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On a policy level, Trump’s views bespeak a strong aversion to America’s international posture for the last 70 years of underwriting global security and order. The last time in history that the United States did not occupy this role was the 1930s. Perhaps the most consistent theme in Trump’s foreign policy belief system, going back decades and continuing up to the present day, is his abiding hostility to America’s international alliances. Often his lamentations focus on the alleged costs to the United States of stationing military forces in Asia or Europe. Yet the very nature of alliances and reciprocal defense obligations also attracts his disdain, evidenced most recently by his blithe disregard for NATO’s Article 5 treaty obligations when he said the United States might not defend a Baltic state under attack from Russia. And for Trump, just as in the heyday of America First, alongside and intertwined with this critique of America’s national security policy lurk reprehensible slurs.

Such slurs lead to the third distinctive value that Trump shares with the 1930s: cultural nativism. Similar to some other 1930s trends, restrictive immigration measures had accelerated a few years earlier, with the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act that established quotas for immigrants based on country of origin and banned immigrants from Asia entirely. As with many debates over immigration measures, Johnson-Reed appears to have been fueled by a complex amalgam of cultural and economic concerns, as well as overt racism. As the 1930s dawned and the depression deepened, feeling beleaguered and insecure, many Americans grew resistant to further immigration or even permitting endangered refugees to seek shelter in the United States. For example, as Mike Gerson has recalled, a 1939 poll found that 61 percent of Americans opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish refugee children into the United States. The date matters, as it came a year after Kristallnacht and other abundant evidence of Nazi anti-Semitism. The bill was never brought to a vote in Congress.

Trump wears his cultural nativism defiantly and has made it a defining feature of his candidacy. His two most well-known policy initiatives both emanate from this predilection: building a southern border wall purportedly paid for by the Mexican government and banning all Muslim immigration. Sometimes it veers into overt racism, as with his disparagement of an American judge whose parents emigrated from Mexico, his clumsy refusal to disavow white supremacist support, and his dissemination of anti-Semitic symbols on social media. His vile promulgation of conspiracy theories about President Obama’s place of birth should also not be forgotten.

Trump’s meretricious praise for authoritarians is also of a piece with the 1930s. That decade’s crisis of faith in democracy led many Americans to find authoritarianism appealing. Amidst economic decline and political decay, the seductive allure of a strongman’s rule found acolytes across the political spectrum.  The reporter Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of fawning profiles in The New York Times of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Excusing Stalin’s murderous campaigns against his own people, Duranty’s articles voiced the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that control of the economy by a strongman would overcome the messiness and inequities of capitalism. Nazi Germany under Hitler’s iron hand received similar praise from some sectors of American society. In her magisterial study of American attitudes towards Nazism, Michaela Hoenicke Moore records that Charles Lindbergh defended Hitler’s aggression as “the right of an able and virile nation to expand” and excused Nazi oppression as justifiable given “the great hardship and chaotic times” Germany had endured under the Weimar Republic. Moore also cites Charles Clayton Morrison, the non-interventionist editor of the Christian Century magazine and one of Niebuhr’s intellectual nemeses, as regarding the “Nazis as the instrument of God’s wrath against the sinful and corrupt democracies.” Some ordinary Americans who visited Germany liked what they saw under Hitler. According to Moore

tourists, students, and business people turned out to be easy prey for Nazi propagandists…upon their return [to the United States] they often raved about the cleanliness and orderliness of German towns, the friendliness of the people, the absence of homeless and jobless people in the cities, and the moderation of certain Nazi officials.

Not surprisingly, Niebuhr also stood as a consistent voice against authoritarianism and in defense of democracy. He anchored this political conviction in his view of human nature, most famously in his oft-cited aphorism from his 1944 book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In the 1930s, he aimed his defense of democracy at his fellow Americans who seemed drawn to, or at least insufficiently opposed to, dictatorships, writing in 1939:

[W]e cannot fully trust the motives of any ruling class or power.  That is why it is important to maintain democratic checks on the centers of power….whatever may be the moral ambiguities of the so-called democratic nations, and however serious may be their failure to conform perfectly to their democratic ideals, it is sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practice.

