I just started reading The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I knew the bare outlines of his life and death, but the edition I have had a great foreword documenting Bonhoeffer’s life and beliefs. Obviously, there was much about his principled and faith-filled stand against Hitler, the Nazis, and consequently, his own country.
This knowledge coincided this week with the visit of Donald Trump here to Tulsa, appearing at Oral Roberts University with Sarah Palin in tow yesterday. To me, Trump’s candidacy and the following he has inspired over the last year is positively fascist in its outlook, rhetoric, and goals.
Now, I don’t mean to say this for reasons of provocation, nor do I mean to intimate that I believe Trump supporters are fascists or Nazis. Far from it. I think the infatuation with Trump, and more specifically, with the message he is spreading, is appealing to a demographic that is feeling threatened and frustrated with the trajectory of America in the Obama era. Trump supporters are no more responsible for his hate and bigotry than average Germans were responsible for the actions of the Nazi Party seventy years ago.
I also know the perils of comparing anybody to Hitler or Nazis, and as former political operative and ongoing politics and history junkie, I fully understand the weight of such an allusion. But it is one I fully intend to make.
One of the actions that inspired this line of thinking from me was Trump’s new ploy of calling out and tossing protestors from his appearances, and specifically, tossing visible Muslims. Especially striking was the taunting and hate directed several weeks ago against a hijabi who was silently standing in protest against Trump.
This video, this whole thing, makes my very soul ache. I have seen few sadder things. I can’t even express the deep level of genuine anguish and sadness this makes me feel as I just think about it, without even having to watch the video again. I can’t watch it again.
Is this where we are America? Is this what animates us, what gets us excited and into the political arena? Pure, unadulterated hate towards a group of peaceful people, towards our fellow human beings?
Over the past months, as a result of the hate emanating from swathes of America, I have had the beautiful opportunity to get to know the Muslim community in Tulsa. I have made good friends, and send beautiful acts of love and tolerance towards people of different beliefs. Some of my friends look strikingly like this woman who Trump targeted. It makes me so sad to picture my friends in that place. It makes me so sad to think about what they must be feeling, as they go about their normal American lives, at the grocery store or the mall or the gas station or in their place of worship or at their child’s school, in constant fear that they will the target of hateful words, or possibly even worse.
In a few weeks, I have the opportunity to sit on a panel at the Muslim Day at the Oklahoma Capital. I greatly look forward to the whole event, and to interacting with amazing people. But I dread the hate and bigotry I will be witness to from my fellow Oklahomans. I fear for the safety of my friends, their physical safety and their psychological safety. I don’t want to see them hurt, but I know I will see it, because people can’t control their hate and their fear.
And I hold Donald Trump responsible right now. I hold his campaign, and the whole twisted premise of it responsible. He is not the first to act this way; he is certainly part of a political party full of power-hungry individuals who view the degradation of Muslim men and women, and the fear they stir up, as effective electoral strategies. It is sickening that an entire party has seized on such a tactic. But Donald Trump is in effect the standard bearer of the Republican Party in 2016, and certainly the standard bearer for right wing hate, and so he is responsible for this moment in American life.
Trump is appealing to people because of their feelings of alienation and disempowerment. His supporters are chiefly white, middle class, and with lower levels of education. This demographic feels like the America they are living in is one they no longer recognize. They feel that the growing diversity and calls for inclusive spaces and speech are aimed at them. They feel that the benefits of being American no longer are reserved chiefly for them, but are instead being bestowed upon minority groups. And by and large, they are right about these things. America is increasingly less white and less Christian. The edifice of white supremacy is being torn down bit by bit, and like a cornered animal, it is fighting back harder than ever. It is almost assuredly a losing fight, but it won’t be conquered quietly. So, just like the mass of German citizens who felt their nation was being humiliated and marginalized, and this turned to a leader who promised to “make Germany great again,” so this class of Americans are turning to a man who scratches an itch for them.
The fact that Donald Trump almost assuredly doesn’t believe the things he says, deep down, makes it that much worse, and that much scarier. Trump has a 30+ year public record, and this tone and attitude has just come out in the last couple of years. If he is nothing else, Trump has an amazing ability to discern what it is the America public wants to hear, and to give it to them. That’s what makes this whole thing so crazy: it’s not that Trump has burst onto the scene with a previously formed worldview, that he is now dressing up in patriotism to win supporters; instead, he is tapping into the sentiment of public discontent, and telling the people what they, deep down, want to say themselves. A deeply committed fascist is bad enough; an opportunistic, pandering barometer of public sentiment who has seized upon fascism because it fits the national mood is a whole other, terrifying animal.
I started this talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his opposition to Nazism in Germany, and I want to circle back to that. I have no idea what is was like to live in that time or place. I don’t want to insinuate that we are on the brink of anything as earth-shatteringly awful as the Holocaust. But I imagine that the climate we see towards Muslims as a result of Trump is very similar to what Jews experienced in Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s. This is the chief reason why I attribute the title “fascist” to the Trump campaign. Fascism is primarily distinguished by nationalism, a militant/masculine tone, social conservatism, and the scapegoating of political, religious and ethnic minorities. Who can deny that those are key features of the Trump movement?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a hero and martyr because he stood strong in his convictions, even in the face of horrendous death. Not only that, but he did it in opposition to his nation and heritage. Bonhoeffer was a proud German, and the fact that he, in effect, took the position of advocating for his own nation’s defeat in a world war, for the sake of the human race, is an amazing testimony.
The prevailing Christian attitude in America is a weird amalgam of two seemingly opposing worldviews, one that embraces a religious nationalism that has equated America with Christianity, and one that tries to show how “non-worldly” it is, that revels in the idea of being “not of this world,” and that constantly laments the sinfulness of American society. We are a people who complain about the commercialization of American society while we walk through megamalls loading up on all the stuff we can.
Bonhoeffer showed us a different a way. He was a man who was proud of the nation and people he came from, who despite it’s shortcomings, loved Germany and took pride in his identification as a German. And at the same time, understood that, as a Christian, he had a higher allegiance, not just to God, but to humanity as a whole, to the entire Earth. Thus, when his nation became a menace to that very humanity, he didn’t public lament it’s descent into madness while failing to back up his ideas with his actions. He stood against his nation, it’s leaders and his fellow citizens in the name of love and justice and grace. He recognized that demonizing others isn’t the way to restore a nation. He was the quintessential Christian of the 20th century, and amazing example for all those who strive to exist in modern society while practicing the loving, others-oriented Way of Jesus.
It is for these very reasons that I wrote months ago that one cannot be both an honest Christian and a Trump supporter. I got a lot of pushback for that statement, but I stand by it as much now as I did then, if not more. The actions of Donald Trump and his supporters towards our Muslim brothers and sisters are despicable and heartbreaking. They reveal a deep-seeded, extreme nationalist, bigoted streak of pseudo-fascism that has long existed deep in the American psyche, and is bursting forth like never before. We have a Christian obligation to stand against this attitude, to stand with our brothers and sisters, even if they have a different religion or ethnicity or skin color. We have a duty to be an army of Dietrich Bonhoeffers in the face of ugly fascism, acting with humility and love and a steadfast regard for the oppressed and beaten down. That is what the cost of discipleship looks like. That is what it means to be a follower of the Way of Christ today.