Note to Readers: this is a reflection containing my opinions. Anyone is free to disagree with me. All I ask is that you hear me out and respectfully consider my perspective. I do not believe there is a uniform political position that all Christians or progressives should hold. Thank You.
The rise of Donald Trump as a serious political option should greatly concern us. One of the questions that now confronts U.S. Christians committed to justice is the following: What if Trump were to become president? Imagine. What if Trump were to become president? What would happen?
What if Trump were to feasibly deport nearly 3 million immigrants? What if he helped cover up corruption and brutality in police departments while closing down public schools? What if Trump supported overthrowing democratically-elected governments in Central America and considered deporting unaccompanied minors fleeing these countries? What if Trump, while claiming to fight for regular people, defended Payday loans which often charge well over 100% interest rates to those in struggling circumstances? What if Trump favored the most militaristic and interventionist foreign policies? What if Trump promised further militarizing the state of Israel while downplaying the suffering of Palestinians?
The list could go on and on. Wouldn’t all of these things be horrible? Well, I think many of us need a reality check. All of the things I've just mentioned, things that Trump might do, have already been done by Democrats within the past 7 years. And I'm not talking about fringe Democrats or exceptions to the party line but I'm talking about Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Debbie Schultz, and Hillary Clinton, the upper echelon and power-brokers of the Democratic Party.
Obama’s administration has deported over 2.5 million immigrants and is only increasing detention and deportation raids at the end of his tenure, including mass deportations of Muslim asylum seekers. Emanuel, as mayor of Chicago, has come under fire for covering up corruption in Chicago's police department and for cuts to public education. Clinton supported the 2009 military coup in Honduras, has called for deporting recently arrived unaccompanied minors, has earned the reputation of being one of the Democrats’ greatest war hawks (a proud mentee of war criminal Henry Kissinger), and recently gave a speech in which she promised to further militarize Israel while implicitly calling Palestinians the oppressor. Schultz, the current chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been working to gut rules intended to reign in predatory payday lending.
My point is not to demonize Democrats or well-intentioned voters but to raise some serious questions. I’m afraid that many of us, myself included, have welded our faith and political witness too deeply into the ideology of an increasingly right-wing party. In the name of overcoming the problems of the Religious Right, progressive Christians have given Democrats an easy pass. So when Bush goes to war and pushes the Patriot Act, we condemn it but when Democrats extend the Patriot Act and position themselves for more needless, imperial wars, and regime-changes, we consider it the trade-off, the small price to pay in order to stop true evil which is always Republican. When Trump declares the things that he wants to do, we are appalled. But when Democrats have already done, are doing, and will do similar things, we look the other way.
What Trump has said and stands for is terrible. I don’t need to go into detail here since there are plenty of stories, articles, and blog posts that cover that. But I think it’s important to not condemn Trump and Trump’s followers in a one-dimensional fashion.
Last summer, I did my field education placement at a church in rural, western North Carolina. Every morning, I woke up to a Confederate flag raised across the street from the parsonage house where I was living. For a New Yorker who’d never lived in a truly rural area, it was a different experience to say the least. While getting oriented to this new town, I noticed a lot of places with the name—I’ll call it—“Flenca.” Flenca middle school, Flenca park, Flenca lake etc. etc. I asked my supervisor what this Flenca thing was all about. He explained to me that there used to be a factory named Flenca that used to employ a large percentage of the town. Many years before, the plant had left and many in the community hadn’t fully recovered economically ever since. I saw the effects of this legacy up close.
Part of my summer involved working with churches that distributed food and other forms of aid to trailer park communities. In these settings, I saw white poverty like I had never seen it before. These were people forgotten and left behind, both by Republicans and Democrats. And I finally understood why many of these same folks were socialized, by conservative leaders, to blame migrant workers and immigrants. Racism had deep roots but racism was also politically expedient. Because if they didn’t blame foreigners, they’d had to point the finger to the CEOs of Flencas, to the leadership of both political parties, and to an economic order that didn’t even work for all white people.
Jonna Ivin, wrote an essay that deeply moved me called, “I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump,” in which she talks about her own experiences in poverty and seeing how racism and class compound to divide people. She writes about the history of Virginia and how white indentured servanthood was replaced by black slave labor and how white elites strategically pitted poor whites against blacks.
To be sure, the racism of Trump and his followers can’t be excused. But neither can the indifference to poor people, to workers here and around the globe. In hasty efforts to denounce Trump, it’s important to be aware of the anger and frustration that he’s tapped into, anger that sometimes is actually based on real problems but nevertheless directed in disastrous directions.
As Chris Hedges reminds us, the classic temptation of fascism is to tap into the anger of disaffected people while scapegoating foreigners. Liberals are in the awkward position of having to admit that half of what Trump says about trade agreements is true even if he himself is a walking contradiction. As Christians who live in the most powerful nation in the world right now, for better or for worse, we have a responsibility to think not just about the vulnerable people here but the vulnerable people everywhere who are impacted by what is done or agreed upon here.
