Trump Derangement Syndrome, Desperation Thinking, and Facing the Questions

Mostly, the sound and fury over Christianity Today’s editorial advocating President Trump’s removal from office seems to be following the now-familiar pattern: reaction aplenty, reflection—not so much.

It seems that “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” cuts both ways. The left wing version (LW) can’t seem to see the difference between Trump and Hitler. The right wing version (RW) seems to have trouble seeing the difference between Trump and the Messiah. These TDS sufferers perceive everyone around them in these extremes as well, so regardless of what’s actually being said, what they hear is binary. Either you’re echoing our (extreme) view and are one of “Us” or you’re one of “Them,” expressing the extreme opposite.

Trump himself suffers from the right wing version of Trump Derangement Syndrome, as his reaction to Mark Galli’s editorial demonstrated. Galli’s analysis offered both positive and negative observations about President Trump, but both Trump and his hordes of fellow TDS-RW sufferers immediately boiled it down to “Doesn’t sound like Us. Must be Them”—or pretended to. I don’t honestly know which is worse.

Those unafflicted by TDS of either the LW or RW variety can see some valid points in Galli’s arguments, as well as some weaker ones. They can distinguish one claim from another and weigh the supporting facts and reasoning for each, and possibly come to a better understanding of some of the thinking on these matters—even if it’s better understanding of what they disagree with, and why.

Which brings me to the purpose of this little entry into the fray. If you see the perspective voiced by Mark Galli (and others) as reasonable, even if you disagree, congratulations on being TDS-free! Hang in there. You’re not alone, and you really haven’t lost your mind. Everyone else has.

If you’re still a Trump-defender but haven’t slipped into full-blown TDS, I want to make you more uncomfortable, because I think it might help. (The TDS cases are beyond my skills.)

I know there are some pretty conflicted Trump supporters out there! One sure sign is how oversensitive some of them are. Criticize Trump just a little, and you get a noticeably disproportionate response. This is symptomatic of TDS-RW also, but the milder forms tell me I’m dealing with a person who is probably pretty insecure about the position they’ve carved out. They don’t want to criticize Trump at all, but they’re conflicted. Part of them keeps insisting something’s wrong. It makes them grumpy.

For TDS-free evangelical Trump-defenders, then, three questions:

1. Can it ever be wrong to take an action even when all the alternatives will have worse outcomes?

The answer is yes. I don’t know why this idea is controversial for Christians, but I’ve gone multiple rounds in forum discussions and some definitely find it hard to accept or hard to understand. Stated positively, the principle is this: Sometimes it’s wrong to do A even though all the other options seem guaranteed to result in disaster. I’ll get to how this relates to supporting President Trump below, but first, a biblical example—King Saul.

When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. Samuel said, “What have you done?” (1 Samuel 13:6–11)

Some time later Saul followed the same pattern by keeping some of the spoils from the defeat of Agag (1 Sam. 15:20-21).

On both of these occasions Saul was afraid and desperate. He saw a situation where severe, lasting defeat would certainly occur if he chose to take the moral high ground and follow the instructions he had been given.

Desperation breeds an unhealthy focus on “But what will happen if I don’t?” It can lead us to re-characterize a choice between right and wrong as a choice between “the lesser of two evils.” In the sense of “two options with negative outcomes” the latter does happen. But a Christian is never so desperate that he has to do wrong in order to avoid disaster. In that case, he doesn’t get to avoid disaster.

Frequently, what I hear from Trump supporters is desperation reasoning: He’s got problems, but if we don’t help him win, what will happen?! Abortion! Loss of religious liberty! Economic decline! So even though he’s clearly a foolish, proud, and dishonorable man, let’s put him in charge, because he’ll do some things we’re desperate to see done!

My advice: calm down, figure out what’s right and do that. Stop being desperate. Saul’s desperate moves did work pretty well. But they brought disaster of a completely different kind for Saul and his family.

Returning to the question, I phrased it deliberately. If it can ever be wrong to do A when all the other options seem certain to have worse outcomes, that puts a sober responsibility on each of us. We have a duty to look at our choices and ask the question: Is Option A wrong even though it has the best likely outcomes? Why or why not? I don’t see many in the Trump-support camp answering these questions.

