Ben Carson, while announcing his endorsement of Donald Trump, famously said that there were “two” Donald Trumps. There is the bombastic, unpredictable, often offensive Trump of the reality television shows and the campaign rallies and televised debates; and then there is the subdued, thoughtful Donald Trump whom Carson met in a private meeting at Mar-A-Lago. He enthusiastically endorsed Trump #2.
But the problem is that if you go to bed with the second, you risk waking up with the first.
I believe I saw the second Donald Trump at June 21st meeting with Evangelical Leaders in New York. (No one was more surprised than I to be invited to such an event. I didn’t even know I was Evangelical.) Mr. Trump was most definitely on his best behavior. He was restrained, somewhat somber, self-deprecating. He said nothing outlandish. (He came closest when he said “Our nation is being run by stupid people.” But it’s hard to argue with that.)
The the event was titled “A Conversation with Donald Trump.” The goal was to give Trump and religious leaders an opportunity for dialogue. (Not that I saw a whole lot of actual dialogue.) I have since seen various claims that the event was a “rally”, and that participation somehow implied support or even an endorsement for Mr. Trump. That was not the case, and I would never have participated if it had been. One participant estimated, based on the distribution of the applause, that perhaps one tenth of the 1000 participants were enthusiastic Trump supporters. The rest of us ranged from reluctant backers to out-and-out skeptics.
I went to hear what he had to say. Nothing more, nothing less. Many others were there for the same reason.
Mr. Trump spent somewhere just over an hour with us. The format was question and answer. We were all asked to submit two questions to Mr. Trump. In the end, six people stood up to ask him questions. They all seemed to be very high-profile leaders (the first was Dr. James Dobson), so I suspect the rest of our questions never had a chance to see the light of day.
My reaction was mixed. He said a few things I found reassuring. He insisted that the Federalist Society would be the “gold standard” for his judicial appointments. He defended Israel and condemned the Iran deal. He said he would revitalize the military.
He assured us that he would defend religious freedom, although the two issues he chose to illustrate that didn’t really indicate comprehension of the depth of the problem. He said that he would repeal the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 IRS regulation that prohibits 501(c)3 organizations from endorsing specific candidates. And he announced that “We’re gonna say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
That’s nice, but we have much bigger problems.
Twice he was asked about more direct attacks on religious freedom, and twice he failed to answer, instead falling back on his stump speech messages. He likewise punted on a question about how he plans to build bridges to the Hispanic community.
I was often frustrated by his lack of specifics. On poverty, he said that the inner city lacks hope and spirit, and that we have to “spiritize” them.
I’m not sure what that legislation looks like.
Failing to fully answer questions. Falling back on stump speech sound bites. Making vague promises. Sounds like a typical politician. And yet, this was the most compelling version of Mr. Trump that I have seen to date. Apparently Trump is one of the few candidates for whom acting like a typical politician is actually a step up.
Abortion was never mentioned, aside from the assurance that he would appoint “pro-life judges.” That struck many of us as a bit of a misnomer, as most of us are far more interested in a justice’s constitutional philosophy than his or her personal views on abortion. I guess it indicates that he is aiming in the right direction on judicial nominations. But aside from that, I saw no further reassurance that his recent pro-life conversion is heartfelt or genuine. The fact that he has since failed to comment on the Court’s Texas abortion clinic ruling gives me further cause for concern.
Nothing that happened in the meeting significantly “moved the needle” for me in terms of my attitude toward Mr. Trump. The guy I saw on June 21st was acting somewhat more presidential than he has behaved in the past. And his message that day, while far from perfect, was certainly a far sight better than Hillary’s left-wing agenda. If this Donald Trump was the only Trump I had seen, there would be no question that I would support him over Hillary Clinton.
But I still remember that other guy. His antics are well documented, and if I were attempt to recount them here, this brief essay would become a book. All of that history can’t be erased by one day of fairly good behavior.
I, like many who supported others in the primary, have been struggling with what to do with my vote in the general election. I am obviously underwhelmed with our options. If anybody can come up with a way to run another viable candidate — either third party or through some last minute convention miracle — I am all ears. If anybody can find a reliable way to deny both candidates their 270 electoral votes and throw the election into the House, I am likewise on board. But if our choice is indeed binary — Hillary or Trump — then we all have an important decision to make.
We hold our noses and vote for an extraordinarily flawed candidate. Or we don’t.
Different people of good will have been coming to different conclusions. People I respect greatly have landed on opposite sides, and both have very legitimate points. Frankly, one of my greatest beefs in this election cycle, aside from our deplorable selection of candidates, is the way these people of good faith have been sniping at each other.
I have to say that, over the course of the day-long event, I was somewhat troubled at some of the other speakers’ efforts to lionize The Donald — comparing him to various Biblical figures, extolling his virtues as father and a leader. It’s one thing to hold your nose and vote for the guy. But to me, given his track record so far, it’s a bridge too far to try to cast him as some kind of secular savior.
That being said, I have seen accusations that the organizers of the event — many of whom opposed Trump in the primary — are selling themselves out for power. I think that’s unfair. I can’t judge their personal motivations. But I find that, aside from trade and perhaps immigration, Mr. Trump exhibits no particularly deep convictions. Additionally, he seems like a “big picture” guy who leaves the real work to others. Hence, his agenda is going to be set to a significant extent by the people around him. Given the stakes for our nation, I see nothing wrong and plenty right with trying to become one of those people “around him”, to gain a voice and a shot at setting the agenda.
As for me? I never used the hashtag, but I started out leaning heavily #nevertrump. The man horrifies me, on so many levels. He lacks conviction. He lacks character. He seems to lack even a rudimentary understanding of how government works. I am certainly not in love with the idea of his becoming our Commander in Chief.
And yet, the thought of Hillary becoming president terrifies me. There is no question, for reasons enumerated in great detail elsewhere, that her administration would be a nightmare for the American people, and particularly for Americans of faith. In fact, lately I have been saying that I like Trump best when I’m looking at Hillary.
I’m not a politician, or even a political pundit. I’m just a voter like everybody else, trying to figure out how to navigate this mess. I know that I cannot in good conscience campaign for or “endorse” Donald Trump. (As if my endorsement meant anything to anybody.) I don’t want to go to bed with Trump #2, and then wake up having to justify the antics of Trump #1. And I have not made an etched in stone commitment to vote for him. We still have 130 days until the election. I could still get my convention miracle. Or Mr. Trump could find an even more colossal way to screw up and drive us all away.
But if the election were held today, I believe I would find myself in the “hold my nose and vote” camp. Not because of anything he said at the meeting. Not because of the pundits who hurl insults at the #nevertrump-ers, whose only argument is “But Hillary . . . “
But because, at the end of the day, one of them is going to become President — God help us. One has announced she is against us. The other has announced he is with us, but we have good reason to suspect that it may not be entirely true.
So I guess, to paraphrase Dennis Prager, I’ll take possible disaster over certain disaster.
In the mean time, I’m going to pray. A lot.
And I would recommend that you do the same.