The Catholic Case for Trump
Author: Austin Ruse
$12.99 Kindle; $20.99 Hardcover
Some Catholic critics of Donald Trump argue that the president’s Catholic supporters are compromising the Faith. Trump’s stance on border control means he is not really pro-life, so the account goes, and for all his pandering to the religious right he does not seem to have given religion much thought until it became expedient for his political objectives. Indeed, some contend that the president’s unsavory personal history flouts any conception of family values, just as his coarse machismo and insensitivity toward minorities flies in the face of the Gospels. To vote for Trump, then, is to turn one’s back on Christ.
In The Catholic Case for Trump Austin Ruse offers his retort to these claims. “We are told that Trump’s character should prevent faithful Christians from supporting him. While he is no paragon of moral virtue, when it comes to politics, Trump has delivered on his promises. That is worth more than the fake moral preening for the cameras that obsessed so many of his predecessors.” Whatever we may think of Ruse’s application of the principle, it is surely one worth remembering in a culture so heavily marked by Puritanism. While we cannot disregard — much less condone — vices, in some predicaments, the surgeon who never goes to church or the US Marine who frequents strip clubs may in fact be the best available man for the job. Trump may not have many virtues, but he has one – nerve – that more typical politicians seem to conspicuously lack, and this virtue may well be the indispensable one in an era of group-think and political-correctness.
As Ruse notes, one of the most contentious issues surrounding Trump is immigration; this is, arguably, the very issue that enabled him to win both the 2016 and 2020 Republican nominations with such astonishing ease. So it is worth asking if the promotion of a restrictive and selective immigration policy really is antithetical to Christianity, as several bishops and many priests have insinuated. In fact it is hard to escape the conclusion that the USCCB’s stance regarding the border has less to do with perennial doctrine than with the rise of postnational multiculturalism as the prevailing ideology with the fashionable set and wealthy corporations.
Formerly, argues Ruse, immigrants were pressured to connect with or even assimilate into the culture of their new homeland. Now immigrants come in numbers which dwarf the Ellis Island era, and are often taught to view America’s heritage with hostility. One would think that the increasing mass alienation of native Americans would be the kind of thing which would interest our spiritual leaders, but it evidently doesn’t. As even the unity offered by the English language breaks down, the American “nation” increasingly comes to resemble a mere economic activity zone, and an exploitative one at that.
And once upon a time, the exploitation inherent to “global capitalism” was a concern of the left:
It should be remembered that no less a leftist Catholic hero than Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, vehemently opposed illegal immigration […] Chavez opposed the “bracero program” that legally imported cheap labor from Mexico. He protested illegal immigration at the Mexican border, where he was joined by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Senator Walter Mondale, both liberals. Chavez even ran a border control program called the “wet line.” Using a phrase like that would get you run out of polite society these days. What the Left knew then was that the cheap illegal labor from south of the border had a very harmful effect on native agricultural workers, many of whom were of Hispanic origin themselves. What changed is that the Left needed a new raft of voters and big business needed more cheap labor.
Here older readers may reminisce of saner times, when at least some of those on the left were animated by at least somewhat rational concerns, such as nuclear disarmament or better living conditions for working class families.
Today, by contrast, the left seems to have devolved into little more than a blind, naked drive to dissolve Western culture. And according to Ruse, Catholic opponents of border control could care less that
millions of Americans see an America that no longer resembles what they grew up with […] The reality faced by Americans all across the country, and most especially along the border with Mexico, is a sense of being overwhelmed and of social services systems being bogged down, sometimes completely. The bishops seem to believe that our country can absorb massive numbers of legal and illegal immigrants and that the impact should be no concern of ours. In fact, much like the liberal Left, they seem to believe that such a concern itself is a form of racism and xenophobia.
To my mind the touchier chapters of this book, such as “Trump and Immigration,” are of more interest than chapters like “Trump and Judges” or “Trump and Abortion,” because at this point the issues raised in the latter are more or less settled. No one can with a straight face question whether Trump “has delivered on his promises” vis-a-vis the judiciary or unborn life, for he is at the very least as staunch an ally as the last Republican president. As for the editors of America, they hardly oppose Trump because they think him a blustering fraud who won’t deliver on his promise to stop illegal immigration; they oppose him because they fear he might do just that. For that matter, and at the risk of seeming uncharitable, it is hard to believe that every single Catholic Democrat would be all that ecstatic to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
The bankruptcy of the Catholic Left is especially on display with respect to foreign policy, as Ruse notes in “Trump the Statesman”:
While particular relations with foreign governments may be outside the scope of the Catholic Church’s teaching, the Church does have dozens of political teachings on the conduct of foreign affairs. Through the lens of those teachings, we can assess Trump’s “America First” philosophy and his views on war and defense, which seek increased prosperity and well-being for American citizens. Looked at in this light, we can say with confidence that President Trump has conducted himself in foreign affairs in accord with standards Catholic ought to accept […] Trump rejected the trend toward increased military hegemony, unnecessary war, war waged without clearly stated strategic objectives, and inequitable defense burden arrangements with allies. In Trump’s view, wars that are not critical to vital US national interests are costly and harmful, not worth their cost in American blood and treasure. He has a high threshold for war, something even the Catholic Left should embrace.
