Conor Friedersdorf is a professional Trump hater. A quick scroll through his Twitter feed quickly proves that he spends quite a bit of time criticizing the President. His recent articles in the Atlantic are variant screeds against Donald Trump and his agenda. And now he has turned his obsessive attentions to Hillsdale College for the audacity of having Vice President Mike Pence speak at commencement in May.
His new article carries a tendentious title: “Is Hillsdale College Gaining The World And Losing Its Soul?” Its argument is wholly unoriginal. Imagine, for a moment, if you took the article and replaced every reference to Hillsdale with the words “Trump’s evangelical base” — that piece has been written at least a hundred times. It reads more like the squeals of a high school spat than serious journalism: Trump is “obviously prideful, avowedly greedy, famously lustful, sometimes wrathful.”
In sum: Friedersdorf argues that Donald Trump has not lived his life in alignment with Christian values, Mike Pence has enabled and empowered him, and associates of Hillsdale College are hypocrites for openly supporting the president and inviting Pence to speak at commencement. It’s nothing new. Some Beltway pundit puts out a “hard-hitting” piece like this almost every week. Boring!
Not one of the arguments contrived against Trump’s character can be applied to Mike Pence. As a man, Pence is perfectly unobjectionable. After the initial leftist outrage, his personal policy of dining only with his wife seems more and more prescient in the #MeToo era. And, to the good-natured chagrin of some of the campus fraternities, he opts for an ice-cold O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer over a Busch Light when trying to unwind on a Friday evening. Pence lives a life of faith, evident throughout his career as a prominent conservative congressman, governor, and now vice president.
But like Shakespeare’s Lear, Pence is subject to gross ingratitude — truly, a man “more sinned against than sinning.” His only conceivable fault is his association with the president, and thus we arrive at the whole point of the Atlantic piece: Trump is a bad man, those who enable him are bad people, and Christians who support him are hypocrites.
Of course, Donald Trump was not Hillsdale College’s 2018 commencement speaker. Mike Pence was. As Copernicus saw the sun rather than the Earth as the center of the universe, today’s Washington, D.C., journalists see Donald Trump. Anyone and anything remotely tied to the president becomes its own headline.
The problem is that Friedersdorf does not even try to hide his political bias, as a good reporter does in the interest of objectivity. At times, he is probing a supposed tension between Hillsdale College’s simultaneous dissemination of Christian principles and association with the Trump administration. But elsewhere in the article, he makes explicitly political, rather than moral, claims: Mike Pence “works on behalf of a president who extols authoritarians” and “[undermines] NATO.” This is why Friedersdorf’s argument is so insidious: He flows back and forth between his own criticisms of policies and charges of moral hypocrisy against the college. But yes, by all means, let’s pretend this is an honest inquiry into Hillsdale College and not a politically-motivated hit job.
Friedersdorf goes on to label Trump “a man with no credible religious convictions.” This may very well be true and certainly seems to be the case in light of Trump’s past. I do not know Trump as a man, and I don’t know his soul any more than Friedersdorf does. What we do know is that a number of prominent Christian leaders have met with Trump and testified to his “born again” conversion. But whether Trump has any religious convictions is irrelevant and even ignores the argument at hand; the “irreligious” Trump has done more to assert Christian values in politics than all the pious GOP mouthpieces have in decades.
(As an aside, I will note that I am glad to see The Atlantic’s sudden concern with a sexual ethic. After all, it was not long ago they were publishing articles alarmingly charitable towards pedophilia. But now, they rank among the Puritans on sexual mores — the culture war must be going better than I thought!)
The pro-Trump argument has never been that Trump was a model Christian. Even his most ardent supporters — myself included — readily acknowledge his shortcomings. The pro-Trump argument is that Trump has tremendous political instincts and the right stances on the most pressing issues of the day. In short, Trump is a man of prudence — and after all, the Ancients teach us that prudence, not chastity, is the virtue of the statesman. What he lacks in personal virtue, he makes up for with tremendous political courage.
Fallen men can espouse timeless truths, and perhaps more importantly, apply those truths to the tests of today. Statesmen are revered for applying permanent principles to changing circumstances in times of exigency, and in this sense, Trump has delivered.
His record is as conservative and pro-Christian as it gets. He has nominated two champions of religious liberty for the Supreme Court and filled the Circuit Courts at a rate unprecedented in history. He has eased Johnson Amendment restrictions on political speech from the pulpit and reinstated the Mexico City Policy to ensure that American tax dollars don’t go overseas to non-governmental organizations that promote abortion. He was the first president to speak to the March for Life, and just recently, he has slapped sanctions on Turkey for imprisoning a Christian pastor. The list goes on.
It used to be heresy to even mention the words “Trump” and “conservative” in the same sentence, and to some it still is. Whatever. Trump enjoys the highest in-party presidential approval rating at the 500-day mark since World War II (with the exception of George W. Bush immediately after 9/11). I don’t even know what “conservative” means anymore, and frankly, I don’t care. But “conservative” or not, Trump is unifying the GOP around his agenda. This is a debate long settled in the minds of the Republican voter base, although it lives on in a small few.
Supposedly, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn sold the soul of the college in a sort of Faustian bargain by personally supporting Donald Trump. I remember an instance in which an inquirer posed the question: “Dr. Arnn, you, sir, are a scholar of the great Winston Churchill — how can you support a man as crude as Donald Trump?” Arnn’s eye twinkled and, betraying himself with ever-so-slight a grin, he simply replied, “I didn’t know Churchill was running.” Arnn (like most Trump supporters) acknowledges that Trump is imperfect but understands that he remains the best political option nonetheless.
Hillsdale posits itself as the inheritor of the American political tradition, the tradition of the Founding Fathers. If it’s hypocritical to invite a man in such proximity to an adulterer as Mike Pence to campus, then what does that say about America’s founders themselves? Are Hillsdale’s statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson so tainted by the stench of slavery that they need to be immediately torn down? Ought the wisdom of Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin be scrubbed from the American Heritage readers because of their adulterous affairs? I suspect the reply will be, “Well, that’s different.”
Friedersdorf implies that Hillsdale associates shouldn’t have cheered when Mike Pence said during his commencement speech: “Faith in America is rising once again” — because Pence said it, and Pence is associated with Trump, and Trump is bad. Herein lies as flawless a syllogism as one can construct.
If Friedersdorf were ever to visit Hillsdale he might learn something. He’d be able to probe the minds of the great men who have thought deeply about his claims, rather than simply soliciting emails from disgruntled alumni and students (and even those who aren’t students yet!). Even the conclusion to his piece reads more like an accusation than a question: “Do I have any of this wrong, Hillsdale students, alumni, and faculty? Do you see anything dissonant about Mike Pence’s words and his actions, or between his actions and the values that Hillsdale purports to value?”
No, I don’t see any dissonance. I see an excellent college led by excellent people who seek to pursue truth and defend liberty. And I see an asinine journalist recklessly impugning the character of good men.
You can quote me on that.