As a lifelong Texan raised in a conservative Christian home, I know a lot of conservatives. For most of my life, I was one. But the last few years have been eye-opening, to say the least, and while my positions have shifted leftward, I feel I’ve changed less than the political party I used to think best represented my views.
I had believed the Republicans were, at their best, a righteous marriage of libertarian-leaning fiscal and personal responsibility with a morally upright stance on the importance of faith and the rights of the unborn. Not all Republicans represented this well, and plenty held positions I found to be too uncompromising (Tea Partiers) or ignorant (on scientific matters in particular), but I thought there were enough rational pragmatists like John Kasich in the party to keep it worthy of my support. Certainly better than the abortion-promoting, anti-capitalist Democrats.
But then 2016 happened and I witnessed so many people who I thought had similar views to mine reject the actual John Kasich in favor of an offensive, ignorant, divisive narcissist, and I wound up protest-voting for Gary Johnson (as a Texan, I felt my vote could do the most good helping the Libertarians gain some traction as an alternative to what the Republican party was becoming… so much for that). Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time processing (with the help of some great podcasts and The Economist) what I stand for and who best represents that. I’ve concluded it is definitely not the Republicans.
I’m certainly not the only American to have left the Republican party after 2016, yet so many have not. For those who don’t fully understand how someone with my background and beliefs can so quickly change their allegiance, I’d like to share three of the main reasons for my opposition to Trump and the party he now leads.
Reason 1: Institutional Decay
To understand this point, I highly recommend Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk. While not uplifting reading, it’s critical that those who support the Trump administration understand the hidden risks of appointing someone so unqualified and hubristic to run the US government. It’s a cliche on the right to demonize “big government” as wasteful, inefficient and largely unnecessary, and I’ve been guilty of making these generalizations myself. But as Lewis vividly illustrates, these massive institutions do a lot of critically important work, and in order to be effective they not only need funding but capable and qualified leaders.
As the book’s prologue recounts, Chris Christie understood this, and despite complaints from candidate Trump about cost, managed to put together a team that produced a list of qualified, background-checked people to fill the various presidentially-appointed roles in the federal government. But in a move that illustrates how ill-prepared for the office he was, after winning the election, Trump (through his campaign manager at the time, Steve Bannon) fired Christie and threw away the team’s work. Trump opted to choose people to fill the positions himself, apparently by gut instinct and personal impression. After less than 3 years in office, the result is not surprising: a record-setting turnover rate marked by high-profile scandals, and a large number of roles that are vacant or temporarily filled.
This isn’t just embarrassing and inefficient, but literally dangerous. Lewis lists many examples of Trump officials failing to show up for briefings intended to introduce them to the giant agencies they’d be leading, dismissing offers to read detailed introductory documents created by the Obama administration with the express purpose of aiding their ramp-up, and using their agencies to push through ideological agendas rather than effectively execute their official duties. When official duties include managing nuclear material, inspecting food, feeding children and investing in critical technologies to address future existential threats, that’s important. As anyone in the corporate world knows, turnover and poor leadership at the top impacts everyone’s ability and motivation to do good work. Brain drain is a very real concern when a hardworking federal employee’s boss passively ignores or in some cases actively disparages their life’s work.
Reason 2: Moral Bankruptcy
Most seem to grant that Donald Trump is not encumbered by a strong moral code. But while they might disapprove of his behavior on Twitter, it’s important to recognize that the undisciplined impulsiveness behind that activity has very real consequences in the form of the decisions he makes as president. There are very real economic and human costs to Trump’s pattern of announcing dramatic policy shifts (ripping up trade agreements, government shutdowns, immigrant raids, etc.) long enough to be able to claim some small victory that he can tout to his supporters. NAFTA was the worst trade agreement in history, apparently, yet USMCA is not terribly different. But the details aren’t what matters, it’s the fact that he can say he got us out of NAFTA and check that promise off the list as “fulfilled.”
Far worse has been our treatment of the poor and vulnerable. While our immigration laws have been in need of reform for decades, and the recent surge in border apprehensions would have been a challenge for any administration (though a mere doubling of normal levels hardly seems to constitute a national emergency), this administration’s handling of this challenge has made things far worse. This president’s attitude toward immigration has been nakedly hostile since the moment he announced his candidacy, and he has chosen cabinet members and advisors accordingly. When this is the tone being set at the top, it gives implicit license to treat immigrants not with humane empathy but as invaders deserving of punishment. And when the system is set up to treat immigrants as criminals, it’s not surprising when it is wholly unprepared to deal appropriately with children. Add to this the incompetence and cruelty with which this administration has handled the family separation debacle and the counter-productive decision to cut off foreign aid meant to address the root causes, and it’s hard to conclude anything but that the poem on the Statue of Liberty is a relic from another age and another America.
And while policy actions have the greatest moral impact, conduct worthy of the office of President still matters. Past presidents from both parties, even those with significant personal moral failings, at least pretended to represent an America that stands for peace, justice and human dignity. How can we hope to be an example of an effective, just, righteous and trustworthy democracy when we practice blatant nepotism, back out of diplomatic agreements on a whim, denounce the free press, taunt our opponents on Twitter (too many to link), praise murderous autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un while abusing our allies, reject refugees seeking asylum, and violate the norms and laws of our own government whenever they become inconvenient?
Reason 3: Jesus Betrayal
As a Christian, I seriously worry about the damage done to our witness by the fact that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Perhaps had the alternative not been someone as toxic to the religious right as Hillary Clinton, these numbers would not have been so extreme, but still — Trump won as high or higher a proportion of white Christians than Bush, McCain or Romney, all men of higher ethical standards and far more convincing Christian faith. In a clear indication of their willingness to lower their standards in order to support Trump, a stunning 42% of evangelicals changed their view on whether immoral personal behavior in their elected officials is acceptable — from 30% in 2011 to 72% in 2016.
The reasons for Christian acceptance of Trump are varied and complex. For some, the prospect of conservative judges who would place greater restrictions on abortion was a major motivator. For others, Christian faith may simply not be the driving force behind their political choices. But to those outside the faith (and even many inside it like me), these numbers are damning. When so many self-proclaimed Christians, including prominent leaders like Franklin Graham, support and defend a man whose Twitter feed reads like the Sermon on the Mount on opposite day, it’s hard to fault someone for concluding that Christianity is either meaningless or a means to excuse oppressive behavior. Certainly not a transformative force for redemption or justice.
When you look at the effects of Republican policy today on the types of people Jesus called on us to care for — the hungry, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned (ok, there’s been some progress on this one)— it’s hard to conclude that Jesus would approve. Even on the issue of abortion their policies tend to have counter-productive side effects and focus more on winning highly partisan court battles than actually reducing demand for abortion in the first place.
It’s all too much
For the reasons above (and many more), I simply cannot in good conscience support this President or the party which has abetted and increasingly adopted his views. Personally, I’m finding more common ground with many Democrats than I’d ever thought possible (Pete Buttigieg in particular), but I absolutely respect those whose dissent takes a different form. Most of all, I pray that Republican voters begin to see what their Trumpian bargain has wrought, and make the Grand Old Party Grand Again.