Political Animal

Why Christian Nationalists Support a Transactional Tyrant

In explaining the transactional nature of Trump’s approach, both as a businessman and president, Andrea Bernstein noted this quote from a debate during the 2016 Republican primary.

“I give to many people,” [Trump] said. “Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”

There are a couple of other ways to describe that kind of transaction: quid pro quo and corruption. Both of them are front and center in the current impeachment trial. But since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, it has been clear that his approach to deal-making, whether in foreign policy or domestic affairs, has been transactional.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the president’s spiritual advisor, Paula White, engages in a kind of transactional relationship with God. That is precisely why she has been described as adhering to a “prosperity gospel.” Her con job is to suggest that, if you give her your money, God will cause you to prosper.

At about the time that Trump was attending the “March for Life,” a video of White surfaced that was appalling.

At one point, White prays that “In the name of Jesus, we command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.” The reaction was that, as the president was proclaiming his commitment to the pro-life cause, his spiritual advisor had prayed for some pregnancies to miscarry.

Since that clip went viral, White put out a statement saying that her words were taken out of context: She was praying that “anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life…”

Be that as it may, that doesn’t make this clip any less disturbing. White has taken Christianity and turned it into something that sounds an awful lot like casting magical spells on her enemies. It sounds more like something you’d see taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry than in church. But perhaps you can see how that kind of transactional approach to spirituality would appeal to someone like Donald Trump.

While some evangelicals consider White to be an extremist, I was reminded of an article Kimberly Knight wrote a few years ago titled, “God is not your cosmic vending machine.”

Stomach turning shenanigans like “just pray, pray real hard and trust that God will save you from the sin of homosexuality” or “No matter who wins in 2015 U.S. Election, Lord Jesus is still in charge and in control of the Universe!” are not related, what-so-ever, to the theology of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. So much bad/sad theology swirling around that I just had to say a word or three about the notion of God as a transactional tyrant.

See, I have a very hard time with the theology of folk who claim that God gives away touchdowns, Bentleys and control of Congress as rewards for the pious but allows/causes millions of people to suffer from hunger, disease, disasters and diabolical dehumanization. This is not a God worthy of worship. This is not the God revealed to us in the Incarnation.

God is not a cosmic vending machine maniacally squirting out holy snicker bars for the Benhams, Robertsons, Huckabees and Perkins of the world and rancid rat turds for the rest.

A pious and prayerful life will not fill your bank account, provide more touchdowns, win the heart of the hottie you have your eye on, keep your tire from going flat on that dark and rainy night, stop hurricanes or holocausts, prevent homicides or sex trafficking.

The God that Jesus reveals to us is not some mythical old asshat of a man who is “out there” or “up there” to whom we appeal with sacrine supplications to fulfill our self-serving desires or to smite our enemies.

As a Christian, Knight goes on to describe her own view of God. But this piece struck me as a powerful description of a deeper way that Trump has connected with Christian nationalists. If you relate to God as a transactional tyrant, you are likely to support the same thing in a president. You also aren’t likely to find it troubling when he engages in transactional (ie, corrupt) quid pro quos.

Republicans Find Themselves Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Since the House passed articles of impeachment against Trump, we’ve heard damning evidence against the president from Lev Parnas, including a video from 2018 where Trump told him to “take out” Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yavanovitch. Then we learned that Parnas claims to have more recordings of Trump.

In addition, John Bolton said that he was willing to testify in the Senate trial, and now we learn that he is prepared to affirm that Trump demanded Ukrainian investigations in exchange for the release of military aid. In other words, Bolton has direct knowledge of a quid pro quo.

We’ve all watched as Republicans like Senator Susan Collins have feigned “concern” over Trump’s actions, only to see them support him over and over again. So there is reason to be skeptical of the statement Collins released on Monday in response to the Bolton revelations.

Collins not only suggests that she would vote in favor of calling witnesses like Bolton, but that she is having conversations with other colleagues about the possibility as well.

But this tweet from Senator Lindsey Graham affirms the very real possibility that there are rumblings in the Republican ranks about calling witnesses.

Just two days ago, Graham said the following:

I am more intent on ending this thing now with my vote…I just think it’s best for the country to vote on the record established [in the House] because if you go down the witness road you run into executive privilege…and I really don’t want to turn the trial into a circus.

