Joel Tooley is pastor of First Church of the Nazarene in Melbourne, Florida, a mainstream conservative evangelical congregation thriving in a growing area of the Bible belt. Like most other evangelicals, he voted for Donald Trump. When he heard that Trump was flying in to his hometown for a political rally last Saturday, he was excited for the chance to see the President. So he went to the airport and took his 11-year-old daughter along with him.
He described the scene on Facebook. Before the President and First Lady arrived, the crowd sang “God Bless the U.S.A.”, raising their hands in the air in the manner usually seen at a religious revival. The feeling of “religious zeal” sent shivers down Tooley’s spine. “I felt like people were here to worship an ideology along with the man who was leading it.”
As patriotic music gave way to dramatic orchestrations reminiscent of “Star Wars,” Air Force One pulled up to the hangar. When the First Couple emerged from the airplane, the already boisterous crowd erupted in cheers, much as one would expect upon seeing the President in person. But then, Melania Trump led the crowd in reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which sounded to Tooley less like a prayer than a “pep squad cheer.” Trump himself did not join the prayer until the last line, “be the glory forever and ever, Amen,” then he raised his hands in the air and the crowd began chanting, “USA, USA, USA!”
It got worse. Tooley noticed two women who had come to protest Trump, one with her young daughter and the other with a wheelchair-bound child. When they were threatened by angry members of the crowd, Tooley instinctively moved to protect them, using his “Make America Great Again” sign as a shield. When he defended the protestors’ right to express themselves, two angry women screamed repeated profane invectives at him, frightening his daughter. Another man threatened to “take out” Tooley and the protesters for “disrespecting my President.”
Tooley was shaken by what he describes as a spectacle where “demonic activity was palpable.” He credits the Holy Spirit with giving him the courage to stand up for the protesters, and for protecting him and his daughter from harm. The “thick anger and vengeance” at the rally was “horrifying,” he wrote. He recognized how easily the President could have used his hero status to incite a riot.
The intangible, yet palpable, quality of the Melbourne rally is what is most disturbing about the Age of Trump. It’s not public pronouncements, executive orders, or policy proposals, many of which have been both legally and morally questionable, but have amounted to little more than sound and fury, and have often been contradicted by aides and cabinet members. No, what is most troubling is that Trump rode a wave of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, anti-everything-except-white-nationalist-America to victory. Nobody’s ever done that before (on a national level), because politicians have intentionally shunned that dark segment of our culture. But Trump exploited it masterfully. Now, as President, he continues to feed it. As a result, hate crimes are spiking all across the country.
But wait – just this week Trump delivered an unequivocal condemnation of the rising threat of anti-Semitic violence. Doesn’t that prove he isn’t a bigot? Whether he is a bigot isn’t the issue. He’s had multiple opportunities to use his “bully pulpit” against anti-Semitism. But he didn’t until he had just visited the Museum of African-American History in Washington. Literally moments before calling anti-Semitic threats “horrible,” he had been sensitized to the reality of racism and systematic oppression. You’d have to be a robot not to be moved. Before the feeling of compassion wore off, he applied it to the Jewish community as well.
A much more telling moment came when, at last week’s chaotic Presidential news conference, Trump called upon Jake Turx, an orthodox Jewish journalist who had reported favorably on Trump throughout the campaign, and whose “Ami” magazine was among the many conservative news outlets that had been granted credentials in the White House. Trump was expecting a “friendly” question, and he got one. Turx began by defending Trump against charges of anti-Semitism and then gave him a softball opportunity to set the record straight by asking him to respond to the rise in anti-Semitic activity. But Trump cut him off mid-sentence, told him to sit down, and denounced his question as “very insulting.” This seemingly bewildering response actually makes sense. Trump was not responding to the substance of the question. He felt a personal attack where no such attack occurred. Both in this instance and in the moment after his visit to the African-American museum, he was responding to his own feelings. And because he is hyper-sensitive to personal attack, it isn’t much of a stretch for him to validate and exploit the misplaced suspicions of angry masses of people who imagine attacks on them that don’t exist, either.
Trump is not an anti-Semite. His trusted daughter and son-in-law and his grandchildren are Jewish. Nor is Trump a white nationalist. He might not even be Islamophobic. All “isms” require an over-arching worldview, and Trump doesn’t have one. He is no Machiavellian strategist. He lives in the moment, and nothing is more important to him than to be adored. (Remember the backdrop of the Republican Convention on the night of his acceptance speech? Nothing about Republicans or even the United States – just TRUMP in capital letters.) Considerations like whether certain rhetoric might have long-term negative consequences probably never enter Trump’s mind. He will say whatever the audience in front of him wants to hear, because he needs their approval; their fawning; their cheers. If he’s facing a group he knows won’t praise him, he’ll berate them as “unfair,” “fake,” or even “enemies of the people.” On those occasions, he’s still appealing to the cheering masses in his head.
Columnist Cal Thomas just published an editorial in which he insisted that his fellow conservatives condemn the various forms of bigotry represented by the “Alt-right” movement that has found legitimacy with Trump’s victory. Thomas is joined by all true conservatives – like those who organized this week’s CPAC conference. They expelled a white nationalist and began their proceedings with a speech condemning Alt-right ideology. But Trump will never follow Cal Thomas’ advice. He might condemn the Alt-right in an unrehearsed moment soon after he’s had a heart-felt meeting with a group of black leaders, but he will never subject his immediate political gains to some higher sense of purpose. I’m not sure he’s capable of doing that.
The “demonic” atmosphere that surrounded Pastor Toomey at the Melbourne rally is not of Trump’s making. It has been lying dormant for decades, and has been awakened by a celebrity business tycoon who years ago identified a swath of the American public that nobody was giving much attention. A more thoughtful public servant would have spoken to these farmers and blue-collar workers as victims a global economy that only valued them until a cheaper means of production came along. But Trump went for the visceral, which is where he lives. He legitimized their misplaced anger – their misguided scapegoating – and breathed new life into old demons that have plagued our nation since before its founding. Why? So that this deeply wounded man feels validated? So that the name TRUMP! becomes a religious icon that affords him a level of adoration he has only dreamed about before?
I am hopeful that some of the people Trump has chosen for his administration are serious, thoughtful and unafraid to reject his most divisive rhetoric. On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about those close advisors who know how to feed the President’s ego and who have for many years been pushing a fear-based agenda tinged with racial and ethnic overtones. I don’t know which set of voices will carry the day. I fear that, for this President, the instant gratification of playing to an angry crowd will always outweigh the delayed gratification of doing what is right for the country. He doesn’t know it, but what is best for all of us is also best for Trump. I pray that, by the grace of God, he will somehow discover this is true before the demons he has unleashed slay our better angels.
Whether or not that is too much to hope for, let us all pray that those better angels prove too numerous and too powerful ever to be overcome.
©2017 by J. Mark Lawson