Rush Limbaugh's Undeserved Honor

A particularly low moment in a State of the Union speech full of them was President Trump awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to one of the voices that had most contributed to the decline of American civic life and political engagement, professional racist conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

At The New Yorker today, David Remnick reflects on the how giving someone like Limbaugh such a cherished honor further debases the Presidency and our Republic, something this current president does almost daily:

Limbaugh is sixty-nine and, as he just announced on his daily radio program, has been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Empathy is due to anyone who is suffering. But not high honors, not a celebration of a life’s work devoted to the mockery and derision of the Other. For the President of the United States to bestow one of the nation’s highest laurels on Limbaugh is a morally corrosive and politically cynical act. It is a kind of assault on the achievements of so many previous award winners, a list that includes Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Václav Havel, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. It is appalling to see Rush Limbaugh’s name listed alongside theirs.

Remnick is right on. Limbaugh’s award is another sad entry in the record of ways President Trump has broken the public trust.

Don’t Dismiss Working Class Whites

On of the central tenets of my thesis work over the last couple of years is that progressives, and especially progressive Christians, cannot and absolutely must not abandon or dismiss the concerns and existence of white working class voters in rural areas of the country, especially the Midwest, Great Plains, deep South, and mountain west. Here’s a portion of what I wrote in my thesis:

For progressives who are especially attuned to situations of oppression and injustice, the plight of rural white working-class people should be a concern. Instead, they are dismissed because of their repugnant political beliefs, with no understanding of how or why they arrived at those beliefs. White progressives still advocate for and stand alongside black Americans, Muslims, or Hispanic people, despite the existence of some poll numbers showing, for instance, the level of antipathy among these groups for the rights of LGBT people.24 Why is the same consideration not extended to the rural white working class? Hochschild calls this the “empathy wall,” that which inhibits the understanding of another’s deep story, and the resultant inability to have empathy or understanding for those different from us.

Finally, this is a group that is largely disdained and derided by other populations. As noted above, Nancy Isenberg has traced this history of cultural alienation in her book. This has resulted in the determination by advocacy and political groups that rural white working-class people are not worth the time. One particularly pernicious narrative applied to them is the idea that they vote for and support candidates who go against their own interests. This infantilizing narrative robs rural white working-class people of their own agency. To reduce the interests of white working-class people to merely economic considerations is to reduce the humanity of these people, and to disparage their ability to make rational choices about their own lives. Additionally, it is a narrative firmly entrenched in a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, one where the only legitimate choices to be made (at least by those we look down our noses at) are strictly economic in nature. Christians especially should eschew such essentializing narratives about human beings.

Instead, we need to understand that people make decisions – rational decisions – for a variety of reasons that are ultimately personal for each person. If any economically distressed person chooses to vote for and support candidates or policies that are not directly beneficial to their financial well-being, but instead picks a candidate that speaks to their cultural, social or identity priorities, then it is important to view that as a legitimate and reasonable choice to make, even if we abhor the positions and policies endorsed by such a vote. Even more importantly, if Christians claim to care about these people, then we must understand the real reasons behind these actions, and take real, concrete steps to address them, rather than dismissing them as irrational and self-destructive actors undeserving of our attention. The electoral results of 2016 demand such a response, not to mention the inherent dignity of each person.

I believe this very strongly. Rural white working class folks drove the election of Donald Trump in 2016, thrusting on us the horror of the last 3 1/2 years. They bear a share of this guilt. But, we live in a democracy. We govern ourselves and make decisions about our future in community with the other citizens of this nation, and sometimes people win who we don’t choose. And, in a healthy democracy, we don’t just ignore the voices of those we disagree with, and make plans to defeat them through sheer force. Instead, we have a moral and civic duty to acknowledge the voices of our fellow citizens.

And, even ignoring the moral imperative, we have a utilitarian one as well. Rural working class whites still maintain political power in this country, at the national level for little longer, but certainly at the local level in different parts of the country for years to come. We must hear their voices, and try to understand what they are telling us about their experience of America in the 21st century. This isn’t to say we must agree with them, or accede to them. Far from it; we must reject their worst impulses. But, we must find a way to do that that doesn’t include demeaning or dismissing them.

I’m thinking about all of this today because of John Judis’ recent piece at the Washington Post, “A Warning from the ’60s Generations.” The piece a long, good look at the dangers facing today’s political left, and should be read seriously by those looking to move towards a more progressive America. But here is the section that grabbed me:

Today’s left has not embraced the separatism or the revolutionary fantasies of the last days of the ’60s left, but, as someone who was there, I find disturbing echoes in the present. I’ll list three. First, many on the left — and many more-moderate liberals as well — attribute Trump’s victory in 2016 and white working-class reluctance to support Democrats entirely or primarily to “white supremacy” or “white privilege.” They dismiss flyover Americans who voted for Trump as irredeemable — even though there is evidence that many supporters of Barack Obama backed Trump in 2016, and that many Trump voters cast ballots for Democrats in 2018. It is an echo of the ’60s left’s Manichaean view of Americans.