It’s clear that something happened that caused Graham to change his tune completely. He has probably been privy to some of the same conversations Collins referred to since the news about Bolton’s book surfaced.

If there is any rationality left among Republican Senators, it’s interesting to contemplate the topic of those conversations. On the one hand, they have to know that if they vote against allowing witnesses and  acquit the president, they are likely to face a steady stream of incriminating evidence against him as we head into the 2020 elections. There could be more from Parnas and Bolton, or others could go public with what they know. That does not bode well, especially for those who are running for re-election in swing states.

On the other hand, allowing Bolton to testify opens up a whole different can of worms. Not only will it become very difficult to acquit the president, the excerpts we’ve heard about from Bolton’s book implicate several other high-ranking officials in the Trump administration: namely, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Once Republicans go down that road, will their testimony become equally compelling? Can Vice President Mike Pence escape scrutiny at that point?

This is the road Republicans chose when they decided to defend a president who is obviously guilty and whose behavior is indefensible. They put themselves between a rock and a hard place with no escape route.

Will the Republicans Allow John Bolton to Testify?

My instinct is not to trust John Bolton. Yet, I also figure he’s probably not eager to perjure himself, even if telling the truth to Congress might help the Democrats and ruin his future influence and prospects on the right. Of course, we’ve been here before with untrustworthy characters like James Comey, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen. I think we can put Lev Parnas in this category too. I knew that if Bolton were to testify, there was a good chance that he’d spill the beans on Trump.

It has never been clear precisely why Bolton left the administration. We still don’t know if he was fired or he resigned, and we’re not sure if the decision was based on something very specific or was of a more cumulative nature. There were reports that it was related to Iran, but the timing makes it seem like it could have been centered around Ukraine. Either way, by Trump’s own account, we know that he did not leave on good terms.

It has also been reported that Bolton is publishing a book about his time serving as Trump’s national security adviser, and that the book would not be flattering to the president. On the other hand, his refusal to testify before the House impeachment inquiry suggested that he wasn’t eager to lend a hand in ousting Trump from office. Some said this was because no one would buy his book if they already knew the worst of what it contained.

Despite all these unanswered questions, the Democrats have been eager to secure Bolton’s testimony at the Senate trial. This became more realistic when Bolton declared his willingness to participate. But, with the prospect of him being called narrowing as the Republican senators coalesce around a sham trial strategy, suddenly we can read about what is in Bolton’s book in the pages of the New York Times:

President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.

The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, who had worked for a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was in office.

Mr. Bolton’s explosive account of the matter at the center of Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, the third in American history, was included in drafts of a manuscript he has circulated in recent weeks to close associates.

This puts the Republicans in a bind. The American people can consider this evidence even if it isn’t admitted at the trial. They know the senators have seen it, so they will expect the senators to weigh it when they decide whether to acquit or convict. If it is to be rebutted in some way, it won’t be convincing if Bolton’s testimony is blocked.

Yet, if they allow Bolton to testify, it will blow up their schedule and open a potential Pandora’s box. It will also infuriate the president.

Republicans could argue that even if everything Bolton is reported to have said in his book is true, it doesn’t matter because the alleged behavior doesn’t rise to an impeachable offense. That might become less tenable as a strategy if Bolton actually sits in a witness chair and gives his version of events.

They could argue that Bolton’s testimony isn’t allowed because it’s covered under some kind of presidential privilege, but they can’t be sure that Chief Justice John Roberts would go along with that interpretation of the law, and voting to overrule him would look bad even if it could be accomplished.

These senators are in the unenviable position of trying to protect a guilty person whose crimes are not well-hidden. As long as they think they have the votes to acquit, this gives them a powerful incentive to just get things over with as fast as possible before even more damaging information comes to light.

Allowing Bolton to testify would probably make an eventual acquittal harder to justify, so denying him as a witness must still look like the best option.

But that seems like a truly stupid strategy to me. Trump makes a habit of getting away with his crimes while his associates go to jail. The Republican senators may not wind up in prison, but they could discover that the cost of saving Trump’s presidency is the end of their own political careers. He survives and they die.

This pattern is well enough established at this point that you’d think more Republicans would understand it.

