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Some of us are convinced that Donald Trump is a despicable human being, a chronic liar, serial adulterer, sexual harasser, crypto-fascist, Russian mole, kleptocrat—I could go on, but you get my drift. We are typically incredulous that Trump’s supporters (and particularly his evangelical Christian supporters) don’t seem the least bit put off by his morally questionable behavior.

political forgiveness

Indeed, as many Trump people are fond of pointing out, there is a close parallel to how Democrats and liberals responded to the evidence of moral transgressions by Bill Clinton. In that case, I can remember feeling that I didn’t approve of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, but that the Republicans in Congress were using that deplorable moral lapse to cynically push for impeachment. And I didn’t give much credence to the other allegations against Clinton (other women on the side, Whitewater), which I thought were being pushed by Republicans for partisan ends.

Clinton was a petty and foolish philanderer. Trump is a menace to the Constitution. But Trump’s supporters will defend him because they hope he will have the power to accomplish what they want done. Even at the expense of the Constitution itself.

For me, the larger context was key: Clinton faced a Republican Congress under the militant reactionary leadership of Newt Gingrich, determined to roll back as much of the New Deal and the Great Society as they could possibly manage. Clinton, flawed as he was, was the only bulwark against that counterrevolution. I was willing to forgive a lot of sins on his part if he could hold the line—and mostly he did, except for “ending welfare as we know it.”

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This is what we need to remember as we contemplate the spectacle of devout Christians manning the barricades for a man who embodies values completely opposed to their own. Politics is fundamentally about power, not moral suasion: if we intend to achieve what we consider to be moral ends, we have to have the power to do it. Many evangelicals have convinced themselves that abortion is the single moral issue that outweighs all others. They have, in Trump, a powerful leader who has found it politically expedient to be strongly and inflexibly anti-abortion. Even though his own record shows that this is no deeply felt conviction, he is anti-abortion now, and that is enough.

Add the evangelicals to what I will call the Sinners’ Caucus. These are people who are not deeply religious, people who themselves have lived rough lives. They look at Trump’s sins and see themselves. If they were religious, they would cite Jesus, confronting a mob about to stone a prostitute: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” What they hope to have for themselves is forgiveness, and they willingly give it to Trump.

So we all engage in political absolution. Was Clinton as bad as Trump? I don’t think so. To me, there are many Trump misdeeds that relate directly to his conduct in office: the corrupt mixing of his official duties with his private business interests, his refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to admit that the Russians intervened in the election to support him and undermine Hillary Clinton, his repeated attempts to undermine the independent judiciary, the FBI and the Special Counsel investigating the Russian matter. These are issues far more central to whether he is fulfilling his oath of office, than whatever personal peccadillos (literally, small sins) he may have.

Clinton was a petty and foolish philanderer. Trump is a menace to the Constitution. But Trump’s supporters will defend him because they hope he will have the power to accomplish what they want done. Even at the expense of the Constitution itself.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler

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