Like used car salesmen, political consultants are despised as kind of the scum of the earth – but they’re necessary. Someone has to move the product – the deathtrap of a car or the politician who’s a bit of a fool. The trick is to ignore the deadly flaws, and that’s a matter of focus. Make this about that one good thing – maybe it’s the snazzy paint job. Keep pointing to that. Political consultants do the same thing. Choose a theme for the day. Make each day about that one specific thing. Make your guy talk about that, and only that. Deflect. Have your guy rehearse the line – “That’s a good question, and a serious issue, but this day is really about…”
That’ll close the sale, because the media like to work the same way. Each day should have a theme – it makes their day easier too. They can wrap up the news of the day with what seems like wisdom – this day in Washington was all about… fill in the blank. Then the public believes it. They want relief from chaos. Ah, so that’s what this day was really about. That’s comforting. It all makes sense now. Everybody is happy.
Groundhog Day – the most absurd day of the year in America – is, however, a bit problematic. Somewhere north of Pittsburgh, this year, the groundhog saw its shadow, so there will be six more weeks of winter – or not. There’s not much to work with there, and it didn’t help that the movie Groundhog Day was playing in an endless loop on basic cable for the full twenty-four hours – you know, the comedy about the existential despair of being stuck in a meaningless life, in a meaningless place, with no hope of change, ever, symbolized by the guy who has to live one winter day, north of Pittsburgh, over and over and over. No, Samuel Beckett didn’t write the screenplay. He only inspired it – but no politician is going to say one word about Groundhog Day. Winter will go on and on and on? We’re all stuck in existential despair, where noting means anything at all, and there’s no hope at all? Political consultants tell their guy to say not one word about any of this. They choose a different theme for the day.
What if Jesus sees his shadow? That’s something to work with – and this year Groundhog Day coincided with the National Prayer Breakfast, where every president since Eisenhower gets to talk about God and faith and all the rest – the safe stuff. Political consultants love that sort of thing. No one would dare change the subject. What could go wrong?
Plenty could go wrong:
Despite the religious underpinning of the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump couldn’t resist settling a score.
He slammed former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his successor as host of Celebrity Apprentice, for poor ratings. He also got in a dig at the show’s creator, Mark Burnett, who introduced Trump at the breakfast.
“We had tremendous success on The Apprentice, and when I ran for president, I had to leave the show. That’s when I knew for sure I was doing it,” Trump began. “And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster. And Mark will never, ever bet against Trump again.”
“And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, okay.”
There was a bit of scattered uncomfortable applause, but there was mostly stunned silence. How the hell could he mess this up? On the other hand, being who he is, how could he not mess this up?
Everyone was shocked, no one was surprised, and there was the immediate tweet from Arnold Schwarzenegger:
Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV because you’re such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job and then people can finally sleep comfortably again, hmm?
This was not going well, and God was gone from the room:
Trump also made a reference to a report in the Washington Post that he had a contentious phone call with the prime minister of Australia, one of the nation’s closest allies.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it,” Trump told the breakfast gathering in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Yes, he was saying that every nation on earth was laughing at us behind our back, even our allies – or especially our allies. They’re all out to get us, to humiliate us, every damned one of them – but we’ll show them. We’ll humiliate them first. That’s what we have to do when everyone – but Russia – is out to get us – and they are. Everyone is out to get us. Everyone is out to get us. We have to do something. We have to get them before they get us.
Obsessive paranoia isn’t pretty, but there’s a lot of that going around – enough that it got him elected.
Otherwise, he was loose and happy:
“Thank you as well, to Senate Chaplain Barry Black for his moving words, and I don’t know, Chaplain, whether or not that’s an appointed position,” Trump said. “Is that an appointed position? I don’t even know if you’re Democrat or if you’re a Republican, but I’m appointing you for another year, the hell with it. And I think it’s not even my appointment, it’s the Senate’s appointment… But your job is very, very secure.”
Maybe that was Bill Murray talking – it sounded like him – but of course this wasn’t the movie. That was Donald Trump, but then, as Emma Green reports, Trump got down to business:
When Donald Trump looks out on the world, he sees a landscape of potential threats to the United States and its values. “Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but also a right under threat all around us,” the president said at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday. “The world is under serious, serious threat in so many different ways,” he went on, “but we’re going to straighten it out. That’s what I do. I fix things.”
