The President in a Culture War Whirlwind


With so much going on, and given my focus on state-level politics, I’m only now coming across the (conservative) Washington Examiner’s editorial questioning President Trump’s “fitness to lead” given some recent insinuations he’s made about the death two decades ago of a political staffer of now-MSNBC-host Joe Scarborough.

The Examiner is right to call out Trump for his abuse of Twitter, but beyond that… what?  Joe Biden said Republicans would put Americans (especially implying black Americans) “back in chains.”  Is that any better?

Americans have shirked our civic responsibility for so long that we have put ourselves in the position that nobody who can conceivably win the presidency is actually “fit to lead,” at least in the sense of upholding standards of behavior.  Never-Trump conservatives would prefer a noble loss so that at least their values can remain unstained by this unfitness, and on some level, that’s a respectable position, but I think it ignores the consequences.  It ignores other stains, and the threat of flames.  It ignores the cultural battlefield that we’re actually on.

Since I was a little boy, conservatives have watched the Left and their national party, the Democrats, tear down good, decent men like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, often in the most vile ways.  While Biden was out there saying Republicans would enslave people, an Obama PAC spread (and the news media promulgated) the accusation that Mitt Romney killed a woman.

That’s only the tip of a massive iceberg of accusations and slanders and threats.  During his time in office, Marvel comics actually had a character, the Punisher, slip into the White House and threaten to shoot President Bush.  In the ’80s, the rock band Genesis ended a video with President Reagan setting off a nuclear bomb because he was too old and senile to hit the right button calling for his nurse.

There have always been fringe figures on the political right, in America, yes, but saying vile things about conservatives and Republicans has been mainstream for a long, long time.

This isn’t mere whataboutism.  It’s an acknowledgment that our choice isn’t between the culpable and the innocent.  As a plain calculation, “unfit” rhetoric like President Trump’s can’t be the basis of voters’ decision, because it’s on both sides.  That would be like choosing between two brands of an identical medicine because one has side effects.  They both have the same side effects!

That’s actually a pretty new development.  What makes President Trump unique is that he is willing to use the Left’s own weapons against them.  Now, I voted for President Trump only hesitantly and at the last minute in the last election.  Like everybody else, I expected Hillary Clinton to win and wanted to do what I could to keep the margin down so she might (might) get a message about rhetoric like calling Americans “deplorables.”  And I do wish the conservative side had found a solution to the riddle of defeating the vile Left while maintaining higher ground.  I work toward that every day.  As a Christian convert, I firmly believe that you ultimately can’t defeat hate with hate — only with love.

But if you’re caught in the middle of a battlefield and one side is offering you a path to safety while the other is intent on killing you, rejecting the offer because the helpful side is also engaged in the act of war would be foolish.  Even if you don’t necessarily agree with the deeper politics of the side that’s helping you, you take the path to safety so you can live to love another day.  In this case, I’d argue that the Left’s rhetoric is not only worse than President Trump’s, but more systemic and therefore more likely to lead to actual persecution.  Have we already forgotten the ordeal of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh?

That’s our situation.

While these ideas were swishing around in my head, I came across (another) telling tweet from former Providence Journal reporter and now-UConn journalism professor Mike Stanton.  It’s a picture of a new perimeter fence around the White House that progressive writer Matthew Yglesias posted with the caption “Greatness!”  To that, Stanton added, “Extending the perimeter of his border wall?”

This is the voice of America’s mainstream liberals gloating over the danger that leftist protesters and looters are putting our president in.  (No doubt, the Punisher could find his way over the barrier.)  We live in a very divided country.  The difference is that one side knows its opponents will play by the rules and remain civil. The other side needs a barrier, even if journalists will mock them for it.

Of course, it would be false to imply that progressives don’t actively suppress displays of opposition with their own, more-insidious barriers.  If you were an adult during the Obama Era, you might remember footage of the secret service clearing entire city streets hours in advance of a political visit from the president.  You might remember the limited “free speech zones” allowed at his party’s conventions.  You might even remember the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, which Obama signed into law.  As Bob Unruh noted at the time:

The bill states, “Whoever knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so; knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of government business or official functions; knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds; or knowingly engages in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds; attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished.”