My heart is naturally divided across the Americas. Most of my family is in Colombia so when I think about “progress” or “lesser evils” I can’t help but think about what U.S. policies might mean for my cousins down south. The Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which was passed in the most duplicitous of ways under Democratic leadership, not only hurts workers in the U.S. but crushes Colombian workers and does little to help with the high count of labor activist assassinations. Then there’s Plan Colombia (the Mexican version is the Mérida Initiative), a highly militaristic approach to cracking down on drug cartels/gangs/guerrillas which has been debatably effective but has proven to precipitate high numbers of human rights abuses. Not only has Democratic leadership supported this approach, Clinton is eager to implement Plan Colombia in Central America. I’m no strict, doctrinaire pacifist, but I think other, more peaceful approaches are possible and necessary.
I start to wonder, does “intersectionality” ever apply beyond the U.S. borders? I think about Berta Cáceres in Honduras. Cáceres was an Indigenous and environmental activist who was assassinated in March. An outspoken critic of the post-coup Honduran government (which upheld an absolute ban on abortion), United States’ complicity, and transnational corporations, she died organizing the Lenca people in the protection of their ancestral lands and rivers. She is just one example. Neoliberal economic policies are a real thing, hurting the most vulnerable, predominately Afro- and Indigenous people in Latin America, and others around the world. Moreover, U.S. foreign policy continues to devastate our brown siblings in the Middle East. White supremacy is a global phenomenon. Does “intersectionality” apply to them? What does the lesser of evils look like to them?
So what? Some might reply: these are all fair points but it’s a mark of privilege to not choose the less evil Democrat compared to Trump! I’d reply: less evil for whom? On what issue? But local elections matter more than general elections! As someone who’s worked for a civil rights non-profit on Long Island and tuned in to affordable housing efforts in Durham, I’ll be the first to tell you that local politics matter. But many Democrats don’t necessarily transcend these problems on a local level (e.g. consider the problem of gentrification and affordable housing in many “blue” cities). Even more reasons to build long-term alternatives, as Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) has been suggesting. Even more reasons to support grassroots, independent movements such as Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15. Indeed, there are limitations to electoral politics. But we need to stop Trump at all costs! Just support the Democrats this once or try to reform the party from within. Just this once? So the ultra-right, reactionary forces won’t keep on conjuring up monsters after Trump? And about reforming the Democratic Party from within, it’s important to keep in mind past efforts that tried to do this very thing.
So what do we do? There are no easy solutions. What I do know is that when the options continually presented to us are extremely problematic, it’s crucial to keep thinking about alternatives.
Two years before her death, Cáceres was asked about the repressive Honduran government and the dangerous social situation. She provided a profoundly insightful response in one line: “They want to prohibit us from dreaming.”
They want to prohibit us from dreaming.
Many will say today that our imagination must begin and end with Donald Trump. That stopping him and stopping Republicans is the sum of any electoral political witness for social justice. Some will say that to imagine more, to wish more of not just Republicans but of Democrats is to be idealistic, to be unrealistic.
Yet, if any people are technically utopian it’s disciples of Jesus Christ who pray that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert has talked about the great illusion of neoliberal economics which came to represent itself as mere realism and any challenge to it as idealism. Nonetheless, it is this hegemonic economic vision which has expanded the incredible gulf between the wealthiest people and the poor and which is currently threatening this very planet. From the waters in Flint to the waters in Honduras.
And yet people sing:
Tú no puedes comprar al viento.
Tú no puedes comprar al sol.
Tú no puedes comprar la lluvia.
Tú no puedes comprar el calor.
Tú no puedes comprar las nubes.
Tú no puedes comprar los colores.
Tú no puedes comprar mi alegría.
Tú no puedes comprar mis dolores.
The reality is that we are currently confronted by political and economic powers which are, in fact, already utopian. They declare that things can go on as they are. That more and more wealth can be amassed as an increasing amount of people go under. That the exploitation of this planet is limitless and without any impending cost. That nothing is too public or sacred to be privatized. That philanthropy will save us. That more weapons, prisons, and police, will help our communities rather than investing in education and health. This is the dream we are up against.
Martin had a dream. Martin had a dream, like Kendrick would say. Berta had a dream. And so I ask myself, have the Christians who stand for justice in the U.S. stopped dreaming? Have we lost our salt and our prophetic bargaining chips? Do we preach the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection on Sundays but preach the Gospel of T.I.N.A., the news that “there is no alternative,” throughout the week? We can’t let anyone take away our salt, not the Democrats, not Bernie Sanders, not anyone. The vision of a world in which we love our neighbors, care for the most vulnerable, pursue peace instead of violence, this is a vision with which we should challenge and press all politicians and candidates.
There is so much work to be done. Electoral politics are limited. A lot can take place outside of it and beyond it, and still it matters. Regardless of what form our politics and social justice work takes, we need to keep dreaming.