Touch Not The Lord’s Anointed
Why Trump’s base won’t let him apologize, even if he wanted to.
As wave after wave of bad news washes over the White House, the president’s defenders appear singularly disorganized, unable to find any common narrative. Shortly after the story of a whistleblower initially broke, the somehow-lovable buffoon Chris Christie said the transcript would only be a problem if Trump had said “listen, do me a favor, go investigate Joe Biden.” When the White House released notes from the call, of course, that’s exactly what they said.
Trump’s utter inability to admit any sort of fault, even theoretically, has complicated attempts to defend him. I’ve written before that, unlike with the Russia scandal, Trump suffers from a lack of continuity. The Democrats have a clear and unambiguous narrative, while the right flounders wildly in attempts to nail down a legitimate defense.
The “transcript” thoroughly corroborated the whistleblower’s report, although Trump stubbornly insisted it had somehow exculpated him. Text messages between Kurt Volker, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Taylor, Gordon Sondland, and various Ukrainians established the clear quid pro quo implicit in the call with Zelensky. Trump doubled down on his absurd claims of total propriety, calling publicly last week for China to investigate Biden. Now, a second whistleblower has contacted the Inspector General, this one with firsthand knowledge of Trump-Ukraine interactions. In any ordinary world, this would be the end of a presidency.
But Trump is no ordinary president.
In 1998, Bill Clinton seized victory from the jaws of defeat with an apology altogether unlike anything that had ever come from the Rose Garden before:
What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds. I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply, I gave into my shame.
Like anyone who honestly faces the shame of wrongful conduct, I would give anything to go back and undo what I did. But one of the painful truths I have to live with is the reality that that is simply not possible. An old and dear friend of mine recently sent me the wisdom of a poet, who wrote, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on. Nor all your piety, nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”
So nothing — not piety, nor tears, nor wit, nor torment — can alter what I have done. I must make my peace with that. I must also be at peace with the fact that the public consequences of my actions are in the hands of the American people and their representatives in the Congress. Should they determine that my errors of word and deed require their rebuke and censure, I am ready to accept that.
Meanwhile, I will continue to do all I can to reclaim the trust of the American people and to serve them well. We must all return to the work, the vital work, of strengthening our nation for the new century. Our country has wonderful opportunities and daunting challenges ahead. I intend to seize those opportunities and meet those challenges with all the energy and ability, and strength God has given me.
Sincere or not, it was the perfect blend of contrition and believability , and the Democrats seized onto it with abandon. Clinton had made a mistake, a human mistake, and had owned up to it. His error was clearly no threat to national security and no grounds for removal.
One might expect Trump to take the same approach: give a qualified apology for “any confusion” caused by his call with Zelensky, express his “long-standing” commitment to integrity and accountability, and assure the public that he would never put his own political ambitions over the safety and security of America or her allies. Even such a non-apology would give his Republican allies in the Senate a generous mat of straw to grasp. They could assure constituents that Trump understood the gravity of the situation and save face when they voted to acquit.
But Trump won’t give them that.
As a former evangelical conservative who would have once followed someone like Donald Trump blindly over any precipice, I recognize the unique quality embodied in his cult of personality. It went by many labels, some better-known than others, but the idea of an “anointing” is probably the closest match.
Like most labels used inside fundamentalist Christianity, “anointing” had no particular meaning to those on the outside. It was part of our code, a way of communicating that set us apart. To call someone “anointed” was to affirm their unique role in God’s plan, a role that made them special and different in a more particular way than everyone else. God chose them for a purpose, and to question their fitness for that role was to challenge the very will of God.
That’s not to say an “anointed” was infallible. On the contrary, moral failings were almost a rite of passage for those called to a prominent place in God’s grand designs. Hardly a month would go by without some megachurch pastor or beloved spiritual leader getting caught with his pants down, literally or otherwise. If the figure was one we didn’t like, we would point to the incident as proof of spiritual decay and doctrinal error. But if he belonged to our camp, the messaging was opposite. Such a temptation was proof that the figure was doing good work: why else would the devil have placed such a great stumbling block in his way? It was a reminder for all of us to be humble and teachable. After a cleverly-worded apology, the leader would quietly return to ministry or teaching. Woe to anyone who dared question redemption! This man was still God’s anointed, and only those who doubted God’s plan would question his role.
Temptation was proof that he was doing God’s work and was being “attacked” by the devil.
The “anointed” could admit any number of personal or moral failings with near-impunity. What he could not do, however, was admit any hint of error in his God-ordained path. The “anointed” was allowed to be sinful but was never permitted to be wrong. Sin was evidence of humanity, excusable failing; error simply could not be. To accuse “God’s anointed” of doctrinal error or a ministerial misstep was to strike at the heart of God’s plan.
