An Honest Appraisal of the First Weekend

On Friday, I pledged to be an honest appraiser of the new president and his actions, praising good ones and offering a critique for others not so good. Over his first weekend in office, President Trump gave me the opportunity to do both today.

Let’s begin with praise.

First, just seeing a photo of the Oval Office without its previous occupant is a relief for many of us. Second, Trump’s action in this photo is the beginning of fulfilling a promise: dismantling Obamacare. He issued an executive order that lessens the stranglehold Obamacare put on the federal bureaucracy—an initial step that prepares the way for a full repeal by Congress.

To those who may say this is no different than Obama’s use of executive orders, I say that it’s a world of difference. Obama used them to impose his will unconstitutionally; Trump’s simply eased the burden Obama imposed. That’s called reining in the government, not extending its overreach.

What may be perhaps a small token of the attitude of this new administration is also welcome: the return of the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. One of Obama’s first slaps in the face to our allies was his jettisoning of that bust.

Welcome back, Mr. Churchill.

There is another bust present in the Oval Office, that of Martin Luther King. Some in the media reported that it had been removed. That turned out to be utterly false; it was merely blocked out in a photo due to the angle of the picture with someone standing in front of it. That’s an indication of what the typical media will try to do. Shall we call that one fake news? Sounds right to me.

If only Trump had allowed his Obamacare executive order to be the focus. Instead, he had his new press secretary, Sean Spicer, come out in a press conference and trump up (sorry, I’ll do my best not to overuse that phrase in the next four years) an accusation that the media was falsely reporting on the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

To be fair, the media does do that on a rather consistent basis. Every year, at the March for Life (which will occur again next weekend), the media either ignores the March completely or does its best to downplay the turnout. So, yes, I know that happens. For a comparison of the inauguration crowds, this picture was used as evidence:

One can always question the use of such pictures. At what point was the picture of the Trump crowd taken? Was it at the height of the ceremony or before? I don’t know.

But why make such a big deal about it and push it to the top of the news cycle within 24 hours of taking office? Was it a smaller crowd than at Obama’s inaugural? I have no problem believing that for a number of reasons: concern for security may have kept some people away, especially in light of the predictions of violence at the ceremony; conservatives not being as motivated to go to D.C, seeing it as an essentially liberal place; the fact that most conservatives have jobs on weekdays.

One commentator, I believe, captured the real problem here:

Trump, being a reality TV star, puts a lot of stock in popularity and TV ratings. . . .

It was a lot of attention paid to what is a non-issue.

Whether it was a million people or five people who showed for the inauguration, Trump is still president and there’s still a lot of serious work he needs to be addressing. This is a non-issue.

Spicer (and Trump later) alluded to the TV audience being larger. Well, here are the facts about that, according to the Nielsen ratings as reported by Bloomberg:

Trump’s nearly 31 million television audience came 7 million short of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and had almost 11 million fewer viewers than when Reagan was sworn into office in 1981.

According to Bloomberg, Trump did attract a larger audience than former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Those are the facts with respect to the TV audience, and it would be dishonest for Trump or anyone else in his administration to say otherwise.

As an aside, I remarked to my wife while watching some of the inaugural parade, that the stands set up for viewers, at least at one place along the parade route, were conspiculously empty. I was surprised by that. Was I seeing the only empty portion of the stands or was that indicative of the entire route? Again, I don’t know.

But what does crowd size really matter? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

What matters is whether President Trump does his job, and does it well. Let’s focus on that, shall we, and leave ego about crowd size behind us.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 2)

In my last C. S. Lewis post, I drew from one of his lesser-known essays entitled “On Criticism.” I find that it contains a number of great insights into how reviewers of books can fall into errors. The first error Lewis pointed out is that some reviewers simply don’t do the work necessary: they don’t read carefully and miss the mark on the actual facts contained in a book.

A second error, according to Lewis, is when a reviewer attempts to provide a background for the book, yet does so without adequate knowledge. This often results in a fanciful tale with little relation to reality.

A great example, Lewis says, is of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Lewis, of course, knew all about its genesis, as he was probably the prime instigator in getting Tolkien to continue work on it and finally completing it. He knew the date when Tolkien began the project and could comment with authority that the critics had something terribly wrong historically:

Most critics assumed . . . that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb. Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible.

Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false.

Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess. Here certainly the warning to us all as critics is very clear and alarming.

Lewis then takes the critics to task for ignoring what they were supposed to be doing: writing a review of the actual book before them, not inventing a tale of how the book came into being and what might be the message behind the message within the book.