He laid out a vision of what it means to end these threats to United States: Stop terrorism. End the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. Defend the country’s borders from those who “would exploit that generosity to undermine the values we hold so dear.” Religious Americans also feel threatened within the U.S., he said: “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” a provision of the tax code that prohibits religious leaders and institutions endorsing or opposing political candidates, “and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
Repealing the Johnson Amendment would theoretically allow houses of worship and religious leaders to openly advocate for political candidates while retaining their tax-exempt status, while also allowing them to funnel religious donations into explicitly political efforts.
There might be a problem with that, but Green makes this simple:
Trump is championing an agenda of religious nationalism. Along with key White House staffers like Stephen Bannon, he believes America represents a set of values, rooted in the country’s religious identity. While there’s little evidence that Trump himself is religiously devout, he has benefited from affiliations with largely white evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr.
During his speech, Trump argued that America’s religiously grounded values are being attacked – not just through acts of violence, but through ideological erosion. “We will not allow a beachhead of intolerance to spread in our nation,” Trump said on Thursday, seeming to refer to the “radical Islamic extremism” he has emphasized in past speeches. “You look all over the world and see what’s happening.” He will defend these values, he said, because “that’s what people want: one beautiful nation under God.”
And a correction:
America was not always “one nation under God” – at least, not officially. The words “under God” weren’t added to the pledge of allegiance until 1954, during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower – not coincidentally, the first president to convene the National Prayer Breakfast. Over time, this relatively new tradition has become a mandatory exercise for commanders in chief; and during the breakfast this year, Trump specifically praised Eisenhower for kicking it off.
Well, it has been useful:
In many ways, Trump’s vision of religious nationalism is a continuation of Republican presidents before him. In an interview in August, the Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse pointed out that Trump’s religious rhetoric more closely resembles Nixon’s than Eisenhower’s: “He used it to justify the extent of the Vietnam War and Cambodia; he used it to advance all sorts of Silent Majority proposals before Congress,” Kruse told me. “That’s what you see in Trump today: It’s much more of a defensive pushback against people who are seen as outside one nation under God.”
This echoes recent findings of the Pew Research Center on Americans’ sense of their own national identity. While only a third of Americans believe being Christian is a very important part of being American, the numbers are split neatly along party and denominational lines: 43 percent of Republicans were likely to say that’s the case, compared to 29 percent of Democrats, and 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants said the same. Trump’s message seems to be directed toward these groups: He is affirming their sense of the tie between national and religious identity, and pushing back against those who would diminish either of those identities.
And he’s doing this through fear. In his comments at the prayer breakfast, Trump gave a graphic description of Christians being murdered overseas: “They cut off the heads, they drown people in steel cages,” he said.
They’re all out to get us Christians. Obsessive paranoia isn’t pretty. Religious nationalism isn’t pretty. ISIS is big on that too.
That’s a bit alarming, and Catherine Rampell comments on that Johnson Amendment:
For those unfamiliar, this tax code provision bars tax-exempt entities such as churches and charitable organizations from participating in campaigns for or against political candidates. It dates to 1954, when it was signed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was not terribly controversial at the time.
The provision basically says that if you want to be exempted from paying taxes – meaning you are effectively subsidized by other taxpayers, who pay for your access to emergency services, roads and other government functions – you can’t be involved in partisan politics. You can’t, among other things, take tax-deductible donations from your worshippers and turn around and spend them on political campaigns.
That’s just the trade-off you agree to make.
Certain religious organizations, in particular those from the evangelical Christian community, have opposed this law in recent years. And during the campaign, Trump indicated he’d do his darnedest to get them what they really want: not the ability to endorse candidates from the pulpit – a practice that the IRS has already been ignoring – but the ability to funnel taxpayer-subsidized funds into the political process.
It seems that this is about the money:
The president can’t “totally destroy” the law unilaterally, despite Trump’s pledge to do so; he’ll need action from Congress, but that may not be hard to secure these days. Republicans control both houses of Congress, and the most recent Republican platform included a commitment to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
They see the dollar signs, and Rampell sees more:
Also this week, the Nation’s Sarah Posner published a leaked draft of an executive order that would require federal agencies to look the other way when private organizations discriminate based on religious beliefs. Coincidentally, these seem to primarily be religious beliefs held by conservative Christians.
The effect of the order might be to create wholesale exemptions to anti-discrimination law for people, nonprofits and closely held for-profit corporations that claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion and transgender identity. It would also curb women’s access to contraception through the Affordable Care Act. (A White House official did not dispute the draft’s authenticity.)