We loved to use the example of King David from the Old Testament. David was called “a man after God’s own heart” and was anointed as the future king while still a child. He was the figure who led the Israelites to victory again and again against their Philistine oppressors and whose works in the Psalms are taught and sung weekly in countless churches. Yet, for all his victories, King David was a moral train wreck, at one point raping Bathsheba and murdering her husband to cover it up.
Among evangelicals, King David is held up as the ultimate example of a man whose personal failings could be divorced from his place in God’s design. “Remember, David even murdered someone and God still used him as a mighty king. When God’s hand is on someone, He can use them despite personal sins.” (We glossed over the rapey part, usually because we made that out to somehow be Bathsheba’s fault.)
Before the 2018 election, I wrote a plea to my erstwhile peers, struggling to understand why evangelicals stubbornly defended someone as immoral and repugnant as Trump. I knew there was a reason; I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
Now, seeing the far-right tripping over itself to carry even Trump’s most inane defenses, I understand. Trump cannot be wrong. Trump cannot apologize. All manner of human failure can be forgiven, but they cannot question Trump’s decisions, because Trump’s decisions come from God.
This sort of view toward Trump shows up early in his relationship with evangelicals. In late 2016, when the Access Hollywood tape was released and Americans everywhere heard the Republican nominee bragging about adultery and sexual assault, it was widely-believed to be the death knell for his candidacy. Pence went off the grid and Reince Preibus flat-out told Trump he had no choice but to step down or to lose by a landslide. Yet, somehow, he pulled through. The evangelicals forgave and propelled him to the narrowest of electoral victories over their true enemy, Hillary.
The view of Trump as “anointed” emerged here, exemplified perhaps nowhere better than in the words of fundamentalist conservative superstar and fellow egomaniac Jerry Falwell Jr.:
“It was completely out of order, it’s not something I’m going to defend. We’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t. We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.
“He apologized. He was contrite about it. With $20 trillion in debt, we’re right on the edge of the abyss and if we don’t make some big changes, we’re going right down the hole. I don’t think the American people want this country to go down the toilet because Donald Trump made some dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago.”
Other influential Christian leaders followed suit. 700 Club founder and TV personality Pat Robertson said:
“Let’s face it. A guy does something 11 years ago, there was a conversation in Hollywood where he’s trying to look like he’s macho. This is supposed to be the death blow and everybody writes him off. The Donald says no. They think he’s dead, he’s come back. And he came back strong. So, he won that debate.”
Franklin Graham, son of the legendary evangelist, folded as well:
“The crude comments made by Donald J. Trump more than 11 years ago cannot be defended. But the godless progressive agenda of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton likewise cannot be defended. I am not endorsing any candidates in this election. I have said it throughout this presidential campaign, and I will say it again — both candidates are flawed…But as Christians we can’t back down from our responsibility to remain engaged in the politics of our nation. On November 8th we will all have a choice to make. The two candidates have very different visions for the future of America. The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court.”
For each, the refrain was the same: This was a man chosen by God to accomplish something of great importance, and his personal failings were but a reminder of the humanity and susceptibility to temptation that all face. Trump’s scant apology was treated as deep contrition. No one would ever dream of questioning his fitness for God’s design: in fact, questioning Trump’s ability to govern would be tantamount to questioning the divine plan.
Their sentiments, taken as a collective whole, underscore Trump’s “never-wrong” persona and explain its bewildering appeal to conservative evangelicals. Trump can commit all manner of moral breach without losing support — as he said himself during the 2016 campaign, he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose voters — because nothing he does can cause horror among conservatives at this point. They can even disagree with him over “minor” things like his withdrawal from Syria yesterday. But what they cannot do is tolerate any suggestion that Trump has made errors in judgment that call into question his fitness for office. Thus there can be no review of his call with Zelensky, no possibility he could be compromised or self-interested or corrupt.
If Trump apologized, admitted impropriety, or showed weakness of any kind, his base would be appalled and horrified. It would be seen as a betrayal of their total and unyielding faith in his “great and unmatched wisdom” (to quote a not-at-all-dictatory tweet from yesterday).
Such weakness would give the lie to Trump’s tried-and-true offensive against the “Witch Hunts” and “Hoaxes” of the Democratic “Dee State.” It would mean he isn’t the brilliant, noble political genius he pretends to be. For a constituency that glorifies extreme confidence and aggressive rhetoric, even tactical retreat is suicide.
So the one thing that could save Trump’s presidency by giving his Republican allies a way to save face is the very last thing Trump’s base will ever allow him to do.
David MacMillan is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC. He writes about science, politics, and culture as he finishes his book about his departure from creationist science denial.