Notice that in all these conjectures the reviewer’s error has been quite gratuitous. He has been neglecting the thing he is paid to do, and perhaps could do, in order to do something different. His business was to give information about the book and to pass judgement on it. These guesses about its history are quite beside the mark.

After remarking on the mistaken assumptions about Tolkien’s work, he mentions how the same thing has happened with his own:

And on this point, I feel pretty sure that I write without bias. The imaginary histories written about my books are by no means always offensive. Sometimes they are even complimentary. There is nothing against them except that they’re not true, and would be rather irrelevant if they were.

I find it a little amusing that Lewis says those misunderstandings can sometimes be quite nice, but that the real issue is that they are false regardless.

As always with Lewis, he takes his own criticism to heart, wanting to ensure he doesn’t fall into the same trap:

I must learn not to do the like about the dead: and if I hazard a conjecture, it must be with full knowledge, and with a clear warning to my readers, that it is a long shot, far more likely to be wrong than right.

Bottom line: maintain integrity in all you write. That’s a great lesson for us all.

A Sober Assessment Going Forward

On this Inauguration Day, I want to address the following: the political spectacle Democrats are unleashing; a sober assessment of our new president; and the attitude I hope conservatives in general, and Christians in particular, should have as we embark on the next four years.

First, the Democrats. A new political cartoon this morning seems to encapsulate the mindset of the entire liberal/progressive political spectrum ever since the election:

As a number of commentators have noted, Democrats protesting the inauguration of a Republican president is nothing new. Many have done so at each inauguration dating from Richard Nixon’s in 1969. It has become a rite of passage for some into the ranks of the perpetually peeved. Rep. John Lewis has been in the news by calling Trump an illegitimate president and saying he will now absent himself from the inauguration for the first time in his life. He seems to have forgotten that he did it before, when George Bush was inaugurated. He considered him illegitimate, too.

Maybe it’s become more of a reflex than a thoughtful decision: “It’s a Republican; I have to stay away.”

The number of Democrat congressmen and congresswomen declining to attend may be greater this time simply because Trump is so controversial, but having them stay away from the Capitol may not be the worst idea they have had. If only they would do it more often the nation might be in better shape.

The Democrat reaction to Trump has given a whole new meaning to the festivities surrounding this day:

As for Donald Trump himself, let me offer, as I said at the outset, a sober assessment.

Most of you reading this know that throughout the primaries I was an adamant opponent of Trump’s nomination. In the general election, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him and turned to a third party for the first time in my life. The best results from that election, for me, were that we were spared another Clinton presidency and that Republicans not only maintained control of Congress but also increased their strength in state legislatures and governorships.

Despite my opposition to Trump, I am not like those Democrats. I recognize the legitimacy of his election because I understand how the electoral college system works. It was only the overwhelming California vote for Hillary that allowed her to win the popular vote. The rest of the country voted against her.

Therefore, as a loyal American citizen, I will do my best to support our new president. My attitude for the next four years will be to praise Trump when he does things that are constitutional and positive for the nation and to point out when he goes astray.

What have I seen since his election that gives me some hope? I can offer the following:

  • Most of his choices for people to man the administration have been very good—not all, but most. I give him credit for picking some who have principles that will help pull the nation back from the abyss if he allows them to follow their principles.
  • He has made it clear he will attempt to strengthen the military, ramp up the battle against radical Islamic terrorism, and stand with Israel when the rest of the world seems inclined to isolate and abandon that one country in the Middle East that is our ally.
  • He continues to promise to overturn Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders, to rid the nation of the Obamacare catastrophe, and to nominate a Supreme Court justice who will help return the Court’s decisions back to constitutionalism.

All well and good, if he follows through on those promises.

On the negative side are his affinity for Putin and Russia, his apparent disdain for NATO, his confusing comments on healthcare (everyone will be covered by the government, he says—how does that overturn Obamacare?), his bullying tactics at times, and—this is the one that continues to bother me most—his personal character.

Simply put, I don’t trust Donald Trump. His personal history reveals a man who is a constant braggart, totally self-absorbed, and unable in the core of his being to stop insulting his detractors. I’m afraid we have gone from the Selfie President to the Tweeter-in-Chief, and that’s not necessarily an improvement.

People keep saying Trump will “grow” into the office and not act so juvenile once the full responsibilities of the presidency hit him. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’m not convinced. Donald Trump is Donald Trump; he’s unlikely to change. What could this mean for us if something really gets under his skin?

Can he handle criticism properly or will everything become personal? It’s a valid question. And while many of his most ardent admirers love the way he uses Twitter to get his “message” out, I find it rather demeaning to what may be left of the dignity of the presidency. Let’s at least not change the seal that goes with the office:

Last of all, an appeal to conservatives overall and Christians in particular. Keep in mind that Trump has no real ideological foundation for grasping Christian conservative principles. That, along with his character, was why I could not support his nomination.

