Has Evil Overtaken Us? Explaining the Rise of Donald Trump

© 2016 Robert Osburn

When I travel in East Asia this summer and in South Asia this Fall, I will be asked, incessantly, about the one US Presidential candidate who has stunned and astounded Americans who either love or revile him.

I will explain that gut responses are no basis for principled politics, especially politics that aspires to reflect God’s Kingdom.  No matter how I feel about this candidate (or any other, for that matter), my politics must be refined by the fires of revelation and reason.  I aspire, in other words, to make political judgments based on biblical truth that “cuts between soul and spirit, joints and marrow” and that also “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

My student friends will still want to know why Mr. Trump has (as of early May) nearly won the Republican nomination for president.  They deserve thoughtful answers, not more of the emotion that he engenders.

One answer to the question “Why Trump?” is that he speaks for those who are economically and politically marginalized by progressive elitists who currently rule the USA under and in cooperation with President Obama’s leadership.  Trump’s attacks on the “Establishment” have paved a path for “Outsiders” who have been left in the cold by globalization, free trade, and excessive government regulation. 

I will tell my students that this explanation partially explains the man.  But there’s something else also going on when my backyard neighbor and so many Trump supporters declare they are “angry.”  The anger, I think, is rooted in something spiritual that transcends economic and political explanations.

That brings me to the second explanation, offered recently by David French in a recent issue of National Review.  Trump channels, says French, a kind of hyper-masculinity that justifiably thumbs its nose at American feminism.  Here, French burrows into American psychology, and, thus, brings us a step closer to explaining the spiritual roots of Trump’s appeal to many Americans.  French witnesses in Trump, as many of us do, the swagger, arrogance, and cocksureness of the cocky “high-school punk who always seemed to get the girl.”  As a 60s-era high school nerd who never ramped up the courage to ask out a girl, I get that. 

But, French wants us to believe, and with some good reason, that many American males are fed up with politically correct hyper-feminism.  Their “feminized churches,” for example, “teach men that emotionalism is a virtue, and they celebrate strength in mothers while constantly mocking fathers as bumbling and inept.”  Trump channels the reaction to that sort of feminism, in part through his “trophy wives,” but I wonder if French has gone too far in reducing our politics to male psychology.  Methinks there is more to the Trump phenomenon.

And so, during the four weeks I plan to be out of America over the next seven months, I will offer a third explanation that, I think, underlies the economic, political, and psychological interpretations of Trumpism.  I will tell my international friends that many Americans believe that evil has broken through the cultural dams that held it in place for the first 250 years of American history. Only a Strongman like Trump can conquer it and force it back in the swamps where it belongs.

I will tell them about the Trump flag proudly flying across the street from the Bible church in Ottawa, Kansas where I delivered the talk at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast recently.  The flag was a virtual declaration that God no longer rules the affairs of men and nations, and because of that fact, someone mighty must rise up to lasso evil, wrestling it to the ground.  Trump will make, such folk believe, America great again. Many other Americans, yours truly included, are concerned that, in the effort to contain evil, an American Strongman will unleash new, more virulent forms of evil.

Ever since the Great Fall in the Garden, the fear of unconstrained evil has lurked, for good reason, near the surface of human consciousness.  And so we should not be surprised that, just beneath the surface of biblical revelation, the same fear emerges in the raw poetry of Psalm 2: 1-3:

            Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?

                        The kings of the earth set themselves,

                        And the rulers take counsel together,

            Against the Lord and against His anointed, saying,

                        “Let us burst their bonds apart,

                        and cast away their cords from us.”

To many Americans---witnesses to 9/11, Islamic terrorism, the Great Recession, the tragically thin harvest from hundreds of billions of military dollars poured into the Middle East, and, before that, the Cultural revolution of the 60s and the humbling Vietnam War---the nations are raging and bonds are shredding.  Tidal waves of anarchy and evil wash over us.

The poet in Psalm 2, however, rallies the faithful with words that ought to make us not only rise up in the face of evil, but also in the face of those who claim to be our sure and certain rescuers:

            He who sits in the heavens laughs;

                        The Lord holds them in derision (v. 4).

Similarly, if you carefully study the Book of Zechariah (this will take some work), you will see that the exiles who returned from Babylon carried with them a deep anxiety that the great evil of their ancestors would somehow return to once again humiliate them as God’s chosen people. And so the prophet speaks to that anxiety in many different ways.  One involves a very strange image, in chapter 5, verses 5 through 8.  There, Zechariah reports an angel who showed him a basket that contained the “iniquity in all the land.”  When the immensely heavy “leaden cover” was lifted up, to Zechariah’s shock, there was a woman sitting in the basket. “This is Wickedness,” reported the angel who told Zechariah that the basket of evil would be taken to Babylon where a house would be built for it.  The message?  Evil will be contained.  It will, in God’s sovereign plan, be put back into the place it belongs.

Followers of Jesus have met the only One who puts evil where it belongs.  He bore the tidal wave of evil for us, so that never again would it rule, uncontrolled, over a terrified humanity. This central assumption that God is greater than evil has galvanized the people of God from time immemorial.  This truth underwrites our firm confidence that when Christ died upon the Cross, Satan and evil won no victory; God did.  It stands behind the truth expressed in Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good,” not evil.  It forges the courage of God’s people who are martyred for a faith that cannot be extinguished.  There simply is no unstoppable scourge of evil that justifies a summons to a Strongman whose way of life, public image, and lack of a meaningful political philosophy call into question his fitness for our highest office.

I want my students to know, and I want my fellow citizens to know that no Strongman will conquer evil and put it back where it belongs. It has already been conquered by a Savior who wins our allegiance through a love that conquers the evil within and without.

Trumpism is a spiritual problem that only Jesus can conquer.  Fear not, friends and foe alike, for the Lord has come and will come again as Victor over evil.

Update on July 22, 2016: Mr. Trump's speech on the final night of the Republican Convention sadly confirms my thesis.  Please consider these words of the wise commentator, David Brooks.