A Lesson from Richmond’s Gun Rally

The first time I saw a .50-caliber rifle up close and in action, I was on board the USS HALSEY, an Aegis Class guided missile destroyer, manned by a crew of more than 300 sailors, armed with Tomahawks and torpedoes. The weapon was affixed to the side of the ship, and I was standing where I had been instructed: a safe distance behind the operator who was unloading rounds of bullets into an inflated, floating target roughly one hundred yards from the ship. The exercise was part of a demonstration of the ship’s capabilities. Along with my two young sons, I was on a Tiger Cruise—U.S. Navy lingo for a recreational day at sea for friends and family of the crew. At the time, my husband was the ship’s commanding officer. My boys and I were enjoying what was essentially a “take your family to work day.”

I remembered that day when I saw a .50-caliber rifle again this week, even though it was just through a photograph. This time, it was being cradled by a smiling, civilian protestor on the streets of Richmond, Virginia, where thousands of gun-rights activists flooded the streets Monday to protest a package of gun-safety laws moving through the state legislature.

Maybe it’s because my husband has been wearing a military uniform for more years than I have known him, and maybe it’s because his work is about preparing for and preventing real war, but I usually find the sight of adults glamorizing instruments of war particularly unseemly. But I found myself weirdly grateful to the guy who brought his fifty-cal to Richmond and got his picture posted on the Internet. I’m sure he doesn’t realize it, but he demonstrated the exact opposite of the point he was trying to convey. The image of a civilian wielding a weapon of war on the streets of an American city shows exactly why we need some reasonable restrictions on the purchase and ownership of firearms.

These weapons are mounted on battleships like the HALSEY to deter small boats from approaching and possibly attacking. They weigh about 35 pounds and measure five feet long. They are not used for hunting animals. They are long-range, high-intensity, sniper rifles intended for warfare, and they can sink a small boat in a matter of seconds. They have no place in civilian life.

The guy in Richmond with the “fifty-cal” assault rifle, along with many other dress-up warriors in battle fatigues, was at the Virginia State Capitol building to challenge Governor Ralph Northam and the new Democratically-controlled General Assembly’s proposal to enact a universal background check system and a ban on assault weapons and bump stocks. Many of the protestors were draped in ammunition, and some wore face masks despite a state law prohibiting mask-wearing with the intent to conceal one’s identity. They were there to participate in Lobby Day, an annual protest sponsored by the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), a gun-rights advocacy group.

Of course, they have every right to protest and to wear whatever they please while protesting, except face masks. Thankfully, the event concluded without any incidents of violence.

Reports of the protest said that, unlike in previous years at the VCDL’s Lobby Day, many of the usual counter-protestors sat this one out. The heavily armed activists succeeded in scaring off their very threatening challengers: mothers who are terrified of gun violence in schools, and the survivors of shootings. “Ooh rah,” as the Marines say. What a tough bunch—intimidating a bunch of unarmed parents and children certainly requires a full complement of assault rifles of both the handheld and siderail-affixed variety.

Perhaps the saddest part of the gun-rights demonstration was how unnecessary it really was. The most extreme advocates among them would have us believe that any restrictions on gun sales or ownership will bring us one step closer to the government seizing every gun. But the fifty-cal is a far cry from a revolver in the drawer of your bedside table. It’s difficult to imagine how it would prove useful in quickly thwarting a home invasion unless one keeps it mounted and loaded on the kitchen counter. Imagine an America where you pull up to a stop light and the mini-van next to you isn’t sporting the latest Swedish luggage rack but two semi-automatic machine guns with laser scopes and night vision.

My fear is that this is exactly the kind of America the guy with the fifty-cal wants. That’s why he is the perfect posterchild for the very reasonable gun-safety laws making their way through Virginia’s legislature. There is not one Democrat in the Virginia General Assembly, not one member of Moms Demand Action, maybe not even one victim of gun violence who could make the case better. He is one of the most potent reminders that average citizen should not have military assault rifles.

Reasonable, law-abiding gun-rights advocates, who believe in the right to bear arms to protect their homes and families, should support these minimal restrictions. In fact, the polling shows that many do: A Quinnipiac poll from May found that 61 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws.

Still, a tiny minority, backed by the powerful lobbying force of the National Rifle Association, has effectively prevented a nationwide restriction on civilian ownership of weapons of war. That needs to change. Otherwise, all of us will continue living in danger of seeing a fifty-cal up close and in action even if we’re nowhere near a battleship.