Significantly, though, the definition of “restricted buildings” is anywhere someone protected by the Secret Service “will be temporarily visiting.”

You can be forgiven for not remembering that legislation, however, because the mainstream political class didn’t make a big deal out of it.

So let’s ponder:  What would have happened if Tea Party types had flooded the streets outside the White House, creating a hostile environment, defacing monuments, throwing things at law enforcement officers, and trying to burn buildings for days on end?  We’ll never know, because the Tea Party never did any such thing.  We do know that various wings of the Obama administration had a habit of releasing reports citing the dangers of right wing groups, including Christians and military veterans.  We know that, under him, the IRS targeted conservative groups and had to settle lawsuits for doing so.  We also know that his administration assassinated an American citizen.

So how should we respond when, after experiencing all that, Americans elect to the White House somebody who made it clear he wasn’t going to play by the rules of niceness in the face of constant attacks?  How should we respond when years of accusations that the president is “colluding” with a hostile foreign government unravel and, in fact, point to a massive political spying scandal of the Obama administration?  How should we respond when President Trump does what President Trump does and deploys a handful of tweets to punch back against people who’ve been supportive of the attacks on him for years?

And how should we respond when, after a night of gleeful mainstream-media tweets about “peaceful protesters” attempting to invade the White House, even to the extent that the building went into lock-down, law enforcement clears enough of an area for the president to leave the White House grounds for a short while to send a message that chaos does not have to rule our streets?

When the Episcopal bishop overseeing St. John’s seems less concerned that radicals attempted to burn down her own church than that the president posed in front of a sign reading “all are welcome,” it seems to me there is only one way to respond.

We have to take the lesson.

When President Trump made a long-scheduled visit to the John Paul II shrine in Washington, the Catholic archbishop of the city called it “baffling and reprehensible” that the “Catholic facility” did not cancel the event and ban the President of the United States!  Why aren’t these Christian leaders recognizing the power and value of their own beliefs?  Why is their impulse to exclude, rather than to build on an obvious opportunity for a connection?

Saint John Paul II visited the man who attempted to assassinate him, and who almost succeeded.  And now the Catholic leader of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese has placed a taboo on somebody who would honor such a saint?  Even if the visit was cynical, it was an opportunity for a connection, for changing minds, for healing.  What does calling it “reprehensible” accomplish?  Certainly none of those good things.  Does the archbishop think Trump will taint John Paul II?  Does he not believe that a visit to a Catholic shrine might assist in the conversion of the president’s heart?  What does he believe?

Thus, those of us who support the message of that long-scheduled visit — international religious freedom — find that even the people who are charged with the protection of our beliefs are caught up in the evil whirlwind.  When President Trump behaves exactly in his famous character as a crass New York City businessman and says something he shouldn’t on an infamously rough-and-tumble social media site, we have to weigh that against the full mass of a movement in which even the people who share our religion and our values will not stand up against the madness swirling, trying to tear him and our country apart.

What are we supposed to do?

It seems to me we have no choice but to stand behind the flawed man who is leaning into the mad wind that is sweeping away senators and journalists and archbishops and driving our nation crazy, with trust in our God that we can play a role in turning him toward the better and, thereby, turning our country toward the better. Helping his opposition to succeed would do the opposite, because it would validate their belief that only they can be legitimate as well as their confidence that these tactics work.  It would reinforce exactly the “unfitness” we all oppose.

  • Pjgj28a

    Justin, one of your more thoughtful essays. Wonderful explanation why Catholics, even if they have to hold their nose, need to vote for Trump as a far left takeover of government would certainly void freedom of religion and swap In worship of government and why the Catholic Clergy hierarchy doesn’t see that is truly a mystery to me. Keep up the good work.

  • Lou

    Justin, I appreciate you providing links to your sources. If they actually supported what you represented they say it would provide credibility. For example, your link to the Biden story makes no mention of race in it. You however believe it to support your assertions that it was “(especially implying black Americans).

    • Justin Katz

      Point taken. I’ve changed the link used to substantiate that particular point.

