Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: On Democracy, Deservedness, and Donald Trump

The problem with democracy, according to the old adage, is that “you get the leaders you deserve” (Joseph de Maistre).

Which raises the question: What are we doing to deserve someone like Donald Trump?

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

For many of us, the fact that someone like him has made it this far is enough to trigger acid reflux.

It is an indictment of our culture, and it raises questions.

Questions like: Is this really happening?

Are Americans really nominating a reality TV star with a penchant for misogyny that is matched only by his love of spray tans, xenophobia, narcissism, and a braggadocios meanness?


In fairness, my suspicion is that there is enough blame to go around for the rise of Trump, and it extends to both sides of the aisle. Both parties have failed working class Americans, and there is justifiable frustration with certain currents of political correctness. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And so the pendulum swings, until it puts an eye out.

Still, such moments are useful for some soul searching. And as a theology professor, that’s the part I’m interested in.

Consider the following:

Not long ago, when the optimism of the Arab Spring turned to the eternal winter of sectarian violence, I recall hearing something like the following applied to places like Egypt, as well as elsewhere:

Some cultures (read: Muslims) can’t handle democracy, because if given the chance, their angry and ignored constituencies will choose violent and abusive leaders—immoral opportunists—who will stoke the pent up passions of the mob and smash dissenting voices in a wave of sanctioned violence.

Such arguments carry more than hint of cultural superiority, if not outright racism.

Yet as I watched a U.S. presidential frontrunner openly, and on more than one occasion, incite supporters to violence in exchange for legal fees(!), I wondered if there was perhaps a grain of truth to the above contention. Not in Egypt, mind you—with the Muslim Brotherhood—but here.

At the risk of repetition, I’m not saying that the angrier-than-thou supporters of “the great orange-haired unintended consequence” don’t have reasons for their outrage. As Marilynn Robinson phrased it:

“The public is exasperated by the political system to the point that it is enjoying a kind of catharsis, the indiscriminate smashing of things as performance art.”

That sounds accurate.

And when you’re angry, it feels good to smash things.

Yet when the demolition is directed against the very house you live in, the catharsis comes at quite a cost. If the political fire you set is in your living room, then you stand to lose some things in this bonfire of inanities.

So what’s the takeaway?

Despite everything, my assumption is that democracy–that worst of all forms of human governance, except for all the others–is a gift of inestimable value. And like all gifts, not least of all God’s grace, we can’t deserve it.

Yet as any parent might say to a child engaged in such gleefully destructive Christmas present smashing:

“This is why we can’t have nice things.”

And if it continues, we won’t.



NB: This post should not be taken as a tacit endorsement of any other political candidate or party. And if you are a Donald Trump supporter, I still love you, so please don’t sucker punch me.






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