In the spring of 2017, my wife Amanda and I were part of a university performing group that traveled to Cambodia and nearby countries. Of the many memories we made on that trip, there are certain moments I hope to never forget — primary among them is visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum known as S-21: a schoolhouse-turned-prison used during the violent regime of the Khmer Rouge. From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were held there, beaten there, tortured there, and murdered there by their own government. Those who left the prison alive only did so en route to the killing fields — mass graves filled with anonymous bodies. I know that’s a pretty dramatic way to begin an essay about American politics, but the questions I had while leaving S-21 were not easily shaken, and have influenced my political thinking ever since: How do things like this happen? How do young men — normal in every respect — become soldiers that commit horrible atrocities against their neighbors, friends, and family? How do humans sink to such levels of animalistic barbarity? And most importantly: How do I recognize such tendencies and proclivities in my own nature, to ensure that I never participate in events like that? More frightening still: the killing fields of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge are not ancient history. Human nature is the same now as it was 50 years ago, and similar atrocities continue to occur across the world. If we’re not vigilant, they can happen here. That’s not mere doomsday pessimism; it’s been foretold in prophecy, both ancient and modern:
The fact that humans are:
1. Historically proven to be capable of committing atrocities, AND
2. Prophesied to continue to do so, even increasingly, and
3. Eerily able to stand silently by while others suffer—
— terrifies me. How will neighbors and families turn against each other in the last days? How will I be tempted to do so as well? And most importantly, what can I do to prevent that?
I DON’T mean to suggest that Donald Trump is equivalent to Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge, or that his actions are comparable to genocide. In fact, although I may allude to various historical figures throughout this essay, I am not calling Mr. Trump “Hitler” or anything of the kind. Furthermore, I will not attempt to persuade anyone that his actions are immoral or evil, for — like any man — his actions are varied and some are quite good. I’ve learned — through many conversations with friends and family and strangers online — that such debates are largely unproductive. If you would like to read a list of his actions that convince me he is a deeply immoral man, I’ve compiled that here.
The purpose of this essay is not to elaborate on the specific actions of the President, but on our own response to any leader. I will not be discussing WHAT I criticize about the President, but rather WHY I criticize. I cannot change the rhetoric or actions of the President. I can, however, examine my own responses, and perhaps persuade others to do the same. What is our duty — ethical, religious, or otherwise — in this political sphere?
Lets start with an example.
Well, two examples. One is relatively benign. The other, pretty extreme. Our current political situation sits somewhere in the middle.
We are students in high school. The newly elected Student Body President is a popular kid — his family is wealthy, and being friends with him has its perks. In fact, he’s a pretty effective leader. He even got the school to lower lunch prices, so that’s neat. He’s also a powerful speaker — school assemblies and rallies can get quite boisterous. But after the assemblies and rallies are done, we notice that he tends to pick on some of the kids in the hall. He mocks some of the disabled students, and spreads rumors that the students of Mexican heritage are likely to steal your lunch money. Luckily, we’re not Mexican, and we haven’t been jumped after school. For us, his leadership mostly means cheaper lunches, and we can ignore the other stuff he says.
My question is this: What response do we owe to such a leader?
We are German citizens, a few years before WWII really kicks in. Like the previous example, we’ve got a new leader who’s proven to be pretty effective in rebuilding morale — in this case, after the country suffered a huge economic loss. He tends to place blame on certain groups of people, like the Jewish community, but the economy is building again, and we’re starting to feel hope again. We’re not Jewish, so his scapegoating doesn’t really affect us.
My question remains: What response do we owe to such a leader?
Do we have a duty to praise these leaders for the good they’re accomplishing? For me, that’s an important question. Do we have a moral duty to praise our leaders for the good they accomplish? I ask because I’ve been told that I focus too much on the faults of President Trump. I can’t, however, find myself in either of the above scenarios feeling a moral obligation to be well-rounded in my response to the leadership. I find no ethical obligation to be a cheerleader. Their good acts will speak for themselves — they will benefit people with or without my praise. Whether or not I proselytize the good news of cheaper school lunches, the lunches will be cheaper. I don’t have to announce from the rooftops the improvement in the economy. Those things tend to be known. And if they outweigh the bad, such a leader will continue to lead. I am not a reporter, whose duty it is to share the news of the day impartially and unbiased. Basically, the danger the world faces if I fail to announce the cheaper school lunches or booming economy is small. However, staying silent while students are assaulted, or entire ethnic or religious groups are targeted and blamed makes me complicit in the violence that follows. There’s a good TL;DR for this paper:
Staying silent while [others] are assaulted, or entire ethnic or religious groups are targeted and blamed makes me complicit in the violence that follows.
