22 April 2024

Two perspectives on Trump

Bishops Brad Billings and George Browning reflect on Donald Trump’s win in the US election

By Brad Billings and George Browning

16 November 2016

Battlers are ‘sick of being ignored’, and Trump got it: Brad Billings

To cast Donald Trump’s supporters as uneducated, ignorant and racist, as much of the mainstream media did throughout his campaign, was wrong and patronising, argues Brad Billings. For George Browning’s article, click here.

I was driving home from an engagement on the evening of the day that Donald Trump was confirmed as President-elect of the United States. I flipped through the AM radio dial, seeking some analysis and commentary, and listened for a while to the ABC. Its presenter, in attempting to come to terms with what was clearly a rude shock, repeated several times the line that “the highest cohort of Trump voters were white men with no college degree”. Listeners called in to express their disbelief – one spoke of how a lack of education was to blame, another wrote off millions of people as essentially stupid and ignorant in a single sentence. It occurred to me that what I was hearing was actually a microcosm of how and why Donald Trump won the election. Here, live and active, were the incredulous mainstream media, exemplified by a disbelieving host, and further expounded by the open accusation of the listeners that the “uneducated” voters (lacking a college degree) who had voted for Trump were stupid and ignorant, if not racists, misogynists and homophobes as well. It may be comforting, and some reading this may nod approvingly at such a proposition. In my view, however, such an analysis is largely wrong and patronising, and potentially fatal politically (just ask Hillary now). 

I’ve been asked many times since the election for my view on the result and I have stated, as I do here, that I am not attracted to Donald Trump, either as a man or a politician, and would not have voted for him, neither do I endorse him. But of course I’m not an American and not entitled to vote – local anti-Trump, and by definition anti-democracy, protesters, who seem not to have absorbed this, do take note. I do, however, think I can begin to understand why around 60 million Americans did vote for Trump. One reason is no doubt that his opponent was even less attractive a proposition than he, but that was not, and is not, the whole story. The turning point in the election campaign came, for me, and for many commentators, when Hillary Clinton described a full half of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables”. That was the grab the media went with, it actually got much worse after that, as she went on in the next breath to further define those so-called “deplorables” as “racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes, you name it”. On raw figures, counting only those who actually turned up to vote, that “basket of deplorables” would number around 30 million people. Even if you do think the very worst of your fellow citizens on a grand scale, that’s an awful lot of people, and votes.

Any candidate who describes and labels millions of voters in such a way is probably going to be struggling to win at the ballot box, especially when such views are combined with a candidate who looked and sounded as smug and as entitled as Hillary Clinton did for much of the campaign. And why would she not have been, with just about every television station and every newspaper nation-wide backing her, along with a succession of big name celebrities lining up in support of her? Therein lies another reason Hillary lost this election – the voters, large numbers of them anyway, saw through activism masquerading as journalism of the same sort that afflicts large sections of the media in this country. And they dismissed the spectacle of multi-millionaire actors and entertainers lecturing those who could barely afford the price of an entrance ticket to one of their shows on how to vote through those truly awful, condescending videos (“You’ve seen us somewhere… you know who we are”).

How a candidate who said so many outrageous and offensive things, has behaved so indecently both in the past and during the campaign and was himself incredibly rich appealed to so many “battlers”, as we might describe them here in Australia, is a fascinating study all of itself. The answers are no doubt complex and will take considerable time to unravel. But I am willing to put forward a few possibilities, for what it is worth.

Firstly, the battlers, especially those outside the inner urban areas, are sick of being ignored by a political class that largely takes them for granted in the context of a two-party system, a lot like ours, wherein the two major parties appear similar in many ways, each being populated by look-alike careerists, unionists or political staffers and functionaries. Secondly, they’re sick of being shouted down as racists and sexists if they question some of the orthodoxies that have developed around race and gender on university campuses and infiltrated places such as Canberra and Washington DC. They’re sick, too, of being vilified as xenophobes and/or Islamophobes if they question the immigration intake or worry about terrorism. And they’re not going to stand any longer for being lectured to by highly paid, inner-city-dwelling academics, assorted celebrities and media-types advocating gesture and identity politics that largely have no resonance at all in the conversations that take place in workplace lunch rooms and in front bars, and over the backyard fences, across the suburban sprawl. One possible way of reading the outcome of this election is to see it as a repudiation of the “political correctness” that characterises, and restrains, so much of the public discourse in Western democracies. For better or worse, the American electors have defied this narrative by electing the most demonstratively politically incorrect candidate to have appeared on the electoral landscape in many years, in spite of all of his flaws, weaknesses and unappealing attributes

Finally, and I think most importantly, the men and women who work on the land, who make things, the tradies and labourers, the people who clean factories and offices, the stay-at-home parents – and the unemployed and welfare dependent, too – are not universally stupid, nor are they collectively “deplorable”. Neither does the lack of a higher education degree make a person ignorant or uneducated. The vast majority of voters have the brains and the intelligence to critically analyse political candidates, parties and policies, and to decide who they will they vote for all by themselves, without relying on a newspaper, a talking head on television or a celebrity to tell them which box to tick on the ballot paper. They know enough, too, not to mistake their Twitter feed for the voice of the electorate and to regard the mainstream news media with suspicion, if not contempt. They recognise common sense when they hear it, and they value free speech, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable and awkward.

