The Trump Presidency and What Happens After: A Catholic Take

COMMENTARY: Trump’s exit from the political spotlight can be an occasion for Catholics in the U.S. to give witness, by word and deed, to the enduring truths contained in our tradition but intended for all men and women of goodwill.

The White House is seen on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. According to reports, President Donald Trump is considering numerous pardons on last full day in office. President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President on January 20.
The White House is seen on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. According to reports, President Donald Trump is considering numerous pardons on last full day in office. President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President on January 20. (photo: Eric Thayer / Getty)

As Donald Trump exits the national stage, it’s a good time for Catholics to reflect on what factors gave rise to his unique presidency and to assess how to respond to his conflicted legacy.

The rise of Donald Trump is unintelligible apart from the larger forces that have reshaped our politics since the end of the Reagan administration, forces associated with the passing away of the post-World War II order that defined political life across the West. 

For nearly half a century, politics was dominated by centrist parties competing for centrist voters over who could best manage economic growth and the Cold War. The collapse of Soviet communism and large-scale changes brought about by increased automation, globalization and financialization of the economy broke that mold. As Gerald Seib recently noted in The Wall Street Journal, one can see harbingers of Trumpism in the losing presidential campaigns of both Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. 

Buchanan, himself a Catholic, is a particularly interesting figure, since, having earlier been a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, he served as an aid to Ronald Reagan before challenging Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, in a 1992 campaign that stressed the costs of deindustrialization, global trade and military over-commitment. 

Buchanan pointed to the struggles of working-class Americans increasingly unable to achieve stable middle-class economic status in the world of rapidly changing, high tech-driven, and globally interconnected labor and capital markets. Automation and competition with foreign workers, as well as immigrants, were seen by these workers as driving down wages and shrinking the number of available jobs. 

Both Democrats and Republicans still seemed to agree on the virtues of free trade and globalization in the 1990s; only in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-2008 did radical critics from both left and right emerge to challenge the mainstream, most dramatically in the form of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, followed by the insurgent presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Understanding Trump, however, requires noting something else about the collapse of the post-war order: the concomitant shift in mainstream views about morality and culture. This, too, followed a long process of development. Here, the harbinger of change was already visible in the late-1960s with the emergence of the “new social movements” associated with ecology, women’s equality, the rights of racial minorities and sexual liberation. In many cases, these movements were responses to real injustices that demanded correction. However, they are related to two other factors that have worked to challenge the viability of the traditional political parties and to alienate, in particular, Christian voters from political elites. 

First, these movements manifested and further drove a turn in politics from issues of economic welfare to those of identity. Political scientist Ronald Inglehart and his collaborators have gathered decades worth of data to show a large-scale shift in politics across the West from what they call “survival values” associated mainly with material well-being and emphasizing self-discipline and solidarity to “self-expression values,” which emphasize autonomy, creativity and identity, enabled by the growing material prosperity in these societies since the Second World War and correlated with a loss of both a broader sense of national identity and — here is the second factor — religious faith. The result of this is secularization and identity-driven politics, twin phenomena that lead to a public life that is more fractious and less subject to compromise, but also invested with a pseudo-religious significance. Politics becomes both more ultimate and more dysfunctional. 

The ruling classes of Western societies have internalized all this, but those who live outside the great metropolitan concentrations of wealth, privilege and influence, and who have paid a disproportionate share of the price of these processes in a loss of stability, community and respect, have, as one might have expected, reacted against it. 

They and their communities have been left behind, as documented in one way by George Packer and in another by Timothy Carney, and, in their alienation, were ready for the message of someone like Donald Trump, with his promise to “make America great again,” a reaffirmation of distinctly national identity and of associated traditional values, values that have come to be identified with life in rural America and the white working class. Evangelical Protestants and Catholics are important segments of this population, with Catholics, in particular, concentrated in swing states.

Many of the concerns of these Americans resonate with Catholic social teaching; for example, the role of work in understanding and promoting human dignity; the centrality of family and community; the importance not just of a healthy natural environment, but of a healthy moral and spiritual one; and a concern that the common good of our political community not be lost in more abstract concerns for the global common good, real though they are. They are also more likely to oppose abortion and to favor strong protections for religious freedom. On those last two issues, Trump made specific commitments and largely kept them. With other aspects of Catholic social teaching, there were serious differences, especially the Trump administration’s regrettable enthusiasm for the death penalty and prosecution — intentional, we now know, thanks to the Justice Department’s inspector general — of a shockingly callous and destructive policy of family separation against illegal immigrants at the southern border. 

While the terms “populism” and “nationalism” have often been used to describe the movement led by Trump, these abstractions are of little help in understanding the concerns of real people. That their interests be considered as part of the common good, and that national identity remains a valuable force for unity in political communities, a unity necessary to underwrite sacrifices undertaken by some for the benefit of others whom they do not know, and which are essential for political life, are truths not to be easily dismissed. When they are dismissed by the people in charge, others will assert them, and likely without the intellectual or moral depth that they require in order to serve as reasons for policy and practice. 

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda seemed to present possibilities distinct from the traditional positions of the post-war Republican Party and the aggressive identity politics and secularism of the contemporary Democratic Party: an unabashed affirmation of pride in U.S. history and accomplishments; an alignment of immigration policy more closely with U.S. national interest; attention to the problems of rural and Rust Belt areas, especially by infrastructure and industrial policies meant to recover middle-class jobs; and commitment to the protection of unborn life and religious liberty. Catholics constituted a crucial component of a coalition supportive of such priorities.

These concerns, however, have not had the expression they deserve and expected in Trump’s presidency. His conduct in office has been, notwithstanding some specific exceptions, too often uninformed, superficial and shambolic. Assisted by speechwriters and teleprompters, and in moments of self-discipline, he could say things that needed to be said. But much of the time what was most important was drowned out by his habitual coarseness and indifference to both facts and values. Even when he did commit to the right things, execution was clumsy and often ineffective, as in the cases of immigration, the trade war with China, and much foreign policy. 

The real problem, however, manifested repeatedly in word and deed, was that Trump’s main interests seemed not to be those of the people whose champion he claimed to be and who put him in office. His basic outlook is, in a word, primitive, centered on himself, his immediate family, and his useful friends. 

He took to people based on appearances, transactions and, ultimately, personal loyalty, as distinct from intelligence, competence or character, and this led him to tolerate and even encourage dangerous extremists among his supporters. His mode of government was prepolitical or patrimonial, in that he looked on the institutions of government as property that he had acquired and on public officials, elected or appointed, as his employees or retainers — with the exception of those who were simply his enemies. 

In the end, for Trump, there are only winners and losers, and his inability to make sense of himself as anything other than a winner surely encouraged the violence of Jan. 6. The appalling events of that day as well as the violence and disorder of this past summer are a warning about the sort of future we can expect if the present polarization is not moderated by a renewed commitment to a common political destiny. 

Our Catholic tradition tells us that politics is an enterprise grounded in reason and self-restraint deployed for the sake of a common good, the flourishing of all of us. Moreover, Catholic social teaching fits with a focus on priorities that would seem conducive to the promotion of a centrist politics that combines a commitment to the welfare of the poor and the working class, an immigration policy that is both reasonable and humane and fidelity to the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom as good in itself and as the foremost guarantee of a free and vigorous civil society, as well as advancing the protection of all human life. 

The exit of Donald Trump from the scene can be an occasion for Catholics to give witness, by word and deed, to the enduring truths contained in our tradition but intended for all men and women of goodwill. Our republic needs them more than ever.

V. Bradley Lewis is an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology.