This post first appeared on the Catholic Herald website on 9 March, 2016.
Earlier the week, the National Review carried a fluent and compelling open letter from George Weigel and Robert George, addressed to all Catholics and people of good will.
The letter was the latest in a series of serious and thoughtful engagements with the many and various flaws of Donald Trump, and offered a concise and damning critique of the Trump phenomenon against all of the traditional reasons why Catholics vote for Republicans. And they are right.
On the key issues outlined in the letter: religious freedom, right to life, the dignity of the family, and subsidiarity through limited government, Trump fails to offer any solid reason to support him, on the contrary, he seems openly against some of these basic principles.
Over and above these specific issues, Trump also undermines the basic premise of a functioning democracy, especially in a pluralistic society: that public debate be open, thoughtful, civil, and substantive. His relentless ad hominem attacks on other candidates, and his almost mantric repetition of “greatness” and “winning” are infuriatingly empty of any real platform for government, and make his continued popularity almost offensively mysterious to the media.
While many friends and colleagues have added their names to the Weigel-George letter, and many more, myself included, have circulated the text, and while we should be grateful to them both for giving us a coherent and succinct Catholic response to Trump, I think it is only fair to say that this is mostly an exercise in making ourselves feel better; it is unlikely to slow Trump’s rise even a little.
Without getting into statistical minutia, it is generally accepted that Trump is polling at about 30% among Catholic Republicans. This is not too distant from where he tends to poll overall among the Republicans, and such is the state of the field that less than a third of the vote happens to be enough to secure a handsome lead in the delegate count for the party nomination.
While 30% among Catholics might seem terribly high for a man known to have supported Planned Parenthood and who owns casinos and strip clubs, it pales in comparison to the more than 40% at which he polls among hispanic Republican voters – this for a man whose signature policy is opposition to hispanic immigration.
The problem is, the eloquence of Weigel and George’s denunciation notwithstanding, Trump’s supporters are not misinformed or unaware of whom they are supporting. They know his many flaws and contradictions and they are not, sadly, merely waiting for illumination before transferring their support to a more viable candidate.
They do not think that a vote for Trump is a vote for what they care about or believe in, they do not even think a vote for Trump is a vote for Trump. Trump is the ultimate, insulting, offensive, protest candidate and his supporters are simple, old-fashioned, protest voters.
The very characteristics which make Trump grossly unsuited to be president are the reason he continues to attract support as a candidate. When Trump looked Jeb Bush in the eye on live television and called him an entitled loser, he was lancing an emotional boil in the American political consciousness which had swollen over successive election cycles, and which had nothing to do with individual policies but everything to do with feeling taken for granted.
Similarly, the naked horror with which every Trump victory is greeted in the media encourages his supporters, who routinely endure the same pundits praising the wisdom and principle of politicians who ignore or demonise them (think of Obama’s infamous comment about those who cling to guns or religion).
To imagine that explaining that Trump is not really “for” Catholics, or hispanics, or the formerly working class, or anyone else apart from Trump, will convince people not to vote for him is to miss the point.
People know that Trump is not really for them, but they don’t believe any of the other candidates are either. His supporters are a coalition of those who have served as cultural makeweights in the calculations of politicians for decades, and who made their discontent known in the so-called Tea Party movement. In Trump, they have at last found a mechanism for making their anger felt, rather than merely heard.
In his brilliant encyclical Rerum novarum, Leo XIII wrote about how, when large numbers of people are disenfranchised and ignored, the inevitable result is a warped populism and revolution.
But his denunciation of socialism was not an end in itself, but part of a systematic counter-proposal for an equitable modern society, his vision for which evolved into what we today call Catholic social teaching, and this is what is still lacking in the American primary races; a real alternative.
Weigel and George’s letter ends with a plea to Catholics “to reject Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by supporting a genuinely reformist candidate.” I suspect most of Trump’s supporters, Catholic and otherwise, would respond “And who is that supposed to be?”
Until one emerges, I suspect around 30% of Republican voters will continue to vent their anger by the only means anyone seems to notice.