Trump’s Vision of America
“Americans are deeply, and for the moment immutably, divided by whether or not they’re nostalgic for what had long been a White-dominated country. Trump’s better-than-expected showing, particularly among White evangelicals, merely shows that he turned out more of the nostalgic.” (Milbank, 2020)
I was watching President Trump’s pre-emptive victory speech on election night, and I saw it again. I have seen it before at many of his rallies and press conferences. What did I see? I saw a room full of white people. It jumped out at me, and it was striking, unsettling. Several days later, I dreamt about that gathering again, and I realized that I was so disturbed because this gathering reflected a Trumpian America. An America where whites were like an elite ruling class in which an occasional token black would flit by like a spec in the background. In this Trumpian vision of America, blacks and other minorities had no significant roles, no leadership responsibility, and certainly no voice. It reminded me of what I envisioned the 1950s to be like. In my vision of the 1950s, white people owned/led mostly everything, and black people had a place out of view on a lower plateau.
It reminded me of a scene from Lee Daniels’ movie “The Butler” in which President Johnson uses the word “nigger” and the black servants in the room had to tolerate it because black people were an afterthought, a lower class and certainly did not have rights and privileges commensurate with whites.
The president has famously and often stated that he has done more for black people than any other president. I tried to reconcile that claim with what I saw in his victory party room and then mentally ticking through his cabinet and key leadership posts. I could recall one black cabinet member Ben Carson, a famous medical doctor—running housing. This 1950ish Trumpian throwback white utopia seemed to be what the Republican party and even prominent Christian leaders were serving up for me to unquestioningly accept.
In my book, “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling,” I talked about what it’s like to be in a conference room where all the senior leaders are white, and the men in all the pictures of the previous senior leaders on the wall outside the conference room are white. I described it is as a small voice that whispers, “you don’t belong here, and you will never be one of these leaders.” I have that feeling at times when I look at a company’s organizational chart, and I see that all the senior leaders are white or when I look on a church’s website, and all the leaders are white. Right or wrong, it says to me, as a black man, you can be with us, but you can’t be us.
I had a similar feeling when I watched the COVID-19 version of the NBA draft. The telecast featured live video footage of all the players' home settings and many of the draft war rooms. What struck me first was the tremendous struggle that most of the players had endured to make it to the NBA. The 1st overall pick lost both his caregivers to cancer, his mother and grandmother, within a few months of each other. One of the other top picks had lost his older brother, who had been a mentor and inspiration to him, in a terrible skateboarding fall that left him brain dead. Most of the first-round picks were black or foreign. It was a stark contrast to the war rooms. Most of the war rooms looked like President Trump’s victory party, rooms dominated by white decision-makers accented by a black spec here or there.
I wish I could say that I only experienced this Trumpian vision of America, this vision of what America would look like when it was “Great Again,” only in secular settings. Sadly, I began to experience these same feelings of isolation and exclusion in my church settings as well.
When George Floyd died, I was in the midst of writing MGA Vol II, researching dozens of deaths at the hands of the police by guns, tasers, asphyxiation, and even by being bounced around in the back of a police wagon. Needless to say, my emotions were already heightened. As a 55-year-old black man, even I didn’t have any idea how many racist incidents involving the police, lethal and non-lethal, had been caught on camera. I started putting as many of these incidents in my book as I could to show my readers that these were not just the “result of a few bad apples,” as the president was asserting. Soon the peaceful protests started and later became more violent as it was unclear whether the officers in George Floyd’s death would be charged with murder.
At the same time, the president was mischaracterizing George Floyd's death as an isolated incident and thereby invalidating the need for protests, even peaceful ones. He even began to rail on peaceful protesters. It was about that time that I began to hear the president’s sentiments echoed in church sermons. I was listening to a pastor online because of COVID-19, and he started preaching on Onesimus going back to his master (Philemon Chap 1).
Instantly I was offended. I wondered of all the sermon topics you could preach about after George Floyd’s death; you have to preach on a slave going back to his master? Weren’t there any black leaders, any black people you could have bounced this off of to know this probably wasn’t the right time for this message? As I was writing this section, I Googled Onesimus, and the first image that came up portrayed him as black. He may or may not have been, but for Americans, especially African Americans, when you say “slave,” likely the first image you think of is someone black.
A similar thing happened in my own church where somehow the parable of the “Good Samaritan” for the first time became an implied message of how black people should forgive their oppressors and then, in light of that forgiveness, stop protesting. Racism and death at the hands of the police in my church had been softened to be part of “social unrest.” I was deeply hurt. I was in an awesome spirit-filled church that espoused everything I believed about faith, healing, prosperity, and even had an awesome band/worship experience and outreach ministries.
Our pastor was world-renowned for his prophetic ministry. So how could some who routinely delivered prophecies with laser accuracy be so off when it comes to talking about these issues? How could he talk about the need for forgiveness first and allude to stopping the protests before talking about the murder at the hands of the police that started the protests?
