Donald J. Trump

A Year with Trump

From the presidential inauguration to today, a review of alliances forged and bridges burned, immigration, religious liberty, and much confusion... While Catholics face the dilemma of being "homeless" in U.S. politics.
Mattia Ferraresi

Just over a year ago, American Catholics heading to the polls were faced with what Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule refers to as “a tragic dilemma.” A little over half of the Catholics who voted decided to cast their ballot for Donald Trump, and studies on the election show that he won in part thanks to the support of Catholics in some key states. The drama surrounding the election has exposed a matter of significance that has become ingrained in American society over the generations but which is often overshadowed by party affiliation and debates between Republicans and Democrats: “Catholics are politically homeless in the United States,” explains Vermeule. Facing the choice between Trump and Hilary Clinton, it became clear that neither of the major parties could provide shelter for the “homeless” Catholics who, in past presidential elections, have divided themselves between the two parties. “The Democratic Party,” continues the law professor, “believes in radical permissiveness in regard to abortion, while the Republican party stands for tax cuts for the rich and hostility towards immigrants, especially those who come from Mexico and Latin America.”

Now, a year since Trump took office, the dilemma has not dissipated. We have seen the nomination of a conservative and pro-life judge to the Supreme Court and a change of course for religious freedom issues, but also the saga of immigration bans in order to uphold the “America First” principle and the exacerbation of the turbulent feud with North Korea; there have been contentious terminations of employment and backpedaling within the administration, barricades erected, and rushed alliances of convenience. An administration in constant flux has been exposed for its fragility, and at the same time has been subjected to an investigation to set the record straight on the interference of Russia in the U.S. elections. The result: Catholics still feel homeless in the political arena.

Trump’s perplexing behavior, characterized by his breaking with all presidential conventions, and the equally confusing media coverage over the past year of his presidency have complicated the task of making a fair assessment of his performance in the first year. Yet the reign of Trump, one of the most unpopular presidents of all time, has in a way “secularized” the political climate. From an administration of this caliber, exemplification of virtue is not to be expected, but using the lens of realism, his administration can be evaluated point by point. In this light, being homeless has its advantages.

Issues to follow.
Joseph Bottum, an intellectual and a professor at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota, and formerly an editor of First Things, points out the irony in the relationship between Trump and Catholics: “He is one of the most provocative and uncouth presidents in history, still, the teachings of [Catholic] Social Doctrine have been able to thrive more during his presidency than under Barack Obama or George W. Bush.” Bottum believes that issues of life and religious liberty are the issues to follow in order to unearth signs of hope. “For those who are genuinely pro-life, especially now that the movement is at its low point in influence, there is good reason to look at this first year of Trump’s presidency in a positive light. These are neither secondary nor should they be looked at as relevant solely to so-called conservative Catholics: the dignity of life is at the core of social justice, but in the past fifty years, in the United States and throughout the West, the children who have been aborted outnumber the immigrants who have been turned away. The nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court has rekindled hope in those who want to reverse Roe v. Wade [the 1973 ruling that allowed the states to legalize abortion] and to invest the states with the authority over the decision to end pregnancies.” In line with traditional Republican policies, the administration has also reintroduced the “Mexico City policy,” which blocks funding to non-governmental organizations seeking public funds to promote abortion as a method of family planning. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has applauded this decision.

Common Sense. As for religious liberty, the topic most debated between the USCCB and the White House during the Obama years, Trump annulled the mandate that forced religiously affiliated institutions–schools, universities, hospitals, etc.–to violate their consciences by providing contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to their dependents through the insurance plans made available by Obamacare. This was very significant, and not just for Christians: the mandate had reduced the freedom of religion to freedom of worship, blocking the freedom of religious expression in society. The bishops proposed “a return to common sense,” after “an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated.” Vermeule, who has often criticized the President, can see hope seeping through the cracks of this incredibly fragmented and cryptic political situation: “It is a positive sign to see that some politicians are starting to support the valid points of Trump’s agenda” without kow-towing to him.

