Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In Response to Fr. Frank Pavone

Courtesy David Wanat.
On October 10, Priests for Life director Fr. Frank Pavone, who not only supports Donald Trump but advises his campaign on pro-life issues, released a statement which begins:

The lewd comments, made over a decade ago and for which Mr. Trump has apologized, and which I, like everyone else, find repulsive, do not in the least change my intentions of voting for him, of urging others to do so, and of advising his campaign. The reason is simple: this presidential election is not about a choice between him and someone better; it’s between him and someone far worse.

Moreover, it is not ultimately about either one of them, but rather the good of the nation as reflected in two things: a) What will they do, and b) Who comes into power with them.

Hillary is worse. For over a year now, Trump supports have been parroting that mantra as if it were infallible dogma. That Hillary Clinton has shown herself both corrupt and inept is difficult to deny; even liberals dislike and distrust her. That she will probably be elected with less than a majority of the popular vote and have a lower approval rating coming into office than her husband did is foreseeable. And that the worldview, philosophy, and policy preferences she will bring into office ought to be categorically rejected is unquestionable. But to say Clinton is a worse choice for president than Donald Trump requires considerable, willful blindness to the many flaws Trump has displayed — not just over the last year but over the course of his public career as well.

Character Matters

Character matters. For one thing, the President isn’t just the Chief Executive but also the Head of State, the most prominent representative of the American people to the rest of the world. We debate the peculiarities and peccadilloes of the candidates because we want to vote for one that presents an image we are proud — or at least not ashamed — to display to other nations. For another, the character of the President directly affects the performance of the duties of the Chief Executive. Granting that no one is perfect, we must still consider how a candidate’s imperfections will affect their approach to crises, to diplomatic relations, to legislation, and to their use of the powers of office. And when a candidate has displayed a consistent set of character traits over the course of many years, it’s fair to expect that their behavior won’t be different once they’re vested with the office of the President.

Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. In fact, his penchant for telling blatant whoppers is so bad that he lies over even the most innocent things (e.g., denying that he was sniffing throughout his most recent debate). It’s almost de rigueur for politicians to deny facts about events that happened months or years earlier in their careers; Trump denied a statement he made in the first debate not one hour after he made it. Trump lies so often and so blatantly that news outlets have taken to tracking the number of fibs he lets fly every day. As Los Angeles Times writer Michael Finnegan put it, “Never in modern presidential politics has a major candidate made false statements as routinely as Trump has.”

Does Hillary Clinton lie? Certainly, she lies, though her lies are more calculated, more plausible, and less frequent. Indeed, since tracking politicians’ lies is a brand-new twist to American politics, it’s difficult to prove whether she lies more than any other politician at her level and with her years of experience. Sauce for the goose: if her dishonesty makes her unsuitable for the Oval Office, Trump’s dishonesty should disqualify him as well.

Committing to Bad Ideas

As distressing as Trump’s compulsive lying is, it isn’t as worrisome as his apparent lack of impulse control (“I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet. … I don’t even wait”) or his distinctly autocratic nature. Klein’s article concerned itself primarily with Trump’s threat to jail Clinton: “As bad as the recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault is, this is scarier — this is a major presidential candidate promising to violate our most basic democratic norms if elected.” American Values Network director Eric Sapp said earlier this year:

It would be the extreme of folly to place our hope of religious freedom in a man who says he’ll use the government to spy on houses of worship, deny sanctuary to families fleeing ISIS and disqualify judges based on their faith, and who the Christian Post editors said would silence Christian leaders who oppose him like Russell Moore and Max Lucado. What would it say about us to accept this deal of Trump’s on the condition that we turn a blind eye to his taking religious freedom from others and persecuting some of our most faithful Christian leaders?

Perhaps Trump’s most outrageous statements were just things that sounded good in his head at the time? Everybody does that now and again, even seasoned politicians; consider Ronald Reagan’s pre-press conference joke about outlawing the Soviet Union (“We begin bombing in five minutes”). But Trump not only has these bad ideas but commits to them with an astonishing frequency that argues lack of foresight, poor judgment, and a lack of consideration for the opinions of people outside his circle of enablers. And, too frequently, his statements betray his unfamiliarity with the subject matter, including the Constitution. (Klein again: “Even an effective senator cannot, on their own, overwhelm a presidential veto.”)

The Limits of Party Power

Father Pavone is certainly correct to note that “Who sits in the Oval Office determines who sits in the office of Vice-President, Secretary of State, Secretary of HHS, Attorney General, Surgeon General, and literally thousands of other positions.” However, he adds, “And the worldview, philosophy, and policy preferences of all those people will correspond to the platform of the party to which they belong.” [Emphasis in original] This is a startling piece of naïveté from an experienced political hand.

