I spent Super Tuesday with Donald Trump. No, he didn’t come over to my house for dinner or anything like that, but he did come to Louisville for a campaign rally. A friend invited me to go with him, and I did. Neither of us are Trump fans. In fact, we are staunch opponents. So why did we go? For me, I mainly wanted to see what all of the hubbub was about. It’s one thing to watch a demagogue on TV. It’s another thing to see in person how a demagogue captures and holds a room. I got to see it with my own eyes yesterday, and it was illuminating.
I had no idea that the crowds would be what they were. It is estimated that that there were about 5,000 people there. I think it may have been more. The line to get in the convention center downtown wound through four city blocks. All along the way, there were street vendors selling t-shirts, buttons, and other Trump paraphernalia—much of it emblazoned with the familiar vulgarities of Trump’s stump speech (e.g., “Bomb the sh– out of Isis,” etc.).
It took us about 45 minutes just to get to the security checkpoints at the entrance. Along the way, there were protestors shouting at us and holding signs. Walking by their jeers on the way in was like a walk of shame. I wanted to turn to them and say, “I disavow, okay.” But I didn’t. We kept our heads down and soldiered on, even as we largely agreed with what their signs said. I thought it was interesting that some of the protestors were already sporting placards reading “Dump Drumpf,” an allusion to the John Oliver take-down that has gone viral online.
Governor Chris Christie’s introduction was already underway when we entered the convention hall. Christie is apparently travelling with Trump and promoting him at different stops around the country. I was actually surprised to see him there. I would have thought that he might have backed away from his Trump boosterism after Trump shamelessly failed to denounce the KKK on Sunday. No, Christie came all the way to Louisville with a demagogue and would later appear again with him at a press conference in Florida. Christie looks to me like a man who has sold his soul and who now has to live with that decision. In a devastating column for The Washington Post, Alexandra Petri has put a fine point on it:
His were the eyes of a man who has gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed back, and then he endorsed the abyss…
Chris Christie has seen things. Things you wouldn’t believe. Things that would make your hair fall out and turn grey all at once. But he cannot speak of them. He can only stand there. Chris Christie is the bearer of a hideous knowledge that hangs on him like a horrible weight. But he has no way to say it…
Chris Christie has the glazed and terrified look of someone who has traded his inheritance for no pottage at all, who has watched his credibility dry up and is about to be led back to his basement cage, having lost Winterfell for good.
Trump took the stage to loud cheers that hardly abated throughout his thirty minute parade of pablum. His speech was filled with the usual riffs—the polls, the wall, Ch-eye-nuh, etc. The only new thing I heard was a disingenuous shout-out to his support for clean coal—which he assured us he was not saying just because he was in Kentucky but which assuredly meant he was only saying because he was in Kentucky.
Probably my main take-away from listening to him in person was his ability to stoke anger and outrage. The people he appeals to are frustrated with their government. They are frustrated with jobs being shipped overseas. And they are frustrated with a sense that the political elite don’t listen to them. He knows how to stoke that frustration into a blazing rage, and that is what he does at his rallies. The people exult in his outrage because it is theirs. And many of them are willing to either abide or overlook the blatant demagoguery and strong-arming of dissent.
At many points during the speech, Trump berated protestors from the stage. In fact, nothing got the crowd going more than when Trump berated the protestors, “Get them the h— out of here! Get out! Get out! Get out!” He screamed this over and over, and every time the crowd got more and more exultant in his rage. At one point a girl and someone who looked like her boyfriend walked right past me and stood nearby to watch the speech. She had dreadlocks and tattoos going up her neck. I took one look at her and thought that there was no way she was a Trump supporter.
In short order, she and some others began shouting and holding up signs in protest. What happened next was stunning. Several Trump supporters—most of them who looked like white men in their 50’s—grabbed their signs, tore them up in their faces, and then began manhandling the protestors out of the convention hall. I know that not all Trump supporters are like those men, but those particular men could have been arrested for how they treated the protestors. Those men were the embodiment of the ugliness that they were hearing from the stage. The emotions run so high at these rallies that if this kind of thing continues, it won’t be long before someone really gets hurt.
I booed and hissed loudly at numerous points during his speech, but I didn’t get treated like the other protestors. The people around us mainly just looked at us and stared. Still, it was uncomfortable, but I would do it over again. I wanted people to know that I disapproved.
After the speech was over, I left grieved–grieved that a demagogue who is a pathological liar could be so adored by so many normal looking people. I would like to believe that many of them are low-information voters who are fascinated by his celebrity but who aren’t really acquainted with who he really is—a man who favorably quotes fascist dictators and who cannot find it within himself to condemn the most vile domestic terrorist organization in U. S. history—the KKK. I read one poll that suggests that over half of them don’t know about those things. But it is clear that at least some of them do, and they either don’t care or they agree. And that is what is troubling.
I am also grieved because I know that what I witnessed in Louisville is a microcosm of what is happening around the country. From where I’m sitting, Trump looks like a threat to our constitutional order, not someone who can be trusted to lead it. Yet somehow so many of my countrymen see him as their best hope for the future. How can they not see what he is? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to see it. David French may be right,
America is facing its Romans 1 moment. Claiming to be wise, we are becoming fools. Millions of Americans admire Trump not because he is good but merely because he is “strong” or he’ll “kick a–” (to quote one Trump supporter I talked to last week). But here are some words the Apostle Paul used to describe the citizens of a godless age: “insolent,” “haughty,” “boastful,” “faithless,” “heartless,” and “ruthless.” These words read like a Trump personality profile. Moreover, the great sins of that age included not just indulging in those vices but also “giving approval to those who practice them.”
My hope and my prayer is that our nation would not give their approval to this. My exhortation to fellow believers is that we cannot give our approval to this. Donald Trump’s candidacy at the end of the day is a referendum on us. What kind of people are we after all? I’m not asking the Lord for justice at this point. I’m asking him for mercy. That is what we need more than anything right now.
Let me finish by saying this. Even though this political moment is a dark one, Christians have great reason to be hopeful. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “For I know that the LORD is great, And that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psalm 135:5-6). God reigns supreme over everything—even apparent political disarray. He is writing our history, not a demagogue. God’s purposes for the gospel and for the good of His people are not thwarted by any of this. “He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?'” (Daniel 4:35). So there is more than enough reason for hope and vigilance. We need both right now.