COMMENTARY: Lessons reinforced in a noxious primary

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin |

(FOX News)

FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – Almost a year ago, at the beginning of this, the most noxious political campaign season in recent history, a liberal Democrat friend of mine – who works in a New York City high-rise – bet me a steak dinner that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

We laughed about "the bet" then and periodically have jabbed one another over who would prevail in November. Sadly, I believe it may be him.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has suspended his grass-roots fight for the Republican nomination after declaring a path to victory "has been foreclosed" by his primary loss in Indiana. Republican challenger Donald Trump captured more than 53 percent of the vote in the Hoosier State.

Trump is now the presumptive nominee and, barring any unforeseen convention catastrophes, will go on to face Clinton in November (though Clinton lost to Socialist Bernie Sanders in Indiana, she still has an advantage in "super delegates" at the Democrat National Convention). Her name was on the 2016 ballot before the campaign ever began because, let's face it, that's how the modern Democrat Party works.

Cruz will retain his seat in the U.S. Senate and has gained enough favor among voters for another run for office in his home state in 2018, when his Senate term ends. He also left the door open for another run for the presidency.

Second runs are not unheard of in presidential politics. After a bitter campaign in 1976 when Gerald R. Ford was chosen as the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan reemerged in 1980 as the Republican nominee and ushered in 12 years of Republican primacy. When he did, he won the Cold War and initiated the longest period of peacetime economic growth since the end of World War II.

Perhaps events will unfold for Cruz in like manner four or eight years from now – after a Trump or Clinton presidency (if we can survive the political savagery of either).

The primary season has reinforced some maxims I already knew to be true, but it also illustrated appreciable weaknesses in American culture that have enabled the rise of figures like Trump and Clinton. So I provide these here for your consideration (my students will recognize them):

  1. Politics is a religion, and religion is in politics. Since our nation's founding, God has been in the political mix, and if not God, then Satan. The calls of Rafael Cruz to vote for his son as God's anointed is evidence of this as much as the near-messianic devotion of Trump's followers to the candidate's campaign. Indeed, many are looking to the New York billionaire to save America from its leaders. Some even called him a new King David. There was discussion of religious liberty, oppressions of conscience and God's disapproval of same-sex marriage (he does; he really does). There was even John Boehner's claim that Ted Cruz, who supported his ouster from his post as Speaker, was "Lucifer in the flesh." Americans find it difficult – and always have – to separate politics and religion, but that is because they likely never will be separated. Religion, or the rejection of it, informs worldview.
  2. Politics is magicit is all about misdirection. "Focus your eyes on the card you chose." "Look at me as I drape the black silk cloth over the cage with the pretty lady inside. When I remove it, she will have vanished." We've all seen magic shows. We know the rules, but we seldom see the trick for what it is. It is a trick. It is misdirection. When a scandal breaks, Americans tend to think, "Boy, I'm sure glad that is out in the open." Unfortunately, the rumors are believed with little critical evaluation. Think of the rumors about Cruz's infidelity. Some claimed it was a story ready to be floated by Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign, but to his credit, he did not move forward with it. The National Enquirer, a "newspaper" better suited for papering bird cages, did. It didn't stick and none of the women validated it. Surely the story about Cruz's father being allied with Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans in 1963, months before the assassin took the life of President John F. Kennedy, would? Even CNN's Jake Tapper called the story "ridiculous." The same can be said of Clinton's email scandal. While the FBI mounts evidence, Attorney General Loretta Lynch shouts, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." So while Americans were watching the shiny things in the water, the hook is being set. The trickery is working.
  3. Celebrity is a greater form of political capital than political experience. Gone are the days when a man like Ronald Reagan, who left acting to gain political experience, could amass knowledge of the American political system before entering a campaign and artfully articulate conservative principles. Good television ratings translate to political fortune.
  4. The Republican Party illustrated IT is the party of diversity. The massive field of 17 Republican candidates included a businesswoman (Fiorina), an African-American doctor (Carson), two Cuban-Americans (Cruz and Rubio), an Italian-American (Santorum), Catholics, Southern Baptists, conservatives, moderates, Libertarians, governors (Perry, Christie, Gilmore), senators and business owners. It even included, for the first time, an Indian-American (Jindal).
  5. Real journalism is dead and it died long ago. I'm not sure when journalism died, but someone should finally write its obituary. When "Fair and Balanced" becomes the Trump News Network, and refuses to confront the candidate on his cock-and-bull stories, you know the dusky color of death has already descended upon that network.
  6. Americans are largely unaware of their own political process. Pure democracy is 51 wolves telling 49 lambs what's for dinner, but that is the political apparatus for which most Americans seem to pine. Trump used the "majority vote" cry to his advantage, and not knowing anything about history, most Americans followed along in spite of the fact that his 39 percent of the popular vote earned him the lion's share of state delegates. When caucuses, instead of primaries were held, he moaned and cried about an "unfair process."The "public's choice" on candidate selection didn't even existed until the 1950s. Before that, state parties lobbied for candidates to be selected. And that is still the case (in spite of the primaries). That is how the Republican National Convention works, but the American people do not understand the deliberative mechanisms built into our Republican form of government to safeguard against the tyranny of majority rule.

In spite of all that has happened, my faith in the fact that God causes leaders to rise and fall for His purposes is still intact. Sometimes He raises leaders up to drag a nation out of the mire into which it has freely walked. Sometimes He raises up a leader as judgment on a people. Which one is it in the case of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? I wish I knew for sure. 

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He wrote his dissertation on Southern Baptists and their influence on military-foreign policy in Vietnam from 1965-1973.