Is there really anything left to say about Donald Trump? And would anything I say make a difference? Well, maybe and maybe not. But sometimes putting your thoughts down on paper is therapeutic. And sometimes you want your convictions registered in public for posterity’s sake, not to mention for the sake of conscience.
So here’s my short take: Donald Trump is an honor candidate without honor.
I’ll get back to Trump (doesn’t everything eventually), but first a literary and cultural digression.
Several years ago I read James Bowman’s provocative work Honor: A History. Bowman’s thesis is that the twentieth century saw the continuing discrediting and disgracing of honor (7). The transition took place especially in the 1960s as the new hero became the anti-hero, “one whose heroism consists less in doing than in suffering and having suffered” (136). Along the same lines, we’ve seen a shift in values from conquering to feeling, from being the toughest guy in the room to being the smartest guy in the room. “If honor was the dirty secret of the warriors, intellectual vanity was that of the anti-warriors” (223). Who needs Gunsmoke when you have The Big Bang Theory?
Bowman argues that our disengagement with honor has left the West unable to understand radical Islam: “A great many grown-up and intelligent people believe, or pretend to believe, that by behaving in a friendly and accommodating way to our attackers, we will show them that they have nothing to fear from us and so defuse their wrath. The idea that such behavior would be taken by a ruthless and implacable enemy only as a sign of weakness is as foreign to them as the idea of honor itself” (306). With the absence of honor, the only universal cultural currency left is pity (313). We now exalt whomever we deem to be in the sorriest state. The moral high ground is not found in being more pious or more powerful, but in being more put upon. Though our vestigial selves may yearn for it, honor does not have the cultural currency among ruling and intellectual elites that it once had.
Bowman’s history of honor is a profoundly conservative analysis. He laments the loss of honor in the West. While Bowman points out dangers in the old honor code, he is quick to criticize what has taken its place: a nauseating focus on authenticity, sensitivity, expressing your hurts, and finding the real you. In Bowman’s reckoning, our world is worse off without honor.
Which brings us back to Trump. The bravado, the tit-for-tat defending of his manhood, the disdain for John McCain’s war record, the ultra-aggressive stance toward our enemies (real or perceived), the unabashed insistence on being the best at nearly everything, even the ubiquitous cry to Make America Great Again–all of it appeals to an older code of honor. If you want to humiliate the dreaded Establishment, he’s your guy. Trump is not for losers. And he’s not for intellectuals either. The attraction is a visceral one: “I don’t back down. I fight back. I don’t care for pity. What we need is power.” Trump is an honor warrior in an age where all honor seems gone.
But of course, Trump is an honor warrior without any real honor.
This is why his candidacy is so disheartening and why pastors like Max Lucado–who’s not exactly known for jumping into the political fray–feel compelled to speak out. It’s why Randy Alcorn took the time to write a lengthy and well documented essay on character, kindness, and Donald Trump. It’s why Russell Moore has been an outspoken critic of Trump for months. The appeal of Trump is genuine enough, but when it comes to actual old school honor, there is no there there. In the old honor code, men may have been warriors, but woman were to be esteemed and protected–their chastity and their integrity most of all. For Trump, women are simply berated, belittled, or bedded. He has no history of using his immense fortune to help the less fortunate, no track record of putting himself in harm’s way for the good of others, and no reason for anyone to think his sense of honor stretches beyond his own ego. As a husband, a business man, an entertainer, and a presidential candidate, he has shown himself to be petty, vulgar, insulting, uninformed, inconsistent, petulant, vain, and guided by no clear principles save for an appreciation for strong men and attractive women.
A vote for Trump is not a vote for telling it like it is, let alone a symbolic nod to a nobler honor code of times gone by. It’s casting your lot with what the worst of the honor impulse might look like if it were stripped of virtue, loaned a million dollars, and given its own reality show. I fear too many Americans–including a large swath of self-identified evangelicals–are looking for some of the right things (only some) in the entirely wrong person. They’re longing for Robin Hood and voting for the Sheriff of Nottingham. Don’t believe the con. A self-professing Christian man who doesn’t see the need for forgiveness is a man who doesn’t understand Christ or himself. To be sure, the president is not to be confused with our pastor-in-chief, but that doesn’t mean we have to be confused about what is honorable and what is not (2 Timothy 2:20-21).