Dr. Wayne Grudem just published a thoughtful essay entitled Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice. For those unaware, Dr. Grudem is a professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, and the author of many excellent books, including Politics - According to the Bible. I was intrigued by Dr. Grudem’s essay because for several decades I’ve appreciated his sober-minded analysis on a wide variety of issues. Moreover, earlier in this election cycle Dr. Grudem endorsed Senator Marco Rubio, whom I also supported.
Grudem argues not that Trump is the lesser of two evils but “a good candidate with flaws.” Grudem points to Trump’s vast wealth as evidence of his business savvy, and the equal treatment that minorities and women have received in Trump’s commercial enterprises as an indication that Trump is not a bigot or misogynist. But I think Dr. Grudem’s depiction contains two significant omissions.
Is Trump a “Good Candidate with Flaws”?
1. There are many reports of regular Americans—contractors, small business owners—being stiffed by Trump. These “little people” didn’t have the legal resources to fight. The Edward J. Friel Company collapsed after 1984 when Trump refused to make an $83,600 payment for cabinet work at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Think, too, of what happened in the now-defunct Trump University. Or the many instances when Trump pursued eminent domain for his private benefit (rather than the public good). Or of Trump rejecting over 94 percent of Americans who applied to work at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach—where Trump pursued more than 500 visas for foreign workers. When pressed about this, Trump retreats to the notion that “American workers won’t take these jobs.”
Trump’s pattern seems to be the pursuit of money, power, and fame even if other Americans are damaged in the process.
2. Trump has directly profited from the debasement of women. Trump was the first to put a strip club in a casino in 2013, the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Trump was a frequent guest on the Howard Stern show, where the two men regularly objectified women in the most degrading of ways. When we combine this record with Trump’s boasts of marital unfaithfulness and (more recently) his grotesque remarks about Megyn Kelly and the looks of Carly Fiorina and Heidi Cruz, it’s hard to argue that accusations of misogyny are unjustified. If we factor in Trump’s disparaging broad-brush remarks about Mexican immigrants and his mocking imitation of a disabled journalist, we don’t have a picture of a man who “joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves” (as Trump claimed in his RNC Convention speech). Instead, we see the picture of a fundamentally arrogant, selfish, and greedy man, who will do or say anything to beat his rivals. This is a man who glories in a kind of self-exaltation that most of us would find shameful.
Will Trump Keep His Word?
Grudem writes that “no president has ever gone back on most of what he has promised to do.” His argument is that Trump is most likely to pursue his pro-growth tax policies, appoint originalist Supreme Court justices, and do other such things that are beneficial to society. However:
1. Trump is unique among candidates in his ability to straightforwardly change his positions while denying any change. One day he knows Putin well, the next he’s never met him. In the primary, Trump suggested that Dr. Ben Carson might be mentally unstable; but later Carson is a “great guy.” More recently he invited Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted e-mails—and within a day said “of course I was being sarcastic.” While all politicians couch what they say to different audiences at different times, commentators of all political persuasions are in awe at Trump’s ability to do this so regularly, so habitually, and so unflinchingly. Trump’s ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal (Tony Schwartz) told The New Yorker how he followed Trump around for a year while writing the manuscript. Schwartz came away amazed at Trump’s capacity to lie repeatedly to so many different people.
Schwartz says of Trump, “He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it.” Since most people are “constrained by the truth,” Trump’s indifference to it “gave him a strange advantage.”
So if anyone can govern in a way that’s different from how he ran, it’s Trump. In fact, Trump’s views are fluid, since he has provided little detail, for example, on how he intends to combat ISIS. He’s taken many positions on abortion and the minimum wage, sometimes within the space of a few days. On the issue of illegal immigration, Trump’s tough rhetoric doesn’t match the reality that Trump hired foreign workers over American workers.
Which brings me to a related point: Trump’s hypocrisy and frequent appeal to a double standard. He’s “tough” when he insults his rivals, but strikingly thin skinned if criticized. He’s a “businessman” who “needed” to hire foreign workers, but since “nobody’s played the game more than me” we can “trust him to fix it.” Fix it for whom? The American people or himself? Bernie Sanders “sold his soul to the devil” by endorsing Hillary Clinton, but Ted Cruz is horrible for urging the RNC Convention attendees to “vote their consciences.” Trump later suggested he might drop millions of dollars into Super PACs (which he once denounced) to defeat Senator Cruz and Governor Kasich for not endorsing him. Trump is a man who at every turn seems untethered by the pursuit of anything greater than his own fame, fortune, and power.