Yet they – the Catholic Left – clearly don’t. The fact that Trump has mostly refrained from bloody regime changes overseas has been pointedly ignored by many of the same “Christian leftists” who posed as die-hard anti-imperialists during George W. Bush’s Iraq adventures. As Ruse points out, these same leftists gave a pass to the messianic policies of leftist icons Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who “bombed the country of Libya nonstop for eight months, destroying the country and turning it into a haven for terrorist organizations.”
There is considerable information in this book, as well as a number of interesting insights based upon Ruse’s own roots in Trump’s New York City. It must be said that there are also oversights and limitations as well. It is a little thick to find respectful or even laudatory treatments of conservative establishmentarians and NeverTrumpers such as Lindsey Graham and George Weigel in a publication dedicated to the Trump moment, especially given that Ruse never sees fit to mention the Catholic to whom Trump obviously owes his populist conservative platform – Pat Buchanan. It is commendable for Ruse to admit that he was wrong about the Iraq invasion, but I would take him more seriously were he to pause to acknowledge Joseph Sobran and John Rao and all the other Catholics who took a great deal of personal abuse for opposing the war from the very beginning. To highlight another contrast, Ruse hails the celebrated Straussian Victor Davis Hanson as a populist guru, yet never mentions the Catholic classicist Thomas Fleming. As it happens, however, it was the celebrity sofa-samurai Hanson who spent years promoting Bush Jr.’s reckless and dishonest Middle Eastern interventionism, while Fleming – who remains relatively obscure to this very day – not only opposed the Iraq invasion but loudly and presciently warned America about the pending immigration crisis over thirty years ago.
In short, the reader should realize that even now, even today – with transgenderism enshrined, swathes of Western cities carved out as sharia zones, and saints’ statues vandalized with impunity – “conservative Catholic” discourse has less to do with principles and ideas and the battle for Christendom than with the question of who is or is not an approved member of “the club.” Come to think of it, some of Ruse’s case for Trump could be taken as a case against the man. In addressing the outlandish Russia election-meddling conspiracy theories, for instance, Ruse never for an instant challenges the establishment consensus, which is that gay rights should be exported around the globe, via “color revolution” if necessary, and that Russian nationalists on the far side of the planet somehow pose an existential threat to Smallville, USA. Nor does he seem to recall Trump’s oft-stated desire to see the two nuclear powers cooperate against common threats like Islamic terrorism. Instead, we are supposed to be thrilled to find that Trump has enacted measures which “directly threatened the economy of Russia” and “sent lethal weapons to Putin’s enemies, the Ukrainians,” as if combating the “fascist” Putin were as high a priority for the typical Trump voter as it is for Mr. Ruse’s high-powered friends in Washington D.C. and New York.
The merits or defects of his case notwithstanding, Ruse’s text implies problems next to which the question of who wins the next election seems almost trivial. Where NeverTrumpers insinuate that it was and is illicit to vote for Trump, Ruse hints that it is illicit to do anything other than exactly that. Both are wrong, but explaining why is less compelling than the fact that both claims concede that American democracy is now a failed system. The whole idea of democracy, after all, is that the free-willed individual should have some say in the society he inhabits. What kind of “democratic” system is it where only one “choice” is legitimate? Where a voter sins by casting a ballot for the person he actually believes best fitted for the office at stake, because to do so is “throwing away” his vote and thus aiding and abetting evil? Where the individual is not even allowed in good conscience to recuse himself from the process, if he finds none of the candidates acceptable?
None of this is to deny or even question the desirability of Trump’s re-election. It is to emphasize that such a re-election is hardly an end unto itself. However November turns out, we can be pretty sure that Donald Trump will not be in office in, say, 2025, so Catholics must get out of the habit of fixating upon the next presidential contest and start playing the long game. If the Trump presidency is to have any lasting value it will not be as the moment when a superhero showed up and made all our problems go away, but as a catalyst. In the intellectual sphere, for example, there is a desperate need to deeply rethink matters such as community, polity, and citizenship. The “nation of immigrants” touted even by the politically-incorrect Ruse is itself an etymological absurdity, an oxymoron, one which flatly contradicts Saint Thomas Aquinas’s teachings about patriotism – and in any case, as a historical fact it would be more accurate to say that these United States were founded not by immigrants, but by settlers and colonists. As for putting “strict constitutionalists” on the judiciary, that is all well and good, but the cold hard truth is that when conservative Americans themselves have already conceded to a kritarchy headed by 9 unelected officials the right to dictate the social relations of 350 million people in 50 states, they have long since repudiated the limitations established by the Framers of the Constitution.
Looking even deeper, there is the fact that Senator Biden did not emerge ex nihilo, but is in large part the product of a decadent American Catholicism which consistently turns Church teaching inside out to accommodate the continual egalitarian mutations of American politics. It seems unlikely that Trump’s re-election would change the appalling apostasy rate among Catholics, or the tendency of elite Catholic prep schools to churn out well-meaning, utterly secularized post-Christian careerists. Indeed, even if the Donald were President-For-Life and were the ideal Christian statesman, simultaneously blessed with the gamesmanship of Count Metternich and the holiness of Saint Thomas More, America would still be barreling headlong toward dystopia, because dystopia is what a critical mass of US citizens actually desire. By all means, vote. But let us stop playing pretend, and instead prepare ourselves mentally, materially, and spiritually for the inevitable trials to come.
Jerry Salyer has contributed to publications such as Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, New Oxford Review, Crisis, Abbeville Institute, Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic World Report.