The area of foreign policy is the most difficult for observers to interpret. The President had promised to launch an era in which America would scale back its involvement in international affairs, but this year he has approached international accords with varying intentions. He did not renew the nuclear deal with Iran, and he escalated the threats against Pyongyang, even as Pope Francis was trying to encourage North Korean leaders to be “opposed to the rhetoric of hatred.” He has put all of the free trade agreements up for discussion. He has reinforced the alliance with Saudi Arabia and has rewarded a portion of the electorate by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thus beginning the process of transferring the embassy. This was yet another decision heavily criticized by the Vatican and many other countries. It is difficult to identify a coherent approach in an administration that favors bilateral agreements but that is skeptical of, and even hostile toward, multilateral discussions and international institutions.

Walls. Immigration, environmental, and fiscal politics are also issues of great concern. Still, some clarification is needed to avoid getting caught in the abundant distortions of this post-truth era. Bottum explains that, “outside the United States, the issue of immigration has been blown out of proportion. I am in favor of more welcoming and generous laws than the ones currently enforced in America, but we must also be honest: this administration has not radically changed the immigration policy in place.” In fact, the wall at the border with Mexico, the centerpiece of Trump’s politics, has not been built. The travel ban, which has been rewritten three times and has since been approved–though not fully–by the Supreme Court, temporarily limits entry into the U.S. by people from eight countries (concerning which rigorous restrictions are already in place) due to concerns about national security. During the electoral campaign, Trump promised to deport two to three million illegal immigrants with criminal records (out of approximately eleven million total living in the US), but actions to expel illegal immigrants have moved with less speed than anticipated. Under Trump, ICE, the federal body that guards the border, has repatriated an average of 17,500 illegal immigrants who have committed crimes each month, compared to the monthly average in the previous year of 20,000. In 2012, 34,000 a month were deported. However, arrests of illegal immigrants have increased this year. Also among the decisions bitterly criticized by the bishops is that of drastically reducing the number of refugees that the United States accepts. Trump cut the number of entries to 50,000 per year, from the 110,000 cap that had been instituted by Obama, and has threatened to further diminish the number of entries to the country overall. The backlash against Dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants who entered the country as minors with their parents, and who Obama granted amnesty, has garnered widespread criticism, also among Catholics.

The withdrawal from the Paris Accords to reduce carbon emissions sparked a political firestorm, and in the latest debate on tax reform, the USCCB made its voice heard. The bill proposed by the White House, explains the USCCB, “will raise income taxes on the working poor while simultaneously providing a large tax cut to the wealthy. This is simply unconscionable.” “It is interesting to notice that the bishops have not allowed the political climate to alter their approach to problems. They have commended Trump when he did good things from the Catholic standpoint, and they also reprimanded him, quite severely at times, when he promoted policies that went against Social Doctrine,” explains Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “This freedom, I believe, differs from the attitude of other groups; in particular it is in contrast to that of the evangelicals, who support Trump a priori, even when he sustains positions that contradict the Gospel,” continues the American Jesuit, who points to the meeting between Trump and Pope Francis this past May as a sign of the possibility for a dialogue about issues they agree on, from religious liberty to the protection of Christians in the Middle East. “The media described him as the anti-Pope, as a persona non grata, but then when they met, it was clear that much common ground was found that they could cover together. This is the attitude of the Holy See toward everything, but the media does not understand: they once predicted that John Paul II would put up a major fight against Clinton and they said the same about Benedict XVI with regard to Obama. There was no dramatic duel. Instead, there were both points for dialogue and a frank recognition of disagreements. In many accounts, the Church has often worked best with the most ‘distant’ presidents.”

Marriage. A few months ago, Reese performed a study of the language used in the U.S. bishops’ communications on immigration, finding repeated use of particularly harsh words. They declared themselves to be “disheartened,” “disappointed,” and “deeply troubled.” They described fear of “bigotry,” a climate of “intolerance,” and some “alarming,” “devastating,” and “injurious” decisions. This tone signaled, according to Reese, the end of the “honeymoon” phase with Trump that had begun with some shared goals. Though he adds a revealing footnote: “Since in the bishops’ minds this marriage never took place, it may be easy for them to quietly climb out of bed and disappear into the night.”