In a whirlwind of chaos, violence, and absurdity, the administration of President Donald Trump is coming to an end. As easy as it is for parachute journalists to assume rural America is a monolith, the reality is that rural America, like the rest of the country, is divided in its perception of President Trump. To some, he’s the worst and most dangerous President in American history. One of my local friends recently posted: “He has no redeeming qualities.” For others, Trump is the “strong man” leader we need to stand up for rural people against the liberal elite steering this country toward socialism.
There will be many things said in the near future about the legacy of Donald Trump’s four years in the White House. We can debate whether the policies of President Trump were beneficial or harmful for rural America. That’s an important discussion but I want to go deeper. I’m more concerned about the spirit of Trumpism.
When pundits talk about “Trumpism,” they are usually talking about his political style and economic policies, especially his populist version of conservatism. My use of the term includes those ideological doctrines but also incorporates the social, cultural, and spiritual forces that appear to be animated by his approach to life and leadership.
You’ve heard the saying “we get the leader we deserve.” It’s true; to a degree, the President is a reflection of the nation’s citizens. And yet, the President of the United States holds a position of power that exerts tremendous influence. Over the last four years, I have seen the spread of what I call “trick-down Trumpism” in my hometown and in small towns around the country. By “trick-down Trumpism” I mean that the characteristics Trump demonstrates and celebrates are demonstrated and celebrated with increasing frequency and boldness.
Of course, Donald Trump did not invent these qualities. He did not invent bigotry or divisiveness or nationalism. But when the man holding the highest office in the land demonstrates these qualities, consistently and without apology, it has a real impact on the culture of the country. It emboldens people who previously lacked the “cover” to speak and act in certain ways. It normalizes previously unacceptable behaviors. Put another way, President Trump did not start the fire but he poured gasoline on the fire, danced around it, and filled the woodshed so the fire will not burn out.
What kind of characteristics indicate the presence of Trumpism in rural communities? Here are some common ones:
- narcissism and lack of empathy
- scapegoating minorities and immigrants
- refusal to nuance or compromise
- conspiracy-thinking and focus on “fake news” and “alternative facts”
- unwillingness to practice self-reflection or seek outside counsel
- entitlement mentality of rights over responsibilities, pride in privilege
- demanding loyalty and gas-lighting or mocking those who are not loyal
- glorifying and whitewashing history while ignoring the ongoing impacts of historical oppression
- placing hope and faith in powerful men and coercive exercises of that power upon those seeking change or expressing differences
Any of those sound familiar? Do you seen any of those in your community? In the country? In yourself?
Understand that I’m not saying these qualities are only seen in supporters of President Trump. I’m certainly not saying they are only present in Republicans. To some extent, these are issues with which we all struggle as human beings, regardless of political affiliation. But Trumpism is a social and spiritual dynamic that evokes, justifies, and normalizes these qualities. In the course of only four years, I’ve seen “never-Trumpers” transform from people who believe Trump is an immoral and incompetent man who should never be President to conspiracy-toting MAGA-hat wearing devotees, unwilling to condemn a violent insurrection in the hallowed halls of our nation’s capital. That kind of transformation is only possible under the influence of powerful forces at work in our hearts, minds, and organizations.
Trumpism is harming rural America. Let me provide 10 ways the spirit of Trumpism is increasing the forces of division and decline that undermine the hopeful growth that is also taking place in our small towns and rural regions.
- It centralizes leadership in one “strong man” when renewal requires many ordinary leaders.
- It places faith in the strong man instead of the Servant Savior who models an alternative kingdom of love and justice.
- It flirts with fascism when we need collaboration and the “open space of democracy” (Terry Tempest Williams).
- It demands immediate intervention (quick fix by force) when we need sustained attention, collective action, and a commitment to cultivating “habits of the heart” (Robert Bellah).
- Its emphasis on loyalty and identity politics undermines the local bonds and relationships which are critical, pivotal forces in democratic renewal and community wealth building.
- It divides us when every one of us is needed to move forward into a better future.
- It scapegoats immigrants when the stranger often provides the new perspective and disruptive energy necessary for new life.
- It keeps our focus fixed on an idealized past by “making American great again” rather than amending past wrongs, building on the positive from the past, and embracing new possibilities.
- It is driven by either/or and us/them scarcity-based competition when divine abundance is radically inclusive and creative, finding a way forward in which “everyone ate and was satisfied” (Mk. 6:42).
- It places both the problem and solution “out there” which enables us to obfuscate responsibility and dis-empowers the work of renewal based on the principle of “what we need is here” (Wendell Berry).
Why bring this up now? Donald Trump is on his way out and Joe Biden on his way in. Why not turn your attention to how progressivism impacts rural and small town flourishing? The exit of Donald Trump from the White House does not mean the end of Trumpism.
Lately, I keep thinking of the gospel parable found in Matthew 12:
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
We can “cast out” Donald Trump from the White House but if we don’t fill our country with the good, true, and beautiful, we will be worse off than before. No “house” remains “unoccupied” for long. There have always been destructive and dividing forces at work in our good country; Trumpism is only one of the many spirits that endanger the soul of our nation (no, progressivism is not immune to these forces). Nevertheless, the spirit of Trumpism occupies too much spaces in rural houses of worship, family life, and civic government.
Let’s pray for President Biden and the new administration. But let’s also work to remove Trumpism from the “divided houses” across our small towns and rural regions. Jesus’ words are sobering:
“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”Matthew 12:25
Trumpism exploits rural decline and expands rural divides. We can’t recover abundance in our common home while its energies erode our common ground. After we exorcise these energies from our hearts and houses, let’s fill those houses with healing, joy, and justice so that a worse spirit doesn’t take up residence in an “unoccupied” spiritual and social space.
Our hometowns are not subjects of “Trump Country.” Whoever we voted for, this is our land, this is our home, and it is our future we are co-creating with God and our neighbors.
For principles that empower and renew ordinary leaders in small towns and rural regions, take a look at the affirmations of the Manifesto.