Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic
DONALD TRUMP AND THE 2016 ELECTION: LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD (Part II)
By Stephen M. Krason
In one of my columns, I talked about the need in these threatening times for an “American Cincinnatus,” a President who would exert executive power to an extraordinary—but fully legitimate—degree to save the Constitution. This would include direct challenges to the Supreme Court’s abuse of power by simply refusing to enforce its unconstitutional decisions (such as Obergefell v. Hodges), unilaterally shutting down the abortion clinics, directly interposing federal power to stop state and local governments from trampling on the religious liberty of citizens, sweeping away mounds of federal regulations, and exerting tight control over the bureaucracy and unilaterally chopping away at the size of the federal government. What defined the historical Cincinnatus in Rome, and the similar historical Solon in ancient Athens—who were made what the historian Clinton Rossiter called “constitutional dictators” in times of great crisis—were their towering capabilities and personal virtue. They were men of great moral character and an overwhelming sense of the need for self-limitation. Anyone who thinks that a Donald Trump could be something like such a figure—and there are indications that his appeal for some is that they think he will just take things into his hands and get done what “needs to be done”—is sadly mistaken. Everything about his character and his runaway ego says the opposite. If there is anything that Trump does not exude it’s a sense of self-limitation.
How should Catholics assess their choice for the fall? There is no question that Hillary is unacceptable from a Catholic standpoint. Her avowed, unflinching leftist positions on such issues as abortion, same-sex “marriage,” family issues generally, and religious liberty disqualify her. These concern irreducible moral minimums, advocating outright intrinsic moral evils, not positions involving prudential judgment. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Note on Some Questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (2002) makes clear that a Catholic may not vote for a law—and a fortiori, for a candidate who will adopt it—that violates such basic moral precepts (#4). This is so even if most of the U.S. bishops won’t discipline errant Catholic politicians, to say nothing of Catholic voters. Is Trump similarly unacceptable for Catholics? It’s not clear. He now claims to be against abortion, but with exceptions. It’s not so clear that he would favor making it illegal, however, which from the standpoint of abortion as a public issue is what defines a person as “pro-life.” His statements have distinctly suggested that it’s an issue he hasn’t thought much about, which suggests that it hasn’t been important to him. As the CDF document affirmed, a Catholic can vote for a candidate whose views on abortion are not entirely satisfactory if he’s up against an outright pro-abortion opponent. It’s not clear how much better Trump is on abortion than Hillary, however. He’s now making pro-life noises and meeting with pro-life leaders, but that may be nothing more than political posturing. His list of current judges who would be the kind of people he would appoint to the Supreme Court looked good, but Republican Presidents who have been much more solid “constitutional conservatives” than him have often muffed such appointments. So, why should he be trusted? His convoluted statements about “transgenderism,” “gender identity,” and mixed-sex bathrooms suggest that he doesn’t see the problem. He said he saw nothing wrong with subjecting women to the draft, even though the family implications are enormous. Indeed, can we expect a man who has no record of opposing the homosexualist movement, has been married three times, and has boasted about his many adulteries to fervently and effectively lead the public policy fight to defend true marriage and the cause of the family? Can we expect a man who says he has never sought forgiveness from God to vigorously defend religious liberty and provide crucial moral leadership at a time when secularism is devastating American life? Even though few people seem aware of it these days, character melds into political belief and action.
What about the argument that Catholics somehow may be acting immorally by voting for a third candidate instead of Trump or abstaining, since that would be one less vote for the only candidate who can stop the clearly morally objectionable Hillary? The CDF document says that Catholics are obliged to be attentive to and involved in public affairs (#1). It does not assert a moral obligation to vote for whoever can most likely beat an especially objectionable candidate, even when a better alternative has virtually no chance to win. The Church does not make such political calculating a matter of moral obligation. Indeed, the U.S. Bishops’ latest version of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship confirms this (#36).
As far as political calculations are concerned, what are the long-range implications of a Hillary or a Trump win this fall? It’s almost certain that Hillary in the White House will mean a continuation of the destructive Obama policies on abortion, marriage, and the like. It is not so clear, however, that the effect wouldn’t be essentially the same with Trump, even if not so aggressively. We have continually seen Republican victories, but the furtherance of the leftist Democratic agenda. This has partly been because of their nomination of so many candidates—for the presidency and other high offices—who have fluid or insufficiently developed political convictions, and also because they have misunderstood the role of compromise in politics. They seem ready to start off compromising instead of making an all-out effort to secure sound policies before starting to negotiate. Yet Trump seems to outpace all of them when it comes to the lack of a well-formed political philosophy and the willingness to flip-flop to different positions. As a businessman, he has also shown himself most ready to accommodate himself in whatever ways are necessary to further his financial interests. The implication of all this is that in a Trump presidency the left’s aims are likely to be furthered, just more slowly—or maybe not—than in a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Isn’t it better, however, to have a President who at least will be willing to listen on the issues that serious Catholics are concerned about and might at least be open to being convinced? Maybe, but things could also shake out in a different way. It’s possible that a Trump presidency could so tarnish the Republican party and so discredit what remains of sound conservatism (after all, at least in contrast to the Democrats, people would view his as a “conservative” administration) that the left could come back more potently than ever. The 2008 economic crisis—blamed on George W. Bush, but actually generated by a sub-prime mortgage crisis spawned by Bill Clinton’s policies—and the fallout from the Iraq War gave Obama his opening. There is every reason to believe that a Trump, who understands international economics, foreign policy, and politics much less than Bush—to say nothing of the lack of solid convictions to guide him—could cause a similar meltdown. In the longer run—which actually may mean only four or eight years—the left could sweep back into power in the wake of substantial popular dissatisfaction with Trump Republicanism and proceed to make an even more concerted assault on the Constitution and what’s left of the old American culture.
On the other hand, a Hillary victory means that someone comes into power who from the start is widely disliked, not trusted, unaccomplished, not (I suspect) very competent, inevitably associated with her disrespected husband and with his shadow continuously cast on her, and has staved off a criminal indictment probably only because of her protectors in the Obama administration. The public’s patience with her and her party will be short-lived. She’ll have a sharp hill to climb and if she can’t do that, it will be more than ready to turn her out. That’s in addition to the historical fact that any party that has been in power so long tends to lose its edge and can’t meet ongoing public expectations. No party since the FDR-Truman era has held the presidency for longer than twelve consecutive years. I’m by no means advocating voting for Hillary and am fully aware that we can’t predict the future, but it’s a more than reasonable likelihood that developments could proceed in this way in light of current realities.
Serious Catholics and others concerned about the further decline of American life and politics have no good choice in this election. At a time when strong executive leadership, even apart from an American Cincinnatus-like figure, could have enormously helped right the ship it will not be forthcoming. They shouldn’t just think about how to best cut their losses in the coming election, but start to realize that the need for organized, large-scale, well coordinated, intelligent, and sustained grassroots efforts is more acute than ever. Part of this involves learning how to confront the left and to effectively persuade and educate their fellow citizens. It goes without saying that they have to make sure first that they are themselves well formed personally and as citizens and are astute about politics. The TEA Party gave us a glimpse of what is needed, but their lack of political sophistication, tight organization, and ability to keep the pressure on caused them to fade. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that Russia’s renewal would have to happen from the bottom up. It’s probably the same for the U.S. Even if solid, strong leadership were to come in the future, such an ongoing grassroots effort is crucial.
Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and Associate Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Among his books is The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, and two recent edited volumes: The Crisis of Religious Liberty and Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians. He recently completed a book that critically examines American liberalism and conservatism in light of Catholic social teaching.