The president isn’t legally bound to the party platform, and neither are the government officials he appoints. In fact, the president can legally appoint a non-party member. To be sure, the Senate may try to force appointments that are ideologically consistent with the majority party, though only the more influential positions evoke rigorous litmus-testing. However, as Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy has proven, nominees have passed Senatorial scrutiny only to show their true ideological colors once confirmed. And when the President’s party doesn’t own the Senate, as Pres. Obama has discovered in attempting to fill the SCOTUS seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia, the president usually has to seek out a compromise candidate.

No, when the voters elect a candidate, they elect a single person, not a party. That person may bind themselves corpus animusque to the party platform or they may pursue their own agenda so far as possible, even to the extent of creatively interpreting their powers of office to get around a hostile, obstructive Congress (sound familiar?). More importantly, once confirmed, executive branch officials answer to the President, while the judiciary answers to Congress only so far as its officers can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” (U.S. Constitution, Art. 2 Sect. 4). If the President chooses to pursue courses of action that violate party sensibilities, so long as the actions are legal, there’s feck-all executive branch officers can do save carry his orders out.

“Doing Whatever He Damn Well Pleases”

Father Pavone can perhaps be forgiven for supposing that a Republican-controlled Executive Branch and Senate can ride herd on Trump. However, Trump plays by his own rules. As Ezra Klein pointed out in Vox, Trump’s decision to hold a pre-debate press conference with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, against all Republicans’ hopes and advice, shows how futile Fr. Pavone’s supposition is. The best the GOP could hope for is to block Trump’s most damaging departures from Republican orthodoxy.

Trump listens to no one, and is held back by no one [writes Klein]. A Trump presidency won’t secretly be a Mike Pence presidency, or a Paul Ryan presidency, with Trump occupying a more ceremonial role. It will be him, and he will be doing whatever he damn well pleases [emphasis mine.—ASL].

 “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20 DRA). We can’t see into Donald Trump’s soul; therefore, we must assess his actions. And what Trump has done — and continues to do to this day — shows him to be a narcissistic bully and cad who is seriously deficient in honesty, judgment, and foresight. As perilous as a Clinton Presidency threatens to be, the Russian proverb still tells us, “Do not ask the wolf for help against the bear.” The question is not whether we can forgive Trump but whether we can trust him; the prudent answer is a firm, resounding no.

“How Easily Can You Be Duped?”

Again, “the tree is known by its fruit,” and “figs are not gathered from thorns” (Matthew 12:33; Luke 6:44). Theologian John Médaille has argued that, although the GOP has helped the pro-life movement secure some victories on the state and local level, on the national level they have had “bigger fish to fry” than reversing Roe v. Wade. “The result of giving our votes so cheaply is that we now have one-and-a-half pro-abortion parties, and one-half an anti-abortion party.”

That bigger fish, agrees Melinda Selmys, “is free-market liberalism: lower taxes for the rich, fewer services for the poor. There’s a reason why Trump bragged about not paying taxes: he was signaling to the economic base of the Republican party that he is one of them. These people will give you plenty of lip-service, and occasionally throw you the odd pro-life bone, so long as the pro-life movement continues to function as a reliable vote-cow. But they don’t actually care.”

What economic conservatives want to know, is how little will you be satisfied with? How transparent can the lies be? How blatantly can a man trample on Christian values in his personal and professional life and still get the pro-life vote by mouthing the right slogans? How easily can you be duped?

What Is the Message Here?

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Again, “every tree … that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). The last thing I wish to see is the pro-life movement discredited, especially by its own mistakes. But “actions speak louder than words,” and they can tell a tale completely contrary to our intentions. What message does Fr. Pavone’s insistence on supporting Trump send to those outside the pro-life fence?

The message is that the pro-life movement is willing to put the nuclear launch codes into the hands of a thin-skinned, capricious, dishonest demagogue and lecher in exchange for a couple of pinky-swear promises. The message is that the pro-life movement is willing to sacrifice its credibility with women and minorities on the off-chance that we may get a SCOTUS pick or two out of the bargain. The message is that the movement will cheerfully prostitute itself for the slightest hope of victory rather than accept defeat with integrity. The message is that, like Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, we will sell our souls at a bargain-basement price for the merest whiff of power.

At the very least, the message is that we haven’t got sense enough to come out of the rain.

The fact is, Fr. Pavone and Priests for Life would have been far better off throwing their support to an authentically pro-life third-party or write-in candidate with no reasonable hope of winning, like the American Solidarity Party’s Michael Maturen or the independent Joe Schriner, instead of chaining themselves to the raging dumpster fire that is the Trump candidacy. Now Trump’s defeat is avertable only by divine intervention, and the pro-life movement can’t even reasonably claim a moral victory. What a sad and absurd end to the culture wars.