This is, of course, all in the name of preserving religious freedom. Except that it allows some people to practice religious freedom by denying jobs, services and potentially public accommodation to those with differing beliefs.
Now add this:
Trump has also chosen personnel who seem keen on muddying the distinction between church and state.
For example, his embattled education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, has advocated that government dollars be channeled to religious schools through relatively expansive voucher programs. (During the campaign, Trump also said that public funds should follow students to the private school of their choice, explicitly including religious schools.)
During her confirmation hearings, DeVos’ cryptic comments about supporting science education that encourages “critical thinking” have also been interpreted as well-established code for supporting the teaching of intelligent design, a sort of dressed-up creationism.
That would be taxpayer dollars for Jesus, but there’s a lot of that going around:
In a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center, Americans were asked what made someone “truly American.” A third of respondents overall, and 43 percent of Republicans, said you need to be Christian. That would exclude me, as well as about 30 percent of the population.
So be it, and Paul Waldman looks into how this happened:
Over the last year, many observers, myself included, have marveled at the spectacular support Trump received from both religious right leaders and their evangelical flock. How could this man, with his libertine lifestyle and his laughably insincere declarations of faith, win them over when they had so many other genuinely religious primary candidates to choose from? And why did they stick with him so fervently in the general election, giving him a remarkable 81 percent of white evangelical votes, more than any other presidential candidate since that question has been asked in exit polls?
We’re getting our answer. Donald Trump is delivering for the religious right – more than they could have hoped for. In other words, when everyone questioned their judgment, they knew just what they were doing. And they turned out to be right.
And they had their reasons:
Many of them cited the Supreme Court as the key to their reasoning. Nothing was more important than keeping the Court in Republican hands, so that Roe v. Wade might be overturned and other rulings friendly to conservative Christians will continue to be handed down. And Trump has delivered on that score; the religious right is beside itself with glee over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy the GOP held open for a year.
But that’s hardly all. Trump signed an executive order not just reinstating the “global gag rule” as any Republican president would have done, but massively expanding it, so now foreign NGOs will be barred from receiving not just U.S. family planning aid but all public health aid if they so much as mention abortion (like telling a sex trafficking victim where she can go to get an abortion so she doesn’t have to bear her rapist’s baby).
And we recently learned that he’s appointing Jerry Falwell, Jr. to lead a task force on deregulating higher education, which just so happens to be a priority of Rev. Falwell’s, since his Liberty University is “essentially a medium-size nonprofit college that owns a huge for-profit [online] college.” Trump may have been pro-choice for much of his life, but he could wind up being the most anti-abortion-rights president in history.
The man delivered:
They already got a huge victory in the Hobby Lobby case, which established the right of privately held corporations to exempt themselves from laws they dislike if they can cite a religious basis for their objection. And now the Trump administration is poised to essentially create a special class of citizenship for conservative Christians, one that would allow them to engage in a variety of kinds of discrimination that are otherwise illegal.
And people missed what was really going on:
So what did the religious right understand about Trump that many others missed? They weren’t fooled into thinking his faith was sincere. But I suspect they caught something else in his rhetoric: The willingness to state clearly that he was on the side not just of some abstract “religious freedom,” but for Christians specifically. For Trump, it’s all about Us and Them. Christians are Us, and everybody else (particularly Muslims) is Them. He has already made clear that when it comes to refugees he intends to give special preference to Christians (a step which, we should note, was condemned by a variety of mainstream Christian leaders).
Yeah, well, what do they know? And add this:
Religious right voters were also surely attracted to Trump’s implicit call to turn back the clock to an earlier age when patriarchal arrangements in the family and the workplace were unquestioned. This might explain why they were so unconcerned when Trump was caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity (hey, boys will be boys, right?). And they may have understood that there will probably never be a time when a true believer like Mike Pence – long one of the most fervently anti-gay and anti-choice politicians in America – proposes something to Trump and he responds, “Gee, that seems to go a little far.”
The substance and implications of the issues aren’t important to Trump, which made him the perfect candidate for the religious right. They didn’t need a person of sincere faith. They needed someone with tribal instincts and an appetite for smashing established norms.
That’s what they got. That’s what the rest of us got too, and we haven’t a prayer. We’re stuck with this. It was Groundhog Day. Jesus saw his shadow. This winter will never end. And this isn’t a comedy.