I was hurt so badly by the treatment of the George Floyd issues that I didn’t know what to do. I was now watching online because of COVID-19, but I could only watch for a time before I would burst into tears over the way these issues were being treated. I loved my church, but I felt trapped. Our church quickly moved off the “social unrest” sermons onto a more familiar prosperity-type message, but that didn’t make it any better for me. It actually made it worse. It mirrored the president’s response.
From the president’s perspective, since it was an isolated incident, there was no need to dwell on it. I didn’t expect anything more out of the president, but I couldn’t understand why my pastor, the pastor of the most ethnically diverse church I’d ever been in, the pastor with such great prophetic sensitivity, couldn’t feel how much I was hurting. I wasn’t alone, either. Most black people I knew, Christians and non-Christians, felt the same way.
I am pressing with all my literary abilities to describe for the reader how the death of another man, a non-family member, and the treatment of his death could grieve me so mightily. Actually, George Floyd’s death was the third in a series of high-profile deaths in less than six months. The black community was still reeling over two deaths. Ahmaud Arbery was an unarmed jogger killed in a vigilante, lynching-style shooting by a former law enforcement official and his son. Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her apartment bedroom in a botched drug raid.
Neither victim’s cases seemed like they would be rightly adjudicated at the time of Floyd’s death. For me, it was a repeat of July 2016 when Alton Sterling got shot on July 5th, and the next day unarmed Philando Castille was shot at point-blank range multiple times while complying in his seatbelt. All of the feelings of these combined incidents added to the weight of George Floyd’s death.
In 2017 there was a movie produced by Jordan Peele entitled “Get Out.” In this thriller, young, virile black men were being lured into a house where they’d be hypnotized and later prepped for brain surgery. In this surgery, the brain and consciousness of rich white men were placed inside the bodies of young black men. There was just enough of the black man’s brain stem remaining to let him know he was still alive but not enough to control his own body or to chase out the thoughts of the other man’s brain. Once the rich white man’s brain was in his body, the man could only smile or, at best, shed a small tear when he was feeling the pain of being unable to express being trapped in someone else’s consciousness. He was not in control of his responses.
To some extent, I felt like that in my own church. Forced smiles or forced emotionally compliant responses were coming out of me when I wanted to scream or yell or burst into tears based on what I heard in the sermons. I felt an overwhelming need to comply with the norms of my majority-white congregation and overwhelmingly white leadership.
There are a few scenes in “Get Out” where the hero of the movie is put under hypnosis by a tap of a teacup. When the teacup was tapped, the hero would see himself falling through his chair, deeper and deeper into darkness, with a light above him representing the hole that he fell through. This place was referred to as the “sunken place.” The sunken place was a deep dark hole that seemed infinitely wide. Inside, the hero could hear some things, but his screams could not be heard, and he could not get out.
Many times, listening to the sermons at my own church left me in the sunken place. I have a medical diagnosis for depression, and as I said, I was researching numerous instances of police brutality and racist treatment for MGA Vol II. When I encountered what I encountered at church, the place where I was supposed to be refreshed from all that was going on in the world, it was too much. It dropped me into the sunken place. I cried, I yelled, but no one in my church could hear me.
Often, in the company of other white church members, I’d revert back to being one of the characters in the movie who could only smile in the face of their pain. My fellow church members didn’t understand. Truthfully, as a black man who spent most of his life on military bases and in predominantly Christian circles, I was only beginning to understand due to the research for my book.
I saw a quote in a leadership article by Adriaan Groenewald saying, “We CAN’T escape this truth: A country, organization almost always reflects the character of its leader, in some way!” (Groenewald, 2015) In essence, my church leadership was just reflecting the character of its leadership. In the case of my church, that leader was President Donald Trump.
A year earlier, I was shocked when my pastor blurted out during a sermon that “you gotta love that Donald Trump, he just speaks his mind.” He backtracked by saying that he didn’t agree with all of his policies. As a person that could find little to admire about President Trump, much less agree with him, it forced me to wonder, what policies do you agree with him on? It took George Floyd’s death for them to realize that perhaps they agreed that protests were too much of a disruption to society in light of what happened.
It didn’t stop there. There were a few incidents with COVID-19 cases in our church that I felt were treated too casually. One incident involved a person that I worked in close proximity with. I was notified two weeks after I had served with him that he had contracted the virus. I felt my church was taking the treatment of the virus nonchalantly. Within a few months of the COVID-19 incidents at my church, a very, very dear friend of mine died of COVID-19. My friend went to a church that didn’t believe in social distancing or masks. His church suggested that he “just sit in the back.” As best we can tell, he caught the virus at church.
A short time later, my church resumed service without masks and limited social distancing. I couldn’t believe it. I decided not to go back. I shared my concerns with one of the leaders when asked why I wasn’t coming back to services in person. You can only imagine my reaction when that leader said I could just sit in the back. I had just told this leader about my dear friend’s death when we met the week before.
