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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Republicans

Purists are making allies an endangered species

Stephen H. Provost

Our polarized political tug-of-war has created an odd dichotomy in the middle. On one hand, more and more people are identifying as independents. On the other, these people “aren’t really all that independent,” as CNN wrote in a headline.

The percentage of voters identifying themselves as independents increased from 33 to 38 percent between 1994 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. This should have made the so-called “moderate middle” fertile ground for candidates in a general election. But it hasn’t. Instead, politicians have focused more and more about appeasing “the base” – those true believers at either end of the political spectrum.

These true believers, not surprisingly, are more engaged and motivated. Or, to use a term often employed by pundits, the base is “where the energy is.” In other words, people at the extremes are more likely to vote. A Pew poll in the fall of 2018 found that roughly 60 percent of party-affiliated voters said they voted; that compares to just 54 percent of Republican-leaning independents and 48 percent of Democratic leaners.

Because they don’t identify with one side or the other, independents don’t feel as though they have as big a stake in the game. Their concerns aren’t reflected in the shock-addicted media or acknowledged by either of the parties, so why bother? This attitude, however, creates a vicious circle: The less they vote, the less the parties will pay attention to them ... and they less relevant they’ll feel. More and more people feel ignored by the two parties, disengage, and see the parties confirm ignore them even more.

Instead of working together, the true believers are working from both sides to make gaps unbridgeable. Gender gaps, income gaps, gaps between faith and science, between urban and rural America. I could go on.

This hasn’t happened all at once. It’s been occurring over the course of years or even decades, propelled by a number of factors – many of which involve the fragmentation of how we communicate and our willingness to consider opposing views. Like prizefighters, we stay in our own corners (Fox or CNN, Breitbart or the Mother Jones) until it’s time to come out fighting. Then, the Marquess of Queensbury Rules be damned. The transformation from civil society to MMA-style social brawl has been insidious, like a boiling frog.

Those who insist on staying in the middle don’t matter.

This is why the power of “the base” is ascendant even as independents have become the largest segment of voters. It’s why Mr. Trump continues to target his ultra-conservative base, rather than worrying about how independents view him. They don’t matter, because they’re less likely to vote, anyway. And the more they feel marginalized, the higher the chances Trump will win re-election.

But the principle is in play on the left, as well, where intra-party feuding is rampant and political “purity” is reinforced by voter shaming and a series of litmus tests not all that different from NRA ratings an anti-tax pledges on the right. The latter can be traced to George H.W. Bush’s act of reneging on his “no new taxes” pledge. But instead of realizing how badly such pledges boxed them in, Republicans decided to make more of them and be sure they kept them, regardless of whether they were a good idea.

Their willingness to do so helped plant the seeds of the political purity movement we see today, and the resulting trend toward the extremes has been fairly well documented in the political realm.


What hasn’t been mentioned much is that the same dynamic is occurring socially. As with politics, tension has arisen between issues and identity. Many of those issues, indeed, are common to both the social and political realms, but social identities are different, and often less fluid, than political identities, which makes the social dynamic even more treacherous for those in the middle.

A Democrat can always re-register as “decline to state” (in California) or with a different party, and some states, such as Virginia, don’t even offer party registration.

Social identities, by contrast, aren’t that easy to change. Some of them – race, sexual orientation and, to a slightly lesser extent, gender – don’t offer any wiggle room at all. You were born with it, and that’s what you are. It’s slightly less difficult to escape class-based identities, but it’s still no easy task: Those who live in wealthy neighborhoods have a built-in head start on obtaining a good education, making white-collar job connections, and so forth.

It’s no coincidence that the economic middle has been growing less relevant, too (although, unlike the disaffected political middle, it’s shrinking, not growing). Political decisions affect economic realities and reinforce social constructs. So, as the political and economic middles become less relevant, the same thing is happening socially.

The rise of social “purity” on the right has led to a resurgence of newly emboldened white supremacists, nationalists and religious bigots. On the left, it’s led to censorship and political correctness, the free exchange of ideas be damned. The people left out of this are, socially as well as politically, the middle-grounders: the people who want to think for themselves and reserve the right to disagree, on occasion, with those they most often support.

The concept of a “loyal opposition” has gone down the toilet. Either you’re loyal or you are the opposition. That’s Trump’s mantra, to be sure, but the same principle is being invoked, only slightly less explicitly, on the left.