In contrast, the sympathetic sentiments of the 1930s for authoritarians find their latter-day echoes in Trump’s repeated encomia to dictators today. If there is one consistent thread to Trump’s often erratic foreign policy pronouncements, it is his affinity for the strongman ruler. Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have all received fawning praise from Donald Trump. And in each instance, Trump has lauded them not in spite of their tyrannical governance but because of it.  A ruler’s “strength” enchants Trump above all else, even — especially, if one takes his pronouncements at face value — when that “strength” is displayed in the massacre of peaceful dissidents as at Tiananmen Square, or the murder of journalists in Putin’s Russia, or the execution of political opponents in North Korea. The frequency of such statements by Trump, alongside his perverse affirmations of dictatorship’s moral equivalence with the United States, give evidence that these are not exaggerated, careless bloviations, but rather his considered and deeply-held convictions.

In the 1930s, authoritarianism arrived hand-in-hand, as it often does, with demagoguery. Amidst the widespread failures of institutions and erosion of public faith, individuals emerged on both sides of the Atlantic making audacious claims to fix the problems besetting their community or nation, channeling popular anger against the systemic failures and supposed conspirators that were somehow causing the misery. In America, many angry and despondent citizens tuned to the seductive appeal of voices promising in their own perverse ways to make America great again. Diverse voices such as radio host Father Charles Coughlin, racialist preacher Gerald Winrod, Louisiana politician Huey Long, and senior citizen activist Francis Everett Townsend all attracted large followings among discontented Americans.

Spanning the political spectrum, these demagogues hurled imprecations against the various groups they blamed for America’s ills, whether Jews, financiers, industrialists, arms-makers, communists, capitalists, Wall Street, Washington, or “elites” and “the establishment” in general. Trump’s fulminations against “the rigged system,” as in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, are of a piece with this tradition. Populist demagogues such as Coughlin and Long appealed not so much to the truly destitute; in historian Alan Brinkley’s description, they attracted those Americans:

who had more to protect: a hard-won status as part of the working-class elite, a vaguely middle-class lifestyle, often a modest investment in a home…They were people with something to lose…what they shared was an imperiled membership in world of modest middle-class achievement.

Brinkley’s description of Coughlin supporters then comes eerily close to describing the core of Trump’s supporters now. In more sanguine eras, this sector of American society constituted the vital middle, the social ballast anchoring the institutions and values of democratic capitalism. That they would be drawn to agitators of Coughlin’s and Long’s ilk only further illustrates the turbulence and crisis of the times as many Americans lost faith in their own institutions.

These years also saw the growing appeal of radical political movements in the United States that, while not led by textbook demagogues, still attracted meaningful followings while challenging American constitutional norms. For example, on the left, Norman Thomas’s American Socialist Party and the U.S. Communist Party led by Earl Browder attained considerable influence within some sectors of the labor movement and American intellectuals. On the other end of the political spectrum, Charles Lindbergh tried to defend Hitler while rallying Americans to the cause of neutrality.

In Europe, the demagoguery took far more destructive forms and captured entire nations. Some of these leaders had assumed power earlier, such as Benito Mussolini in Italy and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, but took advantage of the crisis of the 1930s to expand their authority, purge dissenters and opponents, and build their personality cults. In Germany, of course, it was Adolf Hitler who took power in 1933. Oppression at home soon turned to aggression abroad, such as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Germany’s annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938, and 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop pact granting Stalin control of the Baltic states and conceding Germany’s claim to most of Poland. And then, to paraphrase Lincoln, the war came.

"Protestant leaders today face the dilemma of how much to compromise their principles in supporting a presidential candidate of profoundly antithetical character and policies."

Looking back, it is clear that the tragedy that was the 1930s came not from a single toxic issue or malevolent leader, but from a concatenation of political and economic pathologies, including protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and authoritarianism, all further fueled by aggressive and opportunistic demagogues.

The crises of the decade did not spare religious leaders. Clergy on both sides of the Atlantic wrestled with the multiple economic and political shocks buffeting their nations. Sadly, too many religious leaders succumbed to the aforementioned pathologies, emerging as voices endorsing their nation’s worst impulses rather than prophetically calling for a better way. Yet some of the decade’s most admirable figures were also clergy, who in some cases became the most principled and effective voices against oppression and demagoguery.