As a result, today’s left has become fond of a political strategy that discounts the importance altogether of winning over the white working class. Such a strategy assumes Democrats can gain majorities simply by winning over people of color (a term that groups people of wildly varying backgrounds, incomes and worldviews), single women and the young. One recent article in the left-wing Nation declared: “Since the 1980s, Democratic candidates have proven that they can win elections while losing whites without a college degree by a significant margin.” It’s a questionable strategy for Democrats — in a presidential election, it could cede many of the Midwestern swing states to a Republican — but it is even more questionable as a strategy for the left, which has historically been committed to achieving equality by building a movement of the bottom and middle of society against the very wealthy and powerful at the top.

The last point is really important. Democrats and leftists can cede Midwestern whites to the right. But, first, 2016 showed us that that is a political loser as often (or more often) as it is a winner. Spin the math just the right way, and you get a GOP sweep of purple Midwestern states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It’s really hard to win without those states.

Second, Judis is right. One of the central tenants of democratic socialist/leftist politics has long been a commitment to fighting for the rights of working class people. To now just abandon those people is to abandon the history of leftist politics around the world. The left can’t just give up on these people because they have become susceptible to the racist, xenophobic, and bigoted politics of the right. The left needs to find a way to better speak to the economic and cultural concerns of all working class peoples.

Again, this isn’t to dismiss the racism and bigotry being exhibited by these groups. But, I think these tendencies are a symptom of other ills for rural working class whites, not a first-order driver. As Judis notes, many of these voters voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. This simple fact refutes the idea they are somehow irredeemable. Recent history shows us otherwise. But, with an ever shrinking pie of economic interests, these voters are seeing the cultural sphere as the only one left to them. Strongly addressing the siphoning of economic power from rural, working class areas is the way to address the racism and bigotry that are increasingly coming back into vogue there.

As I wrote in my thesis, the Church has a large measure of blame to bear for the plight of the rural working class. Here is what I wrote in my thesis:

I am making two primary claims about the state of the church: it is failing the people it is meant to serve because of a theological deficiency that causes it to be irrelevant to the life of the community on one hand, and unable to tell a coherent story about what it is, what is important, and what it takes to be a disciple on the other. Consequently, the people who have long depended on the church to provide a way of understanding and encountering the world no longer have it as guide and are thus becoming susceptible to other stories and institutions. This is the result of the world changing in the wake of the Enlightenment, the rise of the liberal nation-state, and the project of modernity; because of these things, the church no longer is relevant to the life situations of people, because it does not know what story it is trying to tell.

[…]

I think that it is this specific confluence of events – well into the decline of the institutional church as a relevant voice in the lives of many Americans, meeting the long strain of fear-based politics, right at a moment of unique geopolitical and economic stability in world history – that brought about such a unique political phenomenon as the Trump presidency. Rural white working-class people played a large role in this moment, finding as they did a narrative that spoke to their situation in a way Christianity no longer seems able to.

The Church has failed its members because it no longer presents a convincing, theologically grounded, and unique story about why it exists. So much of the church – left and right – is so concerned with contemporary cultural and political relevance that it has become essentially indistinguishable from the rest of American culture. When this is the case, the Church faces two terrible outcomes: it either becomes a wing of political and social forces driven by traditionally liberal and Enlightenment ideals (this is the fate of conservative churches in America), or it becomes useless and superfluous to other civic institutions (this is the fate of liberal churches.) Either way, the Church is no longer telling the story of Christ; instead, it is telling its own, modern story, disconnected from the traditions of the past (post-modernism at its worst.)

The Church needs to find its unique voice again. This is how it will become relevant to the needs of people today. And this is how those rural, working class whites will find some meaning outside of xenophobic and nationalist politics again. We cannot give up on them, or leave them behind. But we can’t feed their worse impulses either.

The President should have been removed from office.

Over the past days, weeks, and months, as the impeachment process has moved forward from a probe, to hearings and fact finding in the House of Representatives, to the beginnings of the Senate trial, one thing has become readily apparent: President Trump has abused his office and his power in order not to benefit the nation, but to personally benefit himself and his political prospects in the 2020 election.