Some might refute this idea; generally, being a cheerleader is a good thing — it’s best to find the good in people, focus on the light, and encourage rather than criticize. I’m usually an optimist, and like to look for glass-half-full perspectives. In fact, I’d even suggest striving for that in most situations, and with most leaders. No leader, president or otherwise, is going to please 100% of the people 100% of the time. I often advocate for finding two sides to each story; being able to recognize the good and the bad together is healthy and productive, and allows us to work together. To this argument, as it applies to Donald Trump, I respond:
There comes a point somewhere on that scale where finding the good in everyone becomes less important than standing up for those who are persecuted. I would suggest that such a point comes when the powerful use their power to persecute those weaker than themselves, especially when that oppression is both frequent and applauded. At that point, I believe a line has been drawn in the sand, and we must stand with one or the other — the powerful, or the oppressed. And sand is malleable; such lines do not have to stay drawn forever, nor do our criticisms if or when people change. But in the moment of oppression, when a leader becomes a bully, we must choose a side. And in my view, silence is choosing the side of the powerful.
That power imbalance is important, and key to this whole discussion. In contrast, a leader who considers those she leads equal to herself draws no such lines in the sand, and does not evoke moral obligations to criticize. A leader who uses their power to uplift and inspire, believing — and treating — all people as equals under God, does not warrant the criticism meant for those who use fear and lies to protect their own power. When shaping our responses to those in powerful positions, we should examine how they are using that power, and how they treat those less powerful than themselves.
One of the most compelling reasons (and for some, the only reason) for voting for Mr. Trump in 2016 was his great attribute of not-being-Hillary-Clinton. While I disagree strongly that there were only two options in the race, I can understand the reasoning.
The race, however, is over.
Hillary Clinton is no longer the other option. Our support of one is no longer required for the prevention of the other, and our criticism of Trump will not make a Clinton Whitehouse more likely. During the race, comparing their promises and actions against each other made sense. But now, President Trump must stand — or fall — on his own. Has he kept the promises he made and are his actions worthy of the office? It is no longer enough to say, “Well, at least he’s not Hillary.” Fear of a hypothetically worse situation should not keep us from holding our president to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and wisdom.
Note: What follows is my personal interpretation of scripture. It is subject to folly, but is a crucial part in the examination of why I criticize Mr Trump.
I have been surprised at the number of times people have used scripture to defend Mr Trump’s presidency. Using Doctrine & Covenants 98 as a guide, I find nothing in Mr Trump deserving of my support. Regardless of the anti-abortion regulations, the booming economy, or any other policy he may enact, I believe Donald Trump is a wicked man. He is neither honest nor wise. In my opinion, he does not qualify as one of the men we are counseled to “observe to uphold.”
Once, a good friend compared him to one of the wicked kings in the Book of Mormon. One who “did right unto the people but not unto the Lord” — he acknowledged that Mr Trump was not a great role model, but was ultimately grateful for what he has done for the country. This is a sentiment I see echoed often among my friends and family. Before responding, I went and read the scriptures he was referencing:
It blew me away that the verses of scripture used to defend Mr Trump were almost immediately followed by descriptions of the suffering caused by King Morianton’s leadership:
His own brother rose up in rebellion against him and years of wars followed. My understanding of the Book of Mormon is that unrighteousness never brings lasting happiness, and the prosperity of wicked leadership is always extremely short-lived.
The following is from a talk by Ezra Taft Benson in April of 1982:
“President Joseph F. Smith said, “There are at least three dangers that threaten the Church within, … they are flattery of prominent men in the world, false educational ideas, and sexual impurity. These three dangers are of greater concern today than when they were identified by President Smith.”
This warning— coupled with Brigham Young’s fear that the greatest trial the saints will face in the last days will be wealth — seems relevant to this discussion. I find myself wary of prominent men who promise wealth while using their power to oppress and ridicule the weak or different. I find myself wary of Donald Trump.