In Germany, the political crisis became a religious crisis when Hitler, attempting to consolidate his complete political and social control, demanded subservience by the clergy to the Nazi Party and created the movement of “German Christians” who bastardized their faith by marrying it with anti-Semitism and Nazi iconography. While the “German Christian” movement captured a majority of the Protestant pastorate, a courageous minority of German clergy dissented from Nazi co-optation by forming the Confessing Church, led primarily by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller. Bonhoeffer, a protégé and friend of Niebuhr, turned down the safety of a seminary professorate in the United States that Niebuhr had arranged for him, instead returning to Germany to pastor his underground flock of Christians who refused to bow to Nazi rule. Bonhoeffer’s letter to Niebuhr in July 1939 describing his decision stands as a bracing statement of principle:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.

Bonhoeffer counted the costs of his convictions. Eventually learning of the genocidal intention of the Final Solution, he joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was eventually captured and suffered a martyr’s death when the Nazis executed him in the Flossenburg concentration camp just a month before Germany’s surrender.

In the United States, the clergy were spared the existential crises that beset the German church, but still faced acute questions over their nation’s role in the world and their responsibilities to be prophetic voices of conscience. Many of the nation’s leading pastors promulgated pacifism and isolationism. Still scarred by the Protestant church’s vocal enthusiasm for America’s entry into the Great War two decades earlier, these men of the cloth had grown disillusioned with any use of force or any involvement in the tawdry affairs of international politics. Besides the aforementioned Charles Clayton Morrison and Christian Century magazine, other mandarins of liberal Protestantism and influential cultural figures such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harry Ward, and John Haynes Holmes were vocal pacifists who opposed any American assistance to the Allies. Sometimes they grounded this opposition in moral equivalency between the United States and Nazi Germany.Holmes, for example, wrote in December 1940 that “if America goes into the war, it will not be for idealistic reasons but to serve her own imperialistic interests” and called Hitler “the veritable incarnation of our nationalistic, capitalistic and militaristic era.” Trump appears to stand in this same unsavory tradition of moral equivalence, as when he told The New York Times last week that the United States:

has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country…When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.

(For a thoughtful historical commentary on Trump’s equivocating, see this excellent article by Mary Dudziak).

Against such sentiments in the late 1930s, Niebuhr and his cohort of “Christian Realists” began to grow in national influence as Americans also perceived the growing threats of German and Japanese oppression and aggression. After his final break with the Christian Century, early in 1941 Niebuhr founded a new journal, the aptly named Christianity and Crisis, to serve as a platform for Christian Realism and interventionist policies. In the inaugural editorial, he wrote:

American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilization against the perils of totalitarian aggression…in this instance, the immediate task is the defeat of Nazi tyranny.

Several months later, following the Pearl Harbor attack, he observed:

[T]he real question has not been whether the United States would become involved but when the American people could bring themselves to face the inexorable logic of our tragic contemporary history.

Yet Christian Realism also counseled against jingoistic nationalism or making an idol of the state, and in this same editorial, Niebuhr also called on his fellow American Christians “to proclaim and to mediate the mercy of God that we may help our nation to live through this ordeal with fortitude and, above all, with freedom from hatred and bitterness.”

At first blush, the situation for American Protestants in the era of Trump is very different. No longer holding the positions of dominant cultural influence that Protestantism enjoyed in the 1930s and political heft it exercised up until more recent years, many American religious leaders today feel, not without reason, bewildered by their own diminishing influence and dwindling flocks while also besieged by a governing and media establishment largely hostile to their convictions.

In the 1930s, the dilemma that Protestant leaders faced was how to exercise their influence with the most wisdom for the nation’s policies. Should they favor withdrawal and isolation to insulate America from the gathering storms abroad, or should they advocate for an assertive resistance to totalitarian aggression? In contrast, Protestant leaders today face the dilemma of how much to compromise their principles in supporting a presidential candidate of profoundly antithetical character and policies. Into this cauldron has stepped Donald Trump, alternately flattering and condescending to them, provoking perhaps the deepest political divisions among conservative Protestantism since the 1976 presidential election, when the evangelical movement split between support for the conventional Protestantism of Gerald Ford and the born-again piety of Jimmy Carter.