Why weren’t my church leaders more concerned about the virus? Because their leader, President Trump, wasn’t concerned. They were reflecting his values. I have come to call it drinking the “Trump Kool-Aid.” I wish I could say that the decision to go maskless and not be as concerned about social distancing was done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I can’t say that it was. The influence of the Republican Party and its leader had permeated the sermons and now even the conduct of the service. I couldn’t take it.
I started watching my former black pastor online. Guess what he was talking about? George Floyd and the virus. Yes, he said we shouldn’t walk in unforgiveness, but there was equal attention given to the very grave subject of African-Americans and police violence. A few weeks later, I started watching another black pastor online. Wanna guess what he talked about? The virus, the elections. This pastor’s whole family and many of their staff had been infected by COVID-19, so they spoke with a level of concern that befitted the underlying danger. When they spoke of the elections, they spoke more neutrally, certainly not with a bias toward either candidate.
That brings me to Kenneth Copeland. There are few ministry leaders whose teachings I regard more highly. I have been to several of his ministry conferences and benefitted greatly from the teaching of his wife Gloria and those of his “spiritual sons,” Jerry Savelle and Creflo Dollar. For many years I was a financial supporter of his ministry. I was greatly disturbed, however, by a video that went viral, in which he led an outburst of what would be called holy laughter over the notion that Joe Biden had won the election. I was saddened and shocked.
He led this laughter session in a way that seemed to suggest that there was no way God could be done with the election because Donald Trump was God’s man. He was treating the election results in the same way that the president was, in mocking fashion, in denial. Had he been drinking the Trump Kool-Aid? I found out later that many other high-profile white evangelical leaders had wrongly prophesied that Trump was God’s choice and would be the winner. Kool-Aid on tap.
I understand that Kenneth Copeland later apologized. I’m not surprised. One of my favorite sermons by him was on the topic of “honor.” But his reaction showed me how far President’s Trump’s influence had reached into the body of Christ.
The Republican Party had been reshaped by the president. He had bullied, fired, and threatened the party into his own image. His leadership influence had also been unmistakably stamped on the evangelical church. Many in the church were parroting his views on race and even the coronavirus. I, as a life-long Republican voter, felt left out in 2016. The party became a MAGA-love fest in which I was only marginally included. I couldn’t see myself in President Trump’s vision of a great America.
Certainly by 2020, after the president had spoken out in favor of Confederate monuments and the rebel flag, praised Kyle Rittenhouse and invited the Proud Boys “to stand back and stand by,” there was no room for me at the table of a Trumpian America. But why was there still room for my Christian friends and leaders? The Kool-Aid.
President Trump had sold them on a vision of America in which people of color could sit comfortably on a second-tier or go back to the countries that they came from. The President had either succeeded in reshaping the values of many evangelicals or by exposing the values they already had. In either case, his leadership influence on them was clear for all to see.
I know that all Republicans and evangelicals do not share the president’s views. However, very few that disagree with him come forward to challenge him publicly.
“Millions of Republican voters do not agree with white supremacy, but they delude themselves when they ignore this rotting core of their party. One cannot simply brush off Confederate symbolism, race baiting and incitement of White militia as “just Trump talking” any more than one can pretend the post-election shenanigans are anything but an effort to disenfranchise Black voters so that White votes control the outcome. There is no “But Gorsuch” or “But tax cuts” or “But religious liberty” that justifies this behavior — akin to Whites of the 1950s saying they were not for segregation, just “states’ rights.”
Many pundits are pleading for the nearly 80 million people who voted for Biden to try to understand those who did not, but it is time to implore the less than 74 million who voted for Trump to take off their rose-colored glasses, confront what is at the core of the Trump movement and reject White grievance and Black disenfranchisement. Unless they do, there will be no healing, no reconciliation and no multiracial democracy.” (Rubin, 2020)
Being comfortable with this vision of exclusivity is a form of racism. It's a twisted world view that says that people that look like me deserve to dominate the American political, economic, and even spiritual leadership landscapes. Implied is a superiority complex tied to race and national origin. Embedded within, undergirding this exclusionary mindset is the long-enduring lie that one race of people built America.
Its close companion lie is that white people aren't descendants of immigrants or that descendants of white immigrants deserve a higher status amongst other people because white immigrants "founded our democracy."
These enduring lies support the thought that being born white eliminates the concept of meritocracy. It ignores our country's very founding principles that say all men are created equal and have the same unalienable rights bestowed by God. It says that because I was born white, it trumps any education, talents, efforts, or any other possible credential that you have as a minority.
Because I haven’t heard many Republican leaders or evangelical leaders, for that matter, “confronting” or “rejecting,” I cannot believe that they see that America is indeed in need of “healing” and “reconciliation.” Instead of contending for a “multiracial democracy,” they have embraced Trump’s vision of America.
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