      • Lou

        There’s still no reference to race in Biden’s comments in the new article. The only reference to race is in regard to the some of the attendees. It’s interesting that his political opponent’s campaign didn’t even try to spin it the way you try to. It’s even more interesting that it’s Obama.

  • Mario

    Where this breaks down is when you pretend that supporting Trump is fait accompli when there are and were many off-roads for Republicans to reject his ways and go with someone who actually embodies when they believe, or didn’t require so much basic corruption of their core values to stand behind. But, for some reason, supporting impeachment (and getting Pence in the bargain) was no good, demanding his resignation was impossible, supporting a primary challenge was a bridge too far… these aren’t the actions of a party reluctant to support him, these are continuous, active, and self-destructive endorsements of everything he does. Don’t say you have no choice.

    • Justin Katz

      You’re making something like a category error. An option that might be available to an entire party as a group may not be available to individuals within that party, which in turn could mean that the option isn’t actually available to the party. Put differently, you can’t say “you had other options” when those options weren’t actually available.

      That said, because the opposition started out with a phony collusion scandal and there was broad refusal to try giving things a chance from Never Trumpers, pretty much everything I describe above applied from the time he was elected.

      • Lou

        And by “phony collusion scandal” you are referring to:

        Criminal charges against 34 individuals. To date secured seven guilty pleas and one conviction at trial, but 25 Russians indicted are unlikely to ever see a U.S. courtroom.

  • bagida’wewinini

    I find it amazing that given the national news that has centered around the murder of George Floyd and the protests ongoing throughout the country, you choose to start with an editorial about Trump’s tweets about Joe Scarborough. You have nothing to offer about the national conversation about race relations , the ongoing protests, or government’s response to those protesters. Nothing but a political appeal from you ,the self described loving Christian convert, Absolutely no understanding for people’s grief, shock and anger that is at the heart of the protests or unbelievably no words for the death of the man or all the others that have died as a result of their interaction with police. You seem only concerned with the political calculation that you see as favorable to your side so of course you can continue to “love” all those who you can ignore or disparage.

    “But if you’re caught in the middle of a battlefield and one side is offering you a path to safety while the other is intent on killing you, rejecting the offer because the helpful side is also engaged in the act of war would be foolish. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with the deeper politics of the side that’s helping you, you take the path to safety so you can live to love another day. ” – katz

    Who is trying to kill you? The protests that we are witnessing are about a much more real sense of danger that people experience daily.

    • Justin Katz

      Part of the short-essay format is that you can’t put everything in every post. I’ve also written relatedly at the following link and may have more to say in days or weeks to come. But not being a progressive, I don’t consider it my job to repeat what everybody’s already saying or to make obligatory statements. I look for things that either interest me specifically or for things not being said. You’ve been commenting here long enough that I’m confident you’ll find a reason to hate on me no matter what I write, so… whatever. Nobody’s forcing you to read any of it.

      • Rhett Hardwick

        I, for one, appreciate Justin discussing the many matters of note during this time of a “National Conversation”. The National Conversation has worn me out with virtue signaling.

      • bagida’wewinini

        “It seems to me we have no choice but to stand behind the flawed man who is leaning into the mad wind that is sweeping away senators and journalists and archbishops and driving our nation crazy, with trust in our God that we can play a role in turning him toward the better and, thereby, turning our country toward the better”

        Standing by your (flawed) man will have you adding many more names to your enemies list. I’m confident that you will do that…… of course with love. You’re wrong about me hating you. Call it disappointment instead. I’m constantly amazed by your self delusion. You seem deeply conflicted and you know that state can’t last very much longer Good luck..

    • Lou

      We all know Justin well enough to know that if there was a way to spin the national dialog into something he perceives as a plus for the far-right it would be posted already. Give him a little time. In the meantime enjoy the COVID-19 commentary…I mean “science”.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    The President grabs a Bible, holds it like an unfamiliar object, strolls across the street, strikes a pose in front of the ‘White House Church’ and totally owns the visual of St. George defending the faithful. All the great and good can only point and sputter…it’s hysterical. “All are welcome”, except, of course, Orange Man Bad. Choice! Is that a halo, or just his hair? Either way, it’s miraculous.

    Here we are now in what, the 4th season of Survivor: The White House and, Oy, the ratings!