By Ian S. Markham
In the next few months and years, countless attempts will be made to understand this extraordinary election cycle; few pundits imagined that a real-estate tycoon and TV celebrity could sweep aside the Republican Establishment and then beat the Clinton machine in the General Election. The center of gravity of the Episcopal Church is firmly identified with progressive social causes. We have, in recent years, taken pride in our decisions on LGBT issues; we are delighted to have elected our first woman Presiding Bishop, then followed by the first African American. We have enjoyed telling ourselves that demographics (both in terms of American cultural diversity and the worldview of Millennials) are on our side. If any faith tradition can make it in urban, diverse, progressive America, we have felt that we can.
Then Trump won, and many are reeling. Those of us specializing in Christian ethics have an obligation to work out what is happening. We need to “read the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3). So let us consider the main competing narratives that are already emerging.
The first is the local narrative. This is where we focus on the details of the campaign. For some, the Democrats should have persuaded Joe Biden to run. For others, the villain is FBI Director James Comey and the ill-judged letter he sent to Congress on Oct. 28. At that point, the election moved from a preoccupation with the Billy Bush video conversation to Hillary Clinton’s email server; the polls moved at the same time.
The second is a reassertion of racist America. The original sin of America, so the arguments goes, is racism. Here was a candidate attractive to David Duke and the KKK, willing to ban Muslims and to build walls against undocumented immigrants. America showed its true colors: once racist America had the candidate available, they seized the opportunity to vote for this hatred.
The third is the American Arab Spring narrative, which blends the overthrow of corrupt regimes in the Middle East with Brexit. We are seeing a revolt against the political establishment. Left or Right, people are tired of self-serving elites who do not care sufficiently for the regular lives of citizens. Trump promised to “drain the swamp in Washington.” Now the outsider has arrived.
The fourth is the reassertion of an American traditional Christianity identity. There is an irony here. Trump is no Ted Cruz. There is little evidence of any Christian practice in Trump’s life. However, with a Supreme Court vacancy, there are plenty of Americans who are not ready to charge into the abortion-on-demand utopia, with all and every sexual identity affirmed, and the constriction of individual gun rights. Polls consistently show that Americans worry about third-trimester abortions, and agree that “a mother and a father committed in marriage provide the best framework for raising children.” This group celebrated Trump’s willingness to challenge politically correct speech. They felt they were allowed to be themselves again.
The final narrative is the economic critique. Too many communities have died at the hands of globalization and technology, and those living in these communities have finally found a candidate who articulates their frustration. Bernie Sanders tapped into the same phenomenon. Many of his supporters were not ready to support Clinton, the person who was paid handsomely for making speeches to major bankers — the very bankers who created such devastation in our economy in 2008. Trump’s argument about border security and his anti-globalization rhetoric played well.
In my judgment there is truth in all five of these narratives. Indeed, one could make the case that Trump’s achievement was to bring these five narratives together and build his winning coalition. Trump made effective use of Clinton’s email server and the endless hacked emails. Trump did converse with the alt-right. He is a believer in various conspiracy theories that circulate in extreme right-wing groups. On the Arab Spring revolt, he was the vintage outsider up against the vintage insider. On the conservative Christianity front, he promised pro-life and Originalist nominees for the Supreme Court. And everyone underestimated the extent and despair of small-town America.
A further assessment creates an opportunity for the Episcopal Church. We love the word inclusion, so let us reaffirm afresh that we include those who are socially conservative. We include those who live in small-town America. We honor those voices and want them at the table. But let us also recognize that an election is never the end in a healthy democracy: it is the start. Elected officials need to listen to the people. And we should be ready to oppose and demonstrate against any unjust law. We should be ready to stand alongside those who are afraid — the Muslim (afraid of being banned), the African American (afraid of unchecked law enforcement), the Latino and Latina person (afraid of being harassed), and the LGBT person (who seeks various legal protections). We need to put pressure on those who have been elected and ask them to shape legislation that is just and appropriate.
But as I finish this exhausting electoral cycle, I am left with a larger question. In The End of History (1992), Francis Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy is the final form of national government. 25 years on, this looks very misguided. Trump’s convictions are not obvious, yet his criticism of global trade and advocacy of secure borders seem to run deeper than other parts of his rhetoric. The mantra of the global movement of goods, services, and people, which seemed to have done so well in the 1990s, is not working anymore. Too many people are being left behind; they are frustrated and afraid. These are questions we need to answer: Can the neo-liberal capitalism of Western democracies be modified to work more effectively for those on the margins? Or are we searching for something much more fundamental? Perhaps this is the time to dust off our copies of Das Kapital and look at more radical proposals.
The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, is its professor of theology and Christian ethics.