Allies go home

The shrinking social middle consists largely of allies: People who may not belong to a certain group, but support that group as a matter of conscience or principle. Like those in the political middle, they don’t – or can’t – identify with a given “side” in the culture wars, but they nonetheless agree that side should prevail. Maybe in most respects. Maybe in all. They are, however, not the social base. They’re not as personally invested in the struggle and, while they may believe in it, they’re often not as motivated to fight tooth and nail for it.

Plus, many have an aversion to following anything blindly. Even if they agree with most of the actions a group espouses, they reserve the right to think for themselves and politely disagree if they prefer a different course of action.

Increasingly, however, such politeness is met with skepticism and derision. Members of the social base have adopted a motto of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” They don’t trust independent allies because they don’t appear to be “all in” for the cause, whether that cause be racial justice, gender equity, LGTBQI rights, or raising the minimum wage. If they disagree occasionally, it’s seen as a red flag that they might not really believe in anything the group stands for. Disagreement is viewed as evidence they’re (at best) slaves to some subconscious social conditioning or (at worst) posers out to infiltrate the movement.

Some question whether a white male can ever really truly be all-in on gender equity or racial equality; whether a cisgender person be all-in on transgender rights; whether a person oriented toward the opposite sex be all-in on LGBTQI rights. There’s always going to be some underlying lack of understanding or potential conflict of interest when the rubber meets the road, or so the purists fear.


If you’re a social ally in the middle and your motives are repeatedly questioned, you’re likely to do exactly what political independents do: Disengage. If you feel shamed for your identity, you’re apt to withdraw. Race, gender and sexual orientation aren’t like political parties; you can’t simply reregister at the drop of a hat. So, you’re left feeling as though you don’t really belong anywhere. You can’t abandon your identity, but you won’t abandon your principles, and that tension isn’t something most people care to live with for long.

It didn’t exist, at least not to this extent, 20 years ago, but social purity tests have poisoned the well, just as surely as political polarization has proven toxic to government. (Lawmakers willing to forge alliances by working across the aisle are all but extinct, thanks to demands for political purity.) In the current environment, many allies become silent supporters, voting their conscience at the ballot box but otherwise keeping their mouths shut in order to avoid taking fire from both sides. They turn their attention elsewhere – to places where they feel like they are relevant: their families, their jobs, pastimes they enjoy. Places where they’re appreciated and feel like they can make a difference.

Political independents are checking out in droves for the very same reasons.

In alienating the social and political middle, extremists are accomplishing their ultimate goal: to create an atmosphere of social and political tyranny ruled by bigotry, censorship and intolerance. It’s the antithesis of what the founders sought to enshrine in the Constitution: a free exchange of ideas that acts as a crucible for progress and innovation.

So much for the American dream. In alienating independents and silencing the middle, we’re killing it. It’s dying from the inside out.

Lindsey Graham abandoned his conscience — or maybe he never had one

Stephen H. Provost

Dear Senator Graham,

I’m going to put this to you directly: What does Mr. Trump have on you?

I’ve been watching politics a long time. It’s a game in which opportunists routinely “adjust” their positions to catch latest updraft in public opinion. The man you tried to convict and remove from office two decades ago was famous for it. Governing by polls, they called it.

But we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill Clintonian flip-flop here. We’re talking about a 180-degree turnabout in your opinion of a man he called a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” and a “kook not fit to be president” just four years ago. Today, you’re one of his most avid supporters. This isn’t a flip-flop; it’s as a transformation that would make any good chameleon green enough with envy to stand out in the greenest rainforest.

A Washington Post story claimed you’d provided some answers to this question: You wanted to “be relevant” and declared, “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business.”

I’d say the more appropriate answer is, “If you don’t want to serve the people and the nation’s highest good, you’re in the wrong business.” And that’s what you’ve always said you were doing. You positioned yourself as a person of conscience and, whether or not people agreed with your conclusions, you crafted something of a reputation for following that conscience.

Until now.

Conscience, what conscience?

So, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy your explanation that this is simply a case of political pandering in an attempt to be re-elected. That kind of explanation that would work in explaining your typical, everyday political about-face, but this is something else. Plenty of other legislators fell in lockstep behind the “race-baiting xenophobic bigot,” but they were not the kind of people who boasted of working across the aisle and speaking with an independent voice. You were.

