Maybe the only satisfying thing about the November 8 election of Donald Trump as president was the shock on the part of America’s pollsters, media, and leadership class, as the inconceivable actually happened.
Why did it happen?
In shrugging off the ugly anti-Catholic content in the Clinton WikiLeaks fiasco in mid-October, one “progressive” Catholic pundit wrote that the “whole controversy is simply an effort, a stupid effort, to stop Clinton’s ascent to the White House.” Note the word choice: the “ascent” of Hillary Clinton. That one word speaks volumes about the assumptions of the Clinton campaign and many of its supporters. This year, 2016, was finally ordained to begin Clinton’s turn in the Oval Office.
Alas, a detail: No one deserves the presidency by right. In the United States, the presidency is still just a job, not a sacred kingship; and the president is a public employee, not a crowned monarch or Lecturer in Chief. There are no thrones to “ascend” in this country. Not yet, anyway.
It turns out that a lot more people, many of them well-educated and intelligent, were in the Trump “basket of deplorables” than anyone imagined—including 53 percent of white women. And while Trump richly earned his poor performance among African-American and Hispanic voters with comments that were often repugnant and insulting, he actually did better with both groups than Mitt Romney did in 2012.
Catholics can take some comfort from Trump’s recent words about abortion, Supreme Court nominees, and other issues, as well as from his conciliatory victory speech. Contrary to his critics—and rather obviously, given the election results—he is neither crazy nor stupid. He is a pragmatist. After eight years of an ideologically driven White House, and if Trump listens to decent and sensible advisers, pragmatism could be a good thing.
The troubling fact, though, is that so far he’s shown a weakness for eccentric vulgarity, bombast, bullying, and punitive instincts on immigration and America’s role in the world. Making America great again is an admirable idea—if by “great” we mean a nation of moral character, generosity, mutual respect, and concern for the poor. There’s nothing “great” about global power restored and misused.
And that brings us to one of the key facts about this election: It’s more of a reaction than a renewal. True, some of that reaction is healthy and justified. It’s a revolt against tutoring by a secularized leadership class that says the right words about the common good but lives in a world insulated from (and often contemptuous of) the realities and beliefs of common people.
Nonetheless, the demographic, technological, religious, economic, and sexual changes now reshaping American society have not suddenly been reversed. Nor are they simply the work of devious elites. Ordinary citizens are complicit in all of the appetites and short-sightedness of liberal consumer democracy. Voters have merely tapped the brakes. The direction of the car hasn’t changed. Conversion—real conversion of heart and behavior—was not on this year’s ballot.
As Augustine said in his sermons, we are the times, and we share responsibility for their character. One of two deeply flawed candidates is now the president-elect. It’s a good moment to remember that we’re Christians first and political animals second. Our task now is to support the good in Mr. Trump’s policies and to resist the bad—and thereby prove to our countrymen that the meaning of “pro-life” begins with the unborn child, but in embracing the poor, the elderly and the immigrant, it never ends there.
Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia.