people can see much more clearly now. The Five Tribes of Donald Trump are not likely to abandon their Führer, as devotion to him is energized by a profound insecurity, and the turbulent times are only driving their insecurity deeper still.
This is the time for those who believe in democracy to vote in their defense of it.