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What it takes to be president

Hint: It’s not experience, intelligence, or morals

Protesters at the 2017 San Francisco Tax March hold a caricature of Donald Trump clutching fistfuls of money. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This week, I’ve been monitoring the fallout from the latest drama surrounding President Donald Trump; namely, the forthcoming book by renowned journalist Bob Woodward and yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times by an anonymous senior official in the administration. Both accounts repeat what has been said since the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign: He is foolish, impetuous, amoral, etc.

And yet, over sixty million of my fellow citizens voted for this man, a fact that makes me ill every single day even though the outcome wasn’t entirely surprising to me. I don’t blame supposed Russian interference for the election results, nor do I blame non-voters or third-party voters like myself. I blame Trump voters and Trump voters alone, and the white supremacist roots of this nation that empowered them.

Regardless, I’ve been thinking about what it actually takes to be elected President of the United States. I’m not talking about the written requirements, such as being 35 years old and a natural-born citizen; a literally brain-dead person could meet that threshold. Rather, what does it take to have a realistic chance of securing the votes necessary to reach the highest office in the land?

I believe the answers are money and religion. Or more precisely, affiliation with a Judeo-Christian religious institution. Actual belief in or practice of that religion’s tenets is entirely optional.

Money is key because the U.S. is a capitalist oligarchy where everything revolves around dollars. If you want to be elected to office, you need a huge amount of money to get your message out. If you are affiliated with neither the Democratic nor Republican parties and are not independently wealthy (think: Ross Perot), good luck raising that cash and being invited to nationally televised debates.

Though I’m currently registered as an independent voter, part of why I’ve supported Green candidates despite having some misgivings about them is to help Greens get enough votes—five percent — to secure federal matching funds. Democrats who ask why I would vote for someone who isn’t going to win — an ignorant and patronizing question, in my opinion — would do well to keep that in mind.

Though the Democratic and Republican parties differ in some significant respects, I agree with those progressives who state that both are ultimately controlled by moneyed interests. While I haven’t officially labeled myself as a socialist, I’ve become convinced that capitalism is oppressive to the majority of people — particularly those of color — and devastating to our natural environment. I am also leery about those Democratic candidates who profess to be socialists, as I don’t feel true socialism could come out of the Democratic Party, or out of a two-party system at all.

When I watched a San Francisco Mime Troupe production this Labor Day, I learned that Eugene Debs won six percent of the vote as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912. His anti-establishment and anti-war speeches got him imprisoned, though in 1920 he still won over 3% of the vote from his prison cell. There is still hunger in this country for working class rights and representation, but the history of the workers’ struggle has been suppressed.

I cannot see a socialist, or anyone else who doesn’t loudly trumpet a growing capitalist economy, being elected to lead the United States unless the current government is completely overthrown. If I knew of a way to have a bloodless revolution, I’d be all in on that idea. A truly egalitarian society might not need to have a President at all.

Religion is the other key defining factor in US-American politics, and day-to-day life in general. The idea that church and state are separate in this country is a sick and sad joke. We are a Judeo-Christian (overwhelmingly the latter) nation, with tax breaks for religious institutions, “In God We Trust” printed on our money, and God and prayer invoked frequently by every politician running for high office.

I stated earlier that mere affiliation with a religious institution is sufficient qualification to be elected, even if the candidate doesn’t actually follow the tenets of their professed religion. I should qualify that statement by recognizing that some other countries are functionally secular despite the majority of their citizens officially belonging to Christian churches. Read the book Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman for a fascinating exploration of that phenomenon.

While it’s possible we might elect a Jewish president if they serve our economic and military interests, I cannot see a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, neo-pagan, or avowed atheist being elected to lead this country. Distrust and distaste for those last two categories is especially strong. Despite constant displays of violence, sexual abuse, and other oppressive behavior by people who say they believe in God, those of us whose morals do not come from the the Hebrew Bible or New Testament are considered by many to have no morals at all.

I don’t doubt that Donald Trump believes in God, and probably in the divinity of Jesus. As an atheist, I suppose I’m not qualified to assess whether his pre- and post-election behavior is amoral by Christian standards, but a great many Christians seem to think it is. That didn’t stop evangelicals from supporting his bid for the White House; at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump even admitted that he probably didn’t deserve their support.

Regardless, courting to these evangelicals inevitably means discriminating against the bodily autonomy of pregnant people (overwhelmingly women) and the LGBTQ community. I don’t think Trump personally cares that much whether or not someone has an abortion or whether or not a trans person serves in the military; he cares about himself and money, in that order. But his actions — including the nomination of a Supreme Court justice who might well help overturn Roe v. Wade — have far-reaching consequences.

Some will loudly counter “Not all Christians”, but the fact is that in the U.S., the rationalization for oppressing people based on their genders and sexual orientations is overwhelmingly coming from the Bible. The influence of colonizers using the Bible to impose Christian morality is seen in other countries as well, for example the Victorian-era criminalization of homosexual conduct in India, which was finally lifted today.

As with capitalism, I don’t see the stranglehold Christianity has on this country going away short of an actual revolution. But I am not opposed to people worshipping God or Jesus. I simply don’t want Christians, or anyone else, to use their religion to oppress others.

A protester holds a sign with a drawing of Donald Trump’s face and the words “Don’t Forget: This guy’s awful but he’s only a SYMPTOM!” Patriot Prayer counter-protest, San Francisco, August 2017.

Donald Trump might be the most uniquely unqualified president in U.S. history by any number of measures, but he is a symptom of the diseases of white supremacy and toxic masculinity. As I’ve written before, this country was founded by and for the benefit of cisgender white male landowners; Trump’s election merely furthered their agenda. If Trump is removed from office before the completion of his term, Mike Pence is poised to implement even more oppressive policies, which is no comfort to people like myself.

No matter who is installed in the White House, money and religion will remain dominant factors in U.S. politics, as they are the driving forces in our society. Subverting their influence is a Herculean task. Hence the status quo remains.