For many, summer is the literary season of lighter novels at the beach or pool. For me — exhausted by the quickening pace of President Donald Trump’s moral and mental disintegration — escape takes the form of reading works of fiction that I have often read before. Encountering a new novel is usually a stimulant. Reading a familiar one is more like a security blanket. One is like foreign travel; the other re-walking paths close to home.
So it was that I was rereading Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” the story of the unnamed “whiskey priest” who is executed by an anti-clerical Mexican government in the 1930s. The priest had fathered an illegitimate child and dies convinced of his own lust, pride, cowardice and failure. But he actually walks the stations of his own cross like a saint and dies a martyr.
It is an engrossing book. Yet the president never takes a vacation from provocation. And it was impossible to miss Trump’s urging of four American congresswomen with ethnic backgrounds to go back to the hellhole countries they came from (even though three of the four were born in the United States). Or his statement that if refugees don’t want abusive conditions in American immigration facilities they should just stay home. Or his promise of mass deportation of people he regards as cultural pollution.
Sometimes an American president is called on to be a comforter. Other times he is required to inspire. This is the American president as loud, bigoted crank at the end of the bar, making it impossible for anyone else to talk or eat in peace.
Or read in peace, without thinking of current events. At one point in Greene’s book, the priest considers the depth of his love for his daughter. “That was the difference, he had always known, between his faith and theirs, the political leaders of the people who cared only for things like the state, the republic: this child was more important than a whole continent.”
The leader of our republic has made his priorities clear. There is a crisis at the border, magnified by the administration’s malice and ineffectiveness. Utter incompetence has led to predictable chaos. But immigration officials are apparently fired not for lacking skills or accomplishment, but for lacking sufficient cruelty. Officials seem to be advanced not because of requisite experience, but because they share Trump’s zeal for dehumanization. The result is a dysfunctional system that prefers heartless yes-men.
The problem, however, is not merely a matter of management. The deeper scandal is this: Trump is trying to make desperate, suffering people the villains of our national story. He compares refugees fleeing repression and violence to snakes. He smears them as rapists and invaders. In his warped moral vision, mercy is a form of national weakness. Kindness and respect are crimes against the state. His approach to nationalism involves slander against the voiceless. It demands further oppression of the oppressed. Trump wants to change, not just the policy of our government, but the character of our country, into something hard, and dark, and dishonorable, and pitiless.
This is surely the kind of thing that people of faith exist to oppose. Christians in particular worship a God who put on the cloak of human need and weakness. A refugee God. A scarred God. A God sacrificed to political necessity, in front of a crowd claiming to serve justice and law.
What does “God is love” mean if it does not mean love for refugees? What does the “image of God” indicate if we refuse to see it in the wandering poor?
And what is the response of Trump’s evangelical supporters — who have enough standing to demand a meeting — when he organizes his political movement around disdain for the dispossessed? Silence. Or support. Or enthusiastic support.
“God might forgive cowardice and passion,” writes Greene, “but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? … Salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting.”
It would be nice to take a vacation from opposing the president, and some readers may fondly hope and fervently pray for this as well. A Republican I know recently complained of a “never-ending, anti-Trump crusade.” But rest is only possible when Trump rests from racism, and desists from dehumanization of the poor and vulnerable. His commitment tests the strength of our commitments. His implacability requires our own.
And why? Because all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Because cruelty without opposition gains momentum. Because a refugee child is more important than a whole continent.