Further complicating this is Trump’s decidedly unconventional religious identity. In a man who proclaims Christian faith yet boasts never to have asked God for forgiveness of sins and displays little knowledge of the Bible, many observant American Christians find themselves perplexed. Political commentator and devout Christian Pete Wehner has distilled the essence of Trump’s theology into a perverse worship of power. As Wehner wrote recently, in Trump’s mind, “a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power. He never seems free of his obsession with it.” He then quotes Trump’s remarks to a group of evangelicals:

And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.

As Wehner points out, Trump’s obsession with power is inimical to the Christian Gospel, which proclaims the paradox that only in our weakness can God in Christ redeem us and make us strong.

Trump’s entreaties to evangelical Protestants play to another dimension of power: the powerlessness and alienation that so many feel today. When not flattering them for their alleged strength and influence, Trump is pitying them for their weakness and vulnerability. He is hardly subtle about this, as when he promises demoralized audiences of Christians that if he becomes president, “you’re going to have plenty of power — you don’t need anybody else.”

On one level, the appeal of Trump’s pitch is understandable. American Christians are generally a very patriotic lot, and we feel a sense of grief at our nation’s eroded standing abroad and the hostility at home that many in the media and our governing and educational institutions display towards our beliefs and our liberty to hold them. It is right and just for Christians to advocate for the responsible exercise of national power internationally and for legal and cultural respect for religious convictions domestically. But Trump’s crass promise of power seems to go well beyond that into the realm of the potentially idolatrous. Many biblically informed Christians who hear Trump’s seductive offer of power embedded in his strongman persona will recall the third temptation of Christ, from the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’.”

Mindful of this temptation, one alternative for Christians leery of compromising core principles, as articulated by Southern Baptist theologian and Trump critic Russell Moore, is to stand fast in conviction and assume the posture of a “prophetic minority.” Being a prophetic minority does not mean withdrawing into a cave or fleeing to the hills. The biblical witness clearly permits and even encourages Christians to be involved in politics and statecraft. Yet it does so in the context of warnings against placing unwarranted faith in the vessels of earthly power. Such is the psalmist’s admonition:

Put not your trust in princes,

in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;

on that very day his plans perish.

This does not mean that any exercise of power itself is antithetical to Christian ethics, but rather that the use of power in statecraft must be chastened and circumscribed by humility and a higher moral purpose. This was a perennial concern of Niebuhr’s. It is no coincidence that he titled his volume of essays on the crisis of the 1930s Christianity and Power Politics. For all of his advocacy of the use of American power, Niebuhr did not lose sight of its capacity to corrupt. As he later wrote in his classic The Irony of American History, published in the early years of the Cold War as he urged a vigorous American stand against Soviet communism:

Our moral perils are not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power. They are the ironic perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency . . . of power to become vexatious if the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently.

"A Low Dishonest Decade"

W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” marking the start of World War II famously derided the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade.” As the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland put the final lie to the Western democracies’ last remaining hopes of appeasing Hitler, much of the entire preceding decade appeared as a tangle of transatlantic pathologies that had brought the free world to the brink of collapse and subjugation. For the American policies that indulged in various ways protectionism, nativism, isolationism, and authoritarianism, it was not a sanguinary record. For the Protestant leaders who had optimistically hoped that pacifism and anti-interventionism would preserve their moral purity and protect their nation, it was a moment of reckoning, and for many, repentance.

It is a shame, then, that the year 2016 has brought a new low, dishonest candidate to the fore who espouses these same failed policies as the presidential nominee of one of America’s main political parties. The temptations of Trump are many. American foreign policy would do well to avoid them. And American Christians would do well to resist them.


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Thanks for posting! You turned me on to this site and I now get their email updates, but I hadn't read this essay yet. Very powerful.  What goes around comes around they say.

I'm not sure Trump is really capable of "considered and deeply held convictions. I think he is too shallow for that. But then, there's the 'banality of evil' theory.

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36 minutes ago, AUUSN said:

Homer if you havent visited this site, give it a try:


Yeah, I've seen that site also. I think you turned me on to that as well.

Mentioned this earlier, but you really ought to check out Andrew Bacevich's latest:


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14 minutes ago, homersapien said:

Yeah, I've seen that site also. I think you turned me on to that as well.

Mentioned this earlier, but you really ought to check out Andrew Bacevich's latest:


Thanks! I'll give it a read.

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