It is clear from the evidence presented – all the transcripts, the text messages, the phone conversations, the memos, the testimonies, the emails – that President Trump was intent on attaching his own unilateral conditions to Congressionally-appropriated foreign aid funds – specifically, the condition that Ukrainian officials would announce investigtions into the son of potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden. It’s clear that the Trump administration had no interest in what these investigations actually uncovered, in the pursuit of corruption, or in whether the investigations ever actually happened. What they wanted was the mere announcement of an investigation for PR reasons. By having Biden under the pall of an investigation in a foreign country, Trump and his political team believed they could tilt the 2020 election further in their favor.

This is the textbook definition of abuse of power. The President wasn’t trying to protect American foreign policy or economic interests by asking for an investigation. He wasn’t acting on intelligence from his own national security teams. What President Trump wanted was for the US government – the government you and I pay for – to be used to score personal political points in his favor. He used money that had been appropriated by Congress, and held that money up, in defiance of his Constitutional duty as executor of funds, in order to try to damage a political rival in an upcoming election. This is abuse of power. This is the use of political office – use of the public trust – in order to further himself, and himself only.

Abuse of power is, and should be, an impeachable offense. Our Founders, in crafting our form of government in the Constitution, were very clear in their fear of a tyrannical executive power (just like the one they had escaped from), and in their intent to constrain the worst excesses of any executive office from abusing that power. This is why they included an impeachment clause, and why they left the conditions of impeachment slightly vague and open. They foresaw the fact that they, in the late 18th century, could certainly not predict the various ways office holders might use and abuse their office in the future.

What the President has done is not just “politics as usual.” He is not engaging in actions akin to former presidents. Yes, politicians use the prospect of foreign aid to extract promises from foreign actors quite often. But the promises they are extracting are promises of action that furtherss a policy objective of the United States, not of themselves personally. Often, foreign aid will be predicated on the commitment from the receiving nation to hold fair and free elections, or to open up free markets, or to withdraw from hostilties of some sort, among other priorities. But what President Trump has done in this instance is predicate those funds on a promise made to him personally, for his sole benefit. This is a perversion of national resources in the pursuit of political interest. This is not normal.

Beyond his actions, this President and his administration has resorted to the historic tools of authoritarians and demagogues. Rather than answering in good faith the claims and arguments of their critics, they have resorted to tearing down the one of the most crucial features of any democracy: the free press. Attacks on the media stand in for actual answers that contain substance. The media becomes a convenient scapegoat and straw-man for any authoritarian. Attacks on the values of truth and honesty are attacks on the life blood of participatory government. When our leaders feel the need to obscure and confuse about their actions and words – when they go on television, and tell blatant, shameless lies in the face of all evidence – they have shown that they are unable to defend their own actions on this merits. They create their own truth, their own version of reality, and do everything they can to keep their followers from having access to or trust in traditional sources of truth and integrity. Our Founders understood the importance of education, a free press, and free speech; this administration has launched all out attacks on all three.

Despite the faults it has, and the tendency among some to absolutize its words and ideas, the US Constitution is a remarkable governing document. Specifically, Americans can and should treasure the ideas of self government, and within that, of a national government wherein the interests and passions of individuals and specific interests are not held to be more important than the needs of general welfare of all people. Our Constitution, when read in its best light, is written to ensure that everyone is placed on a equal footing with regards to governance and decision making. It was written in the ominous shadow of tyranny, monarchy, and executive overreach. It was written in order to ensure that the lives of regular, everyday citizens would not be devalued in comparison to the most powerful. While we as a people have always struggled to live up to the great potential contained in our founding documents, that should not obscure the high ideals contained therein.

Thus, any American who claims to be in favor of our Constitutional form of governance, who claims to be concerned about the depredations of centralized government, and who values the ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality, should recognize that the actions of our current administration with regards to Ukraine strike at the heart of these ideals. The President is perverting our most cherished common values in his actions and his words. Rather than pursuing the common interest, President Trump has elevated himself above the rest of us; his actions and words show clearly that he doesn’t believe himself to be a servant of those of us who pay his salary and who he is supposed to be working for. Instead, he believes we, and our government, are here to serve him, and somehow, in doing so, our common interest might be touched.

Constitutional democracy only works with trust and with integrity among those who are entrusted with power. This President has failed to hold this trust, or to act with integrity. As a result, it is past time to remove him from office, and begin the process of healing our wounded civic character. Our democratic future depends on our ability, at this moment, to defend it. We are at an inflection point in history, and we can either choose to defend our democratic heritage, or continue down the path towards authoritarianism dressed up in the veil of constitutionalism. Despite the failure of the Senate to do the right and proper thing yesterday, we as a people should spend the time between now and November making the case for removing this President from office at the ballot box.