2. Does how we think matter?

On the topic of “how to think about Trump” (which is different from what to think about Trump), I’ve encountered an unusually high degree of impatience—a dogged determination to avoid looking away from outcomes to consider the process of ethical evaluation itself.

I keep going back to it for two reasons:

  1. God cares how we think, not just what we believe, what we do, and what results we achieve.
  2. If we use the right thought process, we’re more likely to correctly identify the right thing to do.

Reason 2 should be self-evident. Reason 1 is clear in passages such as these:

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Cor. 14:20)

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. (1 Cor. 3:18)

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:7)

but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, (1 Pet. 3:15)

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2 Cor. 10:5)

In the case of support for, or criticism of, President Trump, we really shouldn’t think we’ve fulfilled our calling as Christians if rejecting “what They say” and echoing “what Our people say” is as far as we’ve gotten. That isn’t even a start at loving God with our minds (Matt. 22: 37).

3. Is it possible to achieve short term success in ways that produce long term failure?

Shortsightedness continues to dominate Trump-defense rhetoric. It’s almost as if Trump defenders believe:

  • Future leaders can’t undo the accomplishments of whoever is in charge today.
  • Policy victories have more enduring power than changing the values and principles of a culture.
  • There is no need to win over anyone who doesn’t already agree with Trump’s policies.
  • There will never be a need for any future leaders in conservatism after the current generation.

Well, the fourth bullet is possible (Parousia). But how could anyone believe the first three?

Here’s the connection: If future leaders can undo what Trump accomplishes, and if changing values and principles is more enduring, and if there’s a need to persuade larger numbers of voters of conservative ideas, what sort of strategy does that demand?

It calls for leadership that is, for starters, not completely alienating toward everyone in the political center and center left (we know the far left is unpersuadable). Maybe it calls for leadership that at least tries to make reasoned arguments for policy positions. Maybe it calls for leadership that thoughtfully addresses the idealism and questions of young potential leaders.

Maybe it calls for a leader who’s personal character and beliefs sort of align at least a little with the spirit and principles of conservatism, rather than one who passionately fights for the letter while actively denying the spirit.

President Trump has done some good things. Can they compensate for the long term damage of his egoism, lack of restraint, and moral tone-deafness? I honestly don’t know. I have serious doubts. But too many evangelical Trump supporters aren’t even considering the question.

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There are 152 Comments

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I think someone mentioned respect for the office also. I've answered this objection before as well, but it bears repeating. There are at least three factors to keep in mind when applying the "honor the king" passages to an American president.

  • In the U.S. the law is king, and the executive is a servant of the law
  • In the U.S., the "king" works for the people (within the constraints of law); it's just how the government happens to be structured
  • The expression of "honor" is always relative to the traditions that define it. For example, we don't honor the dead by wearing party hats, blowing kazoos, and throwing confetti at funerals... but all of those things could honor a graduate at a graduation party. In the US, we don't honor presidents by withholding criticism. It's just not part of the role. That said, there could be inappropriate ways to express criticism... and criticisms that wouldn't be at all relevant, etc.
    There's certainly not a biblical mandate to pretend a man of poor character is a man of good character... especially when doing that can have enormous consequences.

I have not said anything that shows that I am pretending that a man of poor character is a man of good character. 

There is a world of difference between the concept of giving requisite honor to top-level government leaders and what I am chiefly disputing with you about. You have in effect argued that it was sinful for dedicated believers to vote for Trump. In my opinion, you have not even come close to establishing the validity of that viewpoint.

pvawter's picture

RajeshG wrote:

The radical left was strongly and confidently expecting and predicting a Clinton victory by a large margin in 2016. God the Judge overturned their expectations in a dramatic and highly significant way.

When the dramatic reversal in the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election is put in its proper context of the work of God as Judge, its significance points to God's merciful deliverance of His people from the strong leftist oppression that we had suffered under for the previous 8 years.

That is certainly one way to interpret the tea leaves, er, events of 2016. Another is offered by John Nelson Darby in his insightful commentary on the Trump-Clinton campaign: "God may allow, and so far sanction a course, wise humanly, in His ways - His government, which yet bears the fruit of the unbelief which is at the root of it."

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