Where can American Catholics turn after the Trump ascendancy?
“Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” So wrote a number of prominent scholars and journalists in An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics, issued back in March. They made a strong case:
His campaign has already driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity. His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility. He promised to order U.S. military personnel to torture terrorist suspects and to kill terrorists’ families — actions condemned by the Church and policies that would bring shame upon our country. And there is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.
Before I go a step further, a few disclaimers:
- I know and admire most of the people who signed this statement; many are old friends.
- After years of very active involvement in politics at every level, culminating in my own quixotic campaign for a US Senate seat, I swore off campaigning; I concluded that reforming the Church is more urgent than reforming society, and in any case societal reform is unlikely in the absence of a strong and united Catholic presence.
- So I have deliberately steered clear of political commentary this year. I do not intend to instruct readers on how they should vote.
Still I cannot avoid simple a observation about the problem with “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics.” Rounding to their conclusion, the signatories wrote: “We urge our fellow Catholics and all our fellow citizens to reject [Trump’s] candidacy for the Republican nomination by supporting a genuinely reformist candidate.” They wanted someone—almost anyone—other than Trump to emerge from the Republican primaries. No one did.
There were many attractive candidates for the Republican nomination, but no one managed to rally the support needed to stop the Trump tsunami; no candidate stood out as the other major contestant.
Something very similar happened to the GOP four years ago. For months, the 2012 Republican presidential primaries looked like a series of auditions, in which one candidate after another sought to become the alternative to Mitt Romney. But nobody emerged. There’s an old political axiom: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. So Romney became the GOP presidential candidate, despite a manifest lack of public enthusiasm. Then as now, the most active members of the Republican Party failed to unite behind a candidate they considered more attractive.
I confess that I was caught off-guard by the Trump phenomenon. (In that respect I am like most of the analysts who write about politics for their living. I am unlike them in that I readily admit my bafflement.) But the GOP’s inability—twice running, now—to produce a “genuinely reformist candidate” for the presidency prompts some important questions: Who is in control of the Republican Party? If the voters have rejected the party’s leaders, who’s in charge? What do they stand for? What is the future of the GOP—either during a Trump presidency, or after a Trump loss?
If you are a Republican, and you disapprove of the Trump nomination, ask yourself why the party’s nominating process could not produce a more desirable candidate, and how that might change in future years.
If you are a Catholic, and you wonder why the GOP does not produce candidates who unequivocally promote the culture of life, ask yourself whether today’s Republican Party is the right vehicle on which to place your political hopes.
If you are a loyal Catholic and a loyal Republican, ask yourself whether you will be welcome in the GOP of 2017 and beyond. And if the answer is No, where else will you turn? You may conclude, as I did, that your energies would be better invested trying to reform the Catholic community now, and hoping that a reinvigorated Catholic presence can then usher in effective reform on the American political scene.
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