Returning to the question of cheerleaders from before, why did Jesus Christ never praise the Pharisees? It seems, from the records we have, that His only comments were critical, despite the good the Pharisees probably did in the community. They taught the scriptures, though their interpretations may have been skewed, and they were strict in keeping the commandments, though often to a fault, or hypocritically. I don’t, however, remember a single verse of scripture in which Christ focuses on their strengths. I hesitate to use Christ’s example in my argument because I am so infinitely less perfect than He, and I don’t pretend or presume to know His reasoning and thoughts. But in thinking about this, I find it perhaps interesting to note that when it came to those who abused their power and became synonymous with hypocrites, He spared no words of praise. He did offer his love and time to sinners, but their own acknowledgment of their imperfections and need for a savior seems to me the difference between the sinners he loved and the pharisees he condemned. That humility and meekness is something I have never seen in Donald Trump.
Christ also taught about serving your neighbor, even if that neighbor is of a different religious or ethnic background. The Good Samaritan chose to stand with the oppressed, even though the two men should have been enemies. I am imperfect in my interpretation and application of the scriptures. But it is my intent to stand for the oppressed and humble who cannot stand for themselves. To speak for (and with) those who are voiceless and powerless. And when their abuser is the President of the United States, I speak against him specifically. It is not my role to judge the moral balance of anyone’s life. But we are commanded to discern between good and evil acts, and I cannot ally myself with Donald Trump.
I am painfully aware of my own fallibility, and of human folly in general. There is very little to guarantee that I am correct in any of my assumptions; other men and women have lived and died in fervent belief of their own righteousness, many of whom were devastatingly wrong in those beliefs (see, the Crusades). I may very well be wrong in the conclusions I reach politically and socially, just as the young Cambodian men who committed such atrocities were clearly wrong in their conclusions. The safest guard I’ve been able to find is in protecting the weak and the oppressed. Doing otherwise may take me dangerously close to pride and self-interest. If my efforts are focused on serving and defending others, instead of protecting my own interests by aligning myself with power and wealth, then I feel confidence and peace in my decisions. I may still be wrong. But historically, the consequences of siding with the oppressed have proven far less deadly than siding with the oppressor.
A Balanced View
Like I mentioned above, I often advocate for a two-sided approach to any issue. This — I think — is why my criticism of President Trump catches some off-guard. I firmly believe that we are often blinded by our biases and are unable to see a more complete view of the truth. Our prejudices and political parties often pre-determine our position, and it’s difficult to break free. I recognize this weakness in myself. I stand by my efforts to look at any issue from both sides, and have tried to do so with President Trump. I have sought the good in his policies and character, and appreciate the efforts of others who have pointed me to the better aspects of his presidency. They are there to be found, especially if you’re conservative and religious. Mr Trump has made strides in limiting abortion, he has advocated for traditional family structures, and nominated conservative judges to the Supreme Court, among other things.
My fear, and my response to those who believe I should be more balanced in my appraisal of the President, is that in the face of despotism and demagoguery, any attempts to focus on the good can be seen as defending the despot or demagogue in question. Any attempt to say “I dislike how he speaks, BUT…” is an acceptance — intentional or otherwise — of the price we pay for the benefits we receive. Or worse, the price others pay for the benefits we receive. Minimizing his attacks on the press because the economy is booming, for example, carries the implication that we are ok with reporters being assaulted or threatened as long as the economic benefits are high enough.
Another important distinction in pursuing a balanced, “two-sides” approach is that representing both sides equally is important in the researching and learning phases, but when judgement is reached, we need not place ourselves on the fence. It is helpful, honest, and crucial to look at both the good and the bad aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency, but we need not feel compelled to pronounce the good and bad perfectly balanced. In my opinion, after researching both sides as best I can, the dangers of his demagoguery and division far outweigh the good enacted through any of his policies.
Lets get back to Cambodia.
In pondering what allowed such atrocities to occur in Cambodia and elsewhere, a major factor was the inability of good people to voice their dissent. One of the tenants of Communism is silencing opposition. As Edmund Burke is credited with saying,
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”
We are blessed to live in a country that protects our right to speak out against our leaders. That is why I believe that no American leader will ever compare to Pol Pot, Hitler, or any other dictator. But only if we exercise that ability to voice our strong dissent when such leaders use their power to oppress or abuse those weaker than themselves. I’ll end this essay with another oft-cited quotation:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
One Final Caveat:
I know I used extreme examples above. Donald Trump has not directly murdered anyone, or started a genocide. I do not imply that we are in that situation. I merely suggest that the road to Hell does not begin steeply. At what point is it too late? At what point do we begin speaking out? I believe that the time to take a stand is before it’s too late. I believe the time to take a stand is in the moment of abuse when a powerful man uses his power to persecute those weaker than himself. For me, that time is now.