But surely Congress can be counted upon to serve as a check-and-balance on Trump. Right? Not necessarily. As we saw during the RNC Convention when they refused to follow nomination procedures, the GOP may suck it up for the sake of “party unity.” I have more confidence that a GOP Congress would serve as a check-and-balance against a President Clinton (and vice-versa).
2. Trump would not need to repudiate the majority of his platform to do many awful things. For example, he could round-up Muslims into internment camps in response to an Orlando nightclub-style shooting. He could authorize “something beyond waterboarding” in the treatment of suspected terrorists. He could capture the children of suspected terrorists and threaten to hurt them. He could blackmail journalists with the threat of lawsuits for negative coverage. If we take Trump at his word, as Dr. Grudem wisely suggests, shouldn’t we expect this kind of behavior? We’ve already seen what Obama has done by executive orders—and he knows the Constitution well. Who’s to say that a president with so little understanding of the Constitution, and who has expressed high praise for several dictators and tyrants, might not attempt to go further?
What about Character?
I agree with Dr. Grudem that character is not the only factor to consider. But there is a character threshold that we should expect any candidate to meet. A man who owns his vices as if they were virtues, who talks proudly about “going after the families” of suspected terrorists, who has profited from strip clubs, who is by all accounts a pathological liar, who disparaged a disabled journalist, who insulted POWs, who criticized the looks of a rival’s wife, is unworthy of the office of president.
In addition, I suspect Trump’s personal flaws are so pervasive that they would seriously interfere with his ability to enact the helpful policies that Dr. Grudem believes Trump will implement. Notice Trump’s profound inability to stay on message, in recent days needlessly resurrecting past rivalries while opening a feud with Khizr and Ghazala Khan (parents of an Army Captain who gave his life to save others on the battlefield). When we consider Trump’s brash temperament, impulsiveness, and unwillingness to learn, along with his pettiness and tendency to make everything about him, I lack confidence that he can successfully work with Congress to implement the helpful parts of his platform.
What about the Supreme Court?
There are no guarantees even with a Trump presidency. It was President Reagan who appointed Justice Kennedy, and he’s been unreliable. Chief Justice Roberts could have twice overturned Obamacare, but didn’t. With Hillary, it’s bad, but retaining control of the Senate could prove a helpful check. We should, as Senator Cruz said, vote “for candidates up and down the ticket who (we) trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.” Worse case, Hillary replaces liberals with liberals (except Scalia). We go from 5-4 to 4-5, but even that 5-4 was never dependable (e.g., Obergefell, which made same-sex marriage the law of the land).
Secondly, a lot of the bad things the Supreme Court could do can now be done at the state level. The threat to Christian colleges Dr. Grudem referred to (SB 1146) is a state of California initiative. Other states may pursue similar policies regardless of the Supreme Court’s leanings. Similarly, many of the states that once defined marriage as between a man and a woman could no longer do so on a straight up majority vote. In short, the Supreme Court cannot save us from the fact that, for now, the country has shifted for the worse on some of the things we hold dear. Convictional Christians must remain faithful to the principles of life, marriage, family, and religious liberty because these principles promote the flourishing of our entire society, including the growing majority whose worldview differs from ours. And we must seek to win the hearts and minds of our neighbors on these matters. But Donald Trump cannot protect us from societal decline. Donald Trump’s nomination is the result of societal decline.
That’s why we must focus on the bigger picture.
The Bigger Picture
Voting for Trump simply because he’s a Republican lacks principle. Why? Because Trump cannot begin to articulate why he’s a Republican or what Republicans stand for. A neo-fascist, Trump essentially ran an independent campaign within the Republican Party. Voting for Trump makes it more likely that other Trump-like, celebrity figures will emerge, insulting their way to victory. Voting for Trump, a man with little regard, or even awareness, of the principles in the Constitution, promotes the irrelevance of the Republican Party, which is the home of the conservative movement. And if there is no home for the conservative movement, it will become extremely difficult for those who love the Constitution and the principles we hold dear to be elected in the future. Then what?
If we’re to seek the welfare of our country (per Jeremiah 29:7), this is the long game we need to play. By voting for someone other than Trump nor Clinton, we do not participate in our country’s near-term decline. We preserve our moral authority, which undergirds our striving for a brighter day to come.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated.