Since you sent Donald J. Trump to the White House last November, I have read about you in the papers and seen you on television. Reporters have crisscrossed the country to interview you, the so-called forgotten men and women, to understand your motives and to gauge how you feel some six months into the Trump presidency. Countless think pieces and even books have dissected the social and economic factors that may have led you pin your hopes on a politically inexperienced real estate mogul and reality TV star.
They describe you as a body of folk who are feeling unappreciated by the elites and mainstream media. You think people in New York and Washington see you as a bunch of willfully ignorant bumpkins or as lacking the competence to distinguish between political bombast and “the facts.” Those stereotypes, real or perceived, compel me to examine myself to see how much I might have fallen into such shameful, disparaging attitudes. I hope I have not unconsciously bought into them.
The reality is I do not understand you. And you probably do not understand how I, a Catholic priest, could ever have voted for Hillary Clinton.
But the reality is I still do not understand you. And you probably do not understand how I, a Catholic priest, could ever have voted for Hillary Clinton. We seem to live in alternative universes. In the absence of an in-person exchange, I do owe you at least my best effort at reporting back the picture I am getting of Trump voters and the questions it raises for me.
It appears that at least some of you are beginning to get a sense that President Trump has reneged on a whole set of promises he made to you as the price of your support. Recent polls show a dip in “strong approval” of the president among Republicans.
But for the most part, your core commitment to Donald Trump the man remains utterly unshaken. All the unsavory comments he directed at our country’s good people—veterans, people with disabilities, women, distinguished public servants of his own party—did not dampen your support for Mr. Trump during the campaign. Now your unconditional support is what the president relies on as his performance reveals that one campaign promise after another was a bait-and-switch operation. Didn’t he say that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and you would still stand by him?
Is there anything Mr. Trump might do that would make you say, “That’s it, I can no longer support him”?
Such loyalty could be viewed as admirable, but it causes me some concern. The history of what the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer called “true believers” is not encouraging. If things go south for their anointed champion, true believers can turn on him or her with the fury of jilted lovers.
The reporters who interviewed you focused on your responses to the early failures of the Trump administration. As far as I can tell, none of them pursued their search to the next level. They did not ask you: Does your commitment have a limit? Is there anything Mr. Trump might do that would make you say, “That’s it, I can no longer support him”?
Many of those who might have been inclined to support Hillary Clinton did have such a limit, and they acted on it. In spite of their appreciation for Mrs. Clinton’s many strengths, her support for Roe v. Wade was just too much for them. It led them to vote for Mr. Trump in spite of all they abhorred about him and his rhetoric.
Many of you are evangelical Christians. You read the same Scriptures as I do. That fact raises a wonder in me. How do you reconcile your apparently unconditional support for Mr. Trump with the caution voiced by many of the prophets throughout the Bible? “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Ps 118:8-9).
To extend a blank check of support to a politician represents an abdication of one’s personal and civic responsibilities. In fact, for religious people, to rely on a human leader unconditionally is a form of idolatry. Commitment of that kind is due only to the Lord.
I respect you for the integrity of your faith commitment. That is precisely why I take the risk of asking you, respectfully, to explore the foundation of your political commitment, to search for the limit that would protect it and make it a reasonable stance. We are all in this together. If President Trump’s performance goes beyond the mere failure to honor some campaign promises and causes existential harm to our country, we will suffer as a single people. Lives may depend on your serious reflection.