WASHINGTON – Of all Donald Trump’s political skills, perhaps the most impressive is his ability to persuade people to support him by suspending their deepest, lifelong beliefs.
Some prominent conservatives have embraced Trump, in spite of his recent support for dramatically higher taxes on the wealthy and a single-payer health care system. They are saying, in essence: Because he is an immigration restrictionist and speaks in a non-PC vernacular, it doesn’t matter that he has endorsed the two main policy priorities of modern liberalism.
The same can be said of some pro-lifers, who must look past Trump’s previous support for partial-birth abortion and his inability to provide a serious rationale for his pro-life conversion (other than the obvious political imperative). Ann Coulter put it bluntly, admitting she doesn’t “care if [Trump] wants to perform abortions in the White House,” so long as he builds a wall and expels 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Many evangelical Christians are now in a similar position. In considerable numbers (Trump was the presidential choice of 42 percent of them in a recent poll), they are attracted to Trump’s unvarnished populism and his identification with middle-class anxiety and anger.
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But this support comes at a price. Most obviously, it represents the final triumph of Clintonism – Bill Clintonism – which is the belief that personal character, particularly on sexual and family matters, has no serious public implications. Evangelicals have been cultural holdouts on this matter. “You brag about many affairs with married women,” Sen. Ben Sasse recently challenged Trump. “Have you repented? To harmed children and spouses? Do you think it matters?” For evangelical supporters of Trump, it doesn’t matter.
The greater problem for evangelicals is found not in the field of biology but of theology. Trump’s defining personal and public characteristic is pride. In making America great again, he offers not a set of political ideals or policies but he himself. He, he says, is better, smarter and tougher than our corrupt and stupid leaders. Pride is his platform.
It is also, in the traditional Christian view, a vice, and a particularly pernicious one. “The essential vice, the utmost evil is Pride,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison; it was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”
Why is pride so dangerous? Because it is never sated, and always breeds conflict. “Pride is essentially competitive,” says Lewis, “while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … Other vices may sometimes bring people together: You may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.”
In our personal experience, we know that pride is often at the root of resentment, rivalry, jealousy, antagonism, greed and a desire for revenge. It is the unifying conviction of evangelicals that people eventually come to the end of their ego and need to look upward; upward from the foot of the cross. For some, this humility comes naturally. For others, it involves humiliation, failure or loss – what some might call being a loser. But it is precisely at this point of surrender and trust that the prodigal is welcomed home: “You are my beloved son, on you my favor rests.” So blessed are the poor, the hungry and the weeping. They are often the closest to God.
What does this mean for politics? A leader with an overweening, compulsive pride finds it difficult to learn or change: What of worth can others possibly teach? A narcissistic leader is always at enmity with other people and groups, and cannot be a unifying figure. As Abraham Lincoln displayed, the capacity to heal requires humility and empathy. A narcissistic leader is vindictive, keeps lists of his grievances and enemies and is vulnerable to the abuse of power. A narcissistic leader finds it difficult to feel sympathy for those regarded as failures and losers, for the wounded and disabled, for strangers, refugees and the vulnerable.
This is what evangelicals are sacrificing in their search for a savior. There is but one. And it is not Donald Trump.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.