Take your colleague from Texas, Senator Cruz, for an example. He did an about-face on Trump, too – even after Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on his wife (whatever that meant) and smeared his father without justification. But let me point out two important distinctions: First, Mr. Cruz never had the reputation for integrity you cultivated and, second, his support of Trump hasn’t been nearly as public and vocal as yours has been.

I know you’re not a big fan of Senator Cruz: You once likened a choice between him and Mr. Trump in these terms: “It’s like being shot or poisoned.” So, in deference to that statement, I’ll choose a few other examples to illustrate my point: Your conversion regarding Mr. Trump isn’t politics as usual, it’s bizarre, even by Washington’s standards.

It’s tempting to say that, now that Trump’s in office, that you were, in fact, poisoned. But I suspect this poison emanates from within. Here’s why:

Hypocrisy writ large

I invite you, Senator Graham, to think of your colleagues who have earned reputations as people of conscience. Imagine if Bernie Sanders repudiated democratic socialism and became a Republican. Or Rand Paul started speaking out in favor of foreign intervention and tax increases. Imagine if the late Senator John McCain had started decided to oppose all campaign finance reform. These are men who, it’s clear, have held to their beliefs regardless of which way the political winds were blowing, and you depicted yourself as one of their number. If any of them did what I’ve just described, they would be labeled the biggest hypocrites in Washington.

But now, I’m afraid you’ve got that title all to yourself.

What you said about Trump being a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” could have just as easily been said about David Duke. You know, the former KKK grand wizard. It was unequivocal. If you were wrong about it, you owe Mr. Trump the most abject of public apologies. If you were right, you owe that same apology to the American people. But since Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in apologies, and you are now one of his unapologetic disciples, I don’t expect you’ll issue one – even to him.

I’m even less optimistic you’ll offer one to the American people, and at this point, it doesn’t really matter, because that reputation you built as a “man of conscience” is pretty much toast. If your mysterious about-face regarding Mr. Trump hadn’t incinerated it, your willingness to stand by while he threw your supposed friend, Senator McCain, under the bus most certainly would have. Friends don’t act like that; assholes do.

Two possibilities

So, I’ll ask you again: What does Mr. Trump have on you? Think carefully before you answer, because if you say, “nothing,” there’s only one real alternative: That you were never a person of conscience in the first place, and it was all just a brazen act from the beginning. That would make you the worst kind of political troll. Worse than Clinton or Cruz or even Trump himself, because Trump – while a shameless con man – never pretended to be a man of conscience. You did.

That leaves us with two possibilities: First, that you are a true man of conscience who’s been undone by something so dark and despicable that you forsook that conscience and hitched yourself to Trump’s amoral bandwagon. I’m not talking about your rumored-and-denied homosexuality; that’s no longer (thankfully) the political or social liability it once was, even among Republicans.

This would have to be a whole lot more damaging than that. It would have to be downright humiliating. I have no idea what this sword of Damocles might be, and perhaps it doesn’t even exist. But if it doesn’t, we’re left with only one other option: that you never a man of conscience in the first place. That you’re an even bigger huckster than the “Art of the Deal” guy himself, and that your entire, well-cultivated image was nothing but a fraud from the outset.

Those are your choices. Think hard and choose wisely.  I’ll be waiting for your answer – not that I ever expect to get it.





Donald and Bathsheba: Why so many evangelicals defend Trump

Stephen H. Provost

Why are so many evangelicals standing by Donald Trump in the face of actions that would seem to be directly at odds with the teachings of the Bible?

When it comes right down to it, as much as they talk about sin, specific sins are of much less concern to many evangelicals than the “work of the devil.” Sins themselves are viewed as inevitable, because each of us is – according to a doctrine set forth by Paul of Tarsus – born into a fallen state because of Adam’s original sin.

“We’re all sinners,” Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Moral Majority founder, said in announcing he was still supporting Trump.

Sinful acts can be forgiven, and Christians will still sin (though, it is hoped, somewhat less frequently). So the endgame isn’t to stop people from sinning, it’s to redeem their fallen nature and make sure the devil doesn’t tempt them back to what Darth Vader might call “the dark side.”

Take the story of the woman at the well in the Gospel of John, who had already been married five times and was living with a man outside of wedlock. Jesus made note of this, but he didn’t condemn her for it. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to identify himself as the messiah – the rightful ruler of Israel and the kingdom of God.

