I Haven’t Changed and Donald Trump Hasn’t Changed; Maybe You’ve Changed

by John Ellis

Donald Trump was found liable of sexual abuse and defamation today. That’s a stunning statement that has never been uttered before about a former President of the United States of America. A statement that should slam shut the door on his 2024 presidential bid, but it won’t. As stunning and revolting as it is, though, it was foreseeable – clearly foreseeable. Likewise, the scores of Trump supporters refusing to accept the verdict were also clearly foreseeable. No doubt, there are some reading this who believe the former president was set up; that this was all a witch hunt by those who hate America. Hold onto that thought. I’ll circle back to it later. First, some history.

In late 2015, with Donald Trump leading in straw polls, my GOP operative friends assured me that Trump didn’t stand a chance of securing the Republican nomination for president. During one of those conversations, while sitting in Rockland’s BBQ in Arlington, VA, it was explained to me that early straw polls essentially take the temperature of those not registered to vote and are therefore not predictive of how registered voters feel and, hence, will vote. By the time the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary came around on Feb. 9th, sanity would be restored, I was assured.

I’ve shared that anecdote in multiple articles (and conversations), but I keep coming back to it because it speaks to one of the more troubling aspects of Donald Trump’s rise: the pragmatic compromise made by those who initially saw and declared Trump morally and temperamentally unfit for leadership. For my part, I’ve continued to say the same things over the years. Others, though, have completely changed their tune.

Moving into 2016, I began writing #NeverTrump articles earlier than most. While I didn’t doubt my GOP insider friends’ political expertise, it felt like they were missing something: the anger among Republican voters. An anger that Trump not only spoke to but stoked with a stochastic fury rarely seen in public discourse. And that anger seemed to have a perverse gravitational pull. Sure enough, as everyone knows, Trump not only won the Republican nomination but succeeded in beating Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States. His election was secured by the votes of many of those who had seemed as staunchly #NeverTrump just a few months earlier as I was (and remain). What happened?

What 2016 revealed about white evangelicals and the Republican Party continues to frustrate and sadden me. Faced with the growing handwriting on the wall indicating the way the winds of power were blowing, integrity was discarded for pragmatism. Being a faithful witness to the Resurrection was revealed to be far less important than defending an anthropocentric definition of flourishing. Who cares about the fruit of the Spirit and holiness when an unrighteous bully emerged who was willing to enact vengeance on our behalf? Trump’s own son has explicitly stated that Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek should be ignored, and Donald Trump demonstrates on an almost daily basis that he agrees. By hitching their wagon to MAGA and its leader, it’s now evident that power is all that matters to the majority of white evangelicals – a power that stands in direct contradiction to Kingdom ethics.

Pragmatism is not a Kingdom ethic. Holiness is not a sliding scale. What’s more, engaging in pragmatism leads to the continued degradation of one’s integrity and morals. And yet, an Alinsky-styled pragmatism rules the day in white evangelical political theology. To the point that I’m convinced that many Trump supporters would throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace for the sake of getting another “conservative” justice on the Supreme Court.

I have heard every pragmatic excuse in the book for why Christians should vote for Donald Trump. For many, their pragmatism has flowered into fully supporting and defending a known liar, racist, adulterer, and now convicted sexual predator, and a man who has famously declared that he has nothing to ask God’s forgiveness for. Their pragmatism has evolved into an idolatry that denies truth.

In early 2016, the #NeverTrump train was quite crowded. Now? Well, few of us are left. One of the more frustrating things for me is that much of what I predicted about Trump has proven correct. He’s still the compulsive liar he’s always been. He’s still the raging authoritarian who views himself as above the law like he always has. He still views women as things to possess for his pleasure. He’s still temperamentally unfit for leadership. He’s still defiantly unrepentant. He still possesses the childish arrogance (and downright stupidity) necessary to convince yourself that it’s a good idea to stare at the sun during an eclipse. He’s still a narcissist who only cares about himself. The list of the reasons why Donald Trump was and remains unfit for leadership is long and glaring. Yet I’m willing to bet a lot of money that many Trump supporters reading this are arguing in their head, if not out loud, that Donald Trump is none of those things. I could cite example after example demonstrating that Trump is all of those things and more, but because truth is fungible and in complete servitude to power for many Trump supporters, they would sacrifice the facts on the altar of MAGA. Many Trump supporters have convinced themselves that he is this country’s savior. They’re also most likely refusing to accept the validity of the jury’s decision today. But here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine that we’ve gone back in time twenty years to 2003, one year before The Apprentice debuted on NBC. During our time travel jaunt, we seek out those who support and defend Trump in 2023 and say to them, “Hey. Guess what? Donald Trump has been accused of rape.”

You know what the vast majority of their responses would be? Of course, you know what their response would be.

Almost every single person who currently defends Trump and believes that Carroll’s civil suit is a witch hunt would reply, “That’s the least surprising thing I’ve heard in a long time. Of course, Donald Trump has been accused of rape. He’s Donald Trump, after all. Next are you going to tell me that water is wet?”

The many horrendous things pointed out about Trump by people like me were almost universally accepted as true about him twenty years ago (or less). He didn’t hide it (and still doesn’t). But here’s the thing, Donald Trump hasn’t changed. He’s still the same lecherous, deceitful, vile narcissist he’s always been. And I haven’t changed. But some of y’all have; truth is now fungible for some of y’all and in service to anthropocentric definitions of flourishing. And you should ask yourself why that is. Why are you willing to now disregard everything the Bible says about the fruit of the Spirit and holiness? Why are you willing to deny things that were universally understood to be true about Trump years ago? Are you trusting in God or man?

By way of helping you see how pragmatism can move the needle of your moral compass, I offer you the story of South Carolina Senator Linsdey Graham. A man who went from vehemently denouncing Trump to becoming one of his most vocal and voracious defenders. The Bulwark has published a series of masterful, well-documented articles highlighting the history of the moral compromise of Senator Graham. Titled “The Corruption of Lindsey Graham: A Case Study in the Rise of Authoritarianism,” the series stands as a canary in the coal mine of white evangelical political pragmatism. Please read it; I’ve linked to it below. First, though, to whet your appetite, I include a lengthy quote from the introductory article:  

“HOW DID A SENATOR who clearly understood every element of the oncoming disaster—Trump, his angry fan base, and the timidity of the Republican elite—become part of the evil that followed? The first piece of the answer is that Graham, like many other Republicans who initially opposed Trump, had made a political calculation. And that calculation turned out to be wrong.

In TV appearances, Graham often said he would ‘rather lose without Trump than try to win with him.’ That sounded brave. But Graham didn’t really believe Trump could win. He didn’t think he might need to suck up to Trump, because he assumed that the businessman-candidate was so toxic—in particular, so abrasive to women and to Hispanic voters—that even if he managed to win the nomination, he would lose badly in a general election.

So in 2015 and early 2016, Graham found it relatively easy to speak out against Trump. He didn’t think he had much to lose. His courage hadn’t been tested.”

Read the full introductory article by clicking here.

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