Monday, 12 December 2016

Donald Trump

by Ian Harris                      Otago Daily Times                   December 9, 2016

Vox populi, vox Dei, the saying goes: “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” And then came Donald Trump. Another phrase bubbled up from my dim Latin past: Quem Jupiter vult perdere, prius dementat, loosely “Whom the gods (Jupiter was king of the Roman gods) wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Have the Americans gone bananas? Vox populi, vox Dei is usually cited to promote the view that ordinary people should have the power, through due process, to govern themselves – in practice, that the will of the majority should prevail – because God works through them. This idea was abroad in northern Europe in the late 700s, so much so that the great English monk and scholar Alcuin advised the Frankish King Charlemagne to resist such a dangerous notion. Don’t listen to those who say the voice of the people is the voice of God, he warned, “since the riotousness of the crowd is very close to madness”.

Kings claiming to rule by divine right did not endear themselves to their subjects either. In 1327 the archbishop of Canterbury denounced the misrule of Edward II in a sermon titled Vox populi, vox Dei. By the people, of course, he meant barons and prelates like himself. But their excesses, too, could sometimes verge on madness. Ironically, the idealists who drew up the United States constitution in 1787 took great care to ensure that the popular will would always be tempered by wise heads like their own: “The separation of powers was designed precisely to create sturdy firewalls against democratic wildfires,” wrote conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine, back in May.

At the time, Trump was barnstorming through the Republican primaries towards the presidential nomination. Wildfires were taking hold. Barriers to an unbridled popular will were crumbling before his populist – Sullivan calls it protofascist – demagoguery. This, he says, is behaviour typical of a late-stage democracy, as foreseen by Plato 2400 years ago, where everyone is aggressively equal, traditional elites are despised, and anything goes. Then vox populi prevails – but the restraint and responsibility that flow from vox Dei, intrinsic to which is a concept of the common good, are greatly weakened. 

“And what mainly fuels this,” says Sullivan, “is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public spiritedness.” Kindling those wildfires in the latest election season was a simmering frustration among many white Americans that the future was slipping beyond their grasp. Neoliberal economics have hugely enriched the top echelon of society, but generated inequality and stagnation for the middle and working classes.

White Christians, currently 43 per cent of the population, are steadily diminishing as a proportion of the whole. “So,” says Sullivan, “our paralysed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.” This helps to explains the part evangelical Christians played in propelling him to power. Indeed, one observer pinpoints religion as the missing piece in understanding Trump’s triumph. Trump presented himself to the Christian right as their last hope in their fight against the evolving culture in general, and abortion and same-sex marriage in particular.

According to exit polls, white evangelicals, who make up 26 per cent of the electorate, voted 81 per cent for Trump, only 16 per cent for Hillary Clinton. White Catholics favoured him by 60 per cent to 37 per cent. Most baffling of all, Trump’s sexual predations, lying, refusal to pay contractors and dodging of his tax obligations did not deter these one-time “values” voters. One evangelical leader explained that grace and forgiveness are at the core of Christianity, and “fussy moral values” were not the issue they used to be.

Another, Dr James Dobson, judged Trump “tender to things of the Spirit”, and “God’s man to lead our nation”. That’s weird. Last time I looked, the fruit of the Spirit in the New Testament were the virtues of love (not the Trump variety), peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

Not all evangelicals are so infatuated or pliable. Women’s ministry leader and broadcaster Jen Hatmaker condemned the way Trump consistently normalised violence, sexual deviance, bigotry and hate speech. She branded him “a national disgrace”. But the voters have spoken. Mrs Clinton won 2.5 million more votes than Trump – isn’t that vox populi? – but Jupiter gave Trump the White House. Vox Dei, which calls for dignity, respect, compassion, justice and the sharing of burdens, is shaping as a sad casualty of this bruising electoral circus.  

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