This was the point of the scene, and it’s the point evangelicals are focused on, as well. They’re far less concerned about sinful acts (individual transgressions against God or his people) than they are about humanity’s sinful nature and the salvation from it they believe Jesus can provide.

As a result, evangelicals are caught up in a black-and-white struggle between the forces of good and evil. Salvation and damnation. God and Satan.

“Whoever is not for me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” - Matt. 12:30

“Anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” - Matt. 10:37

These are the sayings of Jesus that resonate with many evangelicals. Loyalty is paramount; any sins that might be committed along the way are secondary – and may be excused (forgiven) as long as that loyalty is unwavering.

The politics of dualism

American politics represents a convenient parallel to the good-vs.-evil struggle of the evangelical mindset because, like the dualist battle between YHWH and Satan, the electoral system as it works in the United States typically presents voters with two choices. It’s easy for evangelicals to align those choices with the God’s heavenly hosts and Satan’s demonic hordes – the armies of light and darkness engaged in “spiritual warfare” on the eternal plane.

When the Republican Party co-opted the evangelical movement (or was it the other way around?) during the era of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s, the two became joined at the hip. Many evangelicals started to see Republicans as an earthly “army of light” corresponding to the heavenly host, while demonizing Democrats as tools of “the enemy.”

This is likely why, in the minds of many evangelicals, Donald Trump can be forgiven for his undeniably sinful attitudes and actions toward women, while Bill Clinton – and his wife, Hillary, whom they view as his enabler – cannot. No matter how many times Trump has engaged in fornication or boasted about abusive behavior, and no matter how many times he’s switched parties or positions, he has been redeemed in the eyes of many evangelicals by his association with the Republican Party. Clinton, on the other hand, is “outside the fold.” Calling himself a Christian and asking forgiveness aren’t good enough for evangelicals who have accepted the premise that the Republican Party is God’s chosen instrument in U.S. politics. He might as well be a Protestant asking forgiveness of the IRA.

Further reinforcing evangelical support for Trump is acceptance of the monarchial model that dominated politics in the ancient Near East. This is the model represented in the Bible, with God ruling from a throne in heaven as and anointing kings to act in his behalf on earth (hence the title “king of kings” as opposed to “president of presidents”).

The test of a king’s legitimacy wasn’t his righteousness, but his faithfulness to YHWH. Fornication? No big deal. Solomon did it. David did it. But David continually recommitted himself to YHWH, while Solomon earned the wrath of the prophets by allowing an Asherah pole – dedicated to a fertility goddess – to be placed in the temple of YHWH.

In fact, if one wants to understand many evangelicals’ continued embrace of Trump, one need look no further than David. Described in the Bible as a “man after God’s own heart,” he nonetheless slept with the wife of a loyal soldier named Uriah, then arranged for that soldier to be put in harm’s way so that he might be slain in battle – clearing the way for David to have the woman himself.

Such actions were probably not unusual in the days when absolute monarchs could sleep with any woman they wanted. But they’re less acceptable in the United States, which follows a model of government that owes its inspiration to Greek democracy, not the ancient Near Eastern model of the tyrant king.

Autocracy or democracy

The tension between these two systems remains palpable for some evangelicals, who see their relationship to God as one of a subject to an absolute ruler and may view those whom they identify as God’s chosen leaders in the same light. So if Trump brags of being able to do anything he wants to a woman because he’s “a star,” he’s boasting about something the Bible’s most famous king – David – actually did.

Of course, not all evangelicals – and certainly not all Christians – think this way. There are plenty of people of faith who put morality ahead of what amounts to loyalty (remember Jesus’ parable of one blind man leading another into a pit?). When Falwell Jr., who is now president of Liberty University, announced he was still with Trump, a group of students at the university claiming to represent a majority of students and teachers on campus issued a statement denouncing Trump.

But that doesn’t mean the behavior of evangelicals who have stuck by Trump is somehow inexplicable. In some ways, it makes perfect sense, and they really aren’t as hypocritical as they might at first appear. They’re just putting loyalty above morality and adhering to a model of government at odds with the representative democracy practiced in the U.S.

Is it surprising that they would gravitate toward a leader like Trump, who’s more autocrat than democrat? Not at all. In fact, it’s exactly what one would expect.

Note: The author spent more than a decade in the evangelical movement, attending evangelical churches, during the decade when the Moral Majority rose to prominence in American politics. He has written on philosophy, spirituality, ethics and the origins/development of Western religion.