One candidate got this. The other – together with the vast majority of the aforementioned media, the polls and pollsters, the so-called experts, the commentators and the celebrities – did not.

Bishop Brad Billings has never lived in the United States, but lived for several years in government provided housing in outer suburban Melbourne, and prior to ordination worked in a variety of occupations, including as a process worker on a factory floor, an abattoir labourer, and a storeman.

In making Jesus’ teaching all about the individual, Christian Right has got it wrong: George Browning

Donald Trump has championed the Christian Right’s “corralled version of Christianity”, and in doing so further weakened notions of community and its importance, writes George Browning.

The result of the US election will have ramifications reverberating around the world for decades to come. As the global ethics network has already articulated: “11/9 will probably turn out to be more significant even than 9/11.”

Should the result surprise us? Probably not! Its manifestations have recently been on blatant display in the Philippines, terrifyingly in Turkey and more subtly in the UK. Clearly, a significant proportion of the global population feels it has been left behind by global trade, by the political elite who have become blatantly self-serving, by multinational companies and by institutional life generally.

While this trend deserves investigation and understanding on multiple fronts, in this piece I want to ask why the Christian Right put its support behind Trump, including the Australian political Right through voices such as Cory Bernardi. How is it possible for Christians to support a person who clearly lies about almost everything, who insults minorities, who pays no tax, who makes use of hatred as a political tool, who has mistreated those who have helped build his wealth, who wants to deny universal healthcare, who admires leaders such as Vladimir Putin. How is it possible that the Christian Right would find this attractive?

The answer to this question sadly tells me that popular Christianity in the 21st century is part of the problem, not part of the solution, that it does not reflect the Biblical narrative, nor does it reflect the transformative life of Jesus.

How can I say such a confronting thing? The biblical narrative speaks of the incarnate Son of God as the Lord of Life – all of life. The prologue of the Gospel of John draws us immediately into Jesus the Word of God as being wisdom at the heart of creation itself. The biblical narrative makes it abundantly clear that a choice for Jesus has implications for the whole of life: that the individual needs to be understood within the context of the relationships and communities of which he or she is part.

The Christian Right appears to have reduced this down to a teaching that Jesus is all about, only about, personal salvation and the hope of eternal life. The Christian Right has made it clear that abandoning the public space is the acceptable Christian way, for apparently the only thing that matters is private morality (sex and gender) and personal piety. (This has long appeared to be reflected in Australia through the Australian Christian Lobby). Donald Trump can easily accommodate this corralled version of Christianity, indeed he can be its champion. If he is “born again”, as the Christian Right trumpets, the penny has dropped for him that he can protect personal piety from all comers, especially rival piety – Islam – and he can easily legislate even more strongly about abortion and gay rights. Having fulfilled this “Christian obligation”, he is then free to do as he pleases in the maelstrom of public life – or not.

This is where the irony lies. He appears to have no sense of what is genuinely “public”. Everything to him appears to be about the individual. The individual’s rights to carry guns must be protected. The individual’s right to pay as little tax as possible has to be protected. America’s right as an individual nation to pursue its interests regardless of the rest of the world has to be protected. The environmental needs of the planet are to be totally ignored because they unnecessarily impinge upon the rights of the individual to make money.

It is in the obsession that he has, and the Christian Right has, with the individual that is perhaps the genesis of the happy marriage between the two. It is a view that gains absolutely no comfort from scripture. The biblical view is that the individual is always part of a community in which we are all as strong as the weakest and all as rich as the poorest. The biblical view is that no individual has rights that trump (sorry about the pun) the needs and rights of the community as a whole.

This is, of course, where Trump has played a confidence trick. Those who feel most aggrieved (with very good reason) about the behaviour of the privileged elite are the ones who most need the blessings that flow from belonging to the community as a whole. They will not find this help under Trump, or those who hold to his view of life. Under Trump if you fail to prosper, in the end it will be your fault. In his view, he will have been the greatest President of all time, he will have “made America great again” and those who continue to miss out will have only themselves to blame.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 9 November 2016. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au/

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