Quite a few readers castigated those, like me, who considered themselves NeverTrump. Please know that we took that stance as a matter of principle. Even if you disagreed with the position, I hope you will grant us that, at least.

What I’m concerned about now is another group that perhaps can be labeled AlwaysTrump. These are people who will defend Trump no matter what, who will find a rationalization for everything he does, regardless of how unconstitutional or offensive his decisions/actions may be.

Here’s my appeal: don’t allow yourselves to be AlwaysTrump; never surrender your reasoning powers and your conscience; stand instead for principle; keep your integrity.

I will do my best to be an honest commentator as the Trump administration goes forward. I will not dump on Trump as a reflex action (I’m not a Democrat). I will give him credit where it is due. If he follows through on his promises, I will say so. I truly hope he surprises me in new ways over the next four years, and my fervent prayer is that God will use him (whether or not he acknowledges that’s what’s happening) and those he has chosen to serve with him to help restore our spiritual and moral foundation.

When I do critique his actions, though, I also hope that my readers will realize I am doing so not out of personal pique but as a sober assessment of what he has done.

If you are seeking a commentator who will criticize everything Trump does, no matter what it is, I’m not that person.

If you are seeking a commentator who will praise everything Trump does, no matter what it is, I’m not that person.

But if you want honest commentary, commentary with integrity based on a devotion to the Biblical worldview and to constitutional government, then I invite you to come back often to this blog. My pledge is that I will be that kind of commentator.

Obama’s Self-Congratulatory Farewell

Two more days and Barack Obama will no longer be president. On his way out, he’s doing his best to make sure he’s not forgotten. He just commuted the sentence of Bradley/Chelsea (take your pick) Manning, the former army intelligence officer who leaked sensitive intel back in 2010. Obama also shortened the sentences of 209 other convicts and fully pardoned another 64. No president has ever overturned as many sentences as Obama has done in his eight years.

Some of those might have been good decisions, but based on his overall record these past eight years, his basic worldview, and his radical political beliefs, I can say with some sense of assurance that most were not people I would have pardoned if given the choice.

The presidential farewell address has become a tradition of late. Ronald Reagan’s was one of the most eloquent. I encourage you to find that one on YouTube and watch a real president who had quiet dignity and humility.

Then there’s Obama. He had to go out with a flair, speaking to a huge crowd of adoring fans in his home city of Chicago. It was not a farewell address in the sense of others like Reagan’s; rather, it was another campaign rally, focused on defending his actions. In other words, it was no different than all of his other speeches.

It left out some things that he didn’t really want to mention:

More than one cartoonist picked up on that theme:

He seems to believe he has made America better during his tenure. Most of America, though—the America outside of academia and the entertainment industry—has a different perspective:

Yet the Democrats will never see it that way. Their view of Obamaworld has a distinct hue:

They are going to have to come to terms with the arrival of a new president. What will he bring? Can we have confidence in him? On inauguration day, I will offer my thoughts on those questions.

The Bible & Race

This is Martin Luther King Day, so our thoughts ought to go to the way we treat one another in the one race that is grounded in Biblical truth: the human race. Scripture offers confirmation of that perspective.

After the Great Flood in Noah’s day (yes, I’m one of those who see that event as history, not legend or myth), we have a genealogical chapter in Genesis that shows where all of Noah’s descendants dispersed. At the end of that accounting, we are told the following:

These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations; and out of these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood.

All physical distinctions among mankind developed from this one family. We all have a common ancestor (and I don’t mean what an evolutionist would mean by that). Consequently, any ideology that claims the superiority of one branch of humanity or the inferiority of another is profoundly unbiblical.

In the New Testament book of Acts, we see the apostle Paul speaking on Mars Hill in Athens to a gathering of philosophers (and would-be philosophers). In the midst of his address to them, he makes this comment:

He Himself [God] gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth . . . that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist.

First, this is a confirmation of the Genesis account as to the origin of mankind. Second, it is a clear affirmation of the doctrine that God wants all men, of whatever ethnic background and no matter what external differences one group may have with another, to be brought into His kingdom.

In his letters, Paul reiterates this doctrine, as in Galatians when he writes,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Some people might be confused by Paul’s words here. Yes, there is a distinction still between Jews and Gentiles, between those living a life in slavery and those who are free, between men and women. What he’s getting at is simply that all of those distinctions make no difference to God when it comes to our standing before Him. When we come to Christ, we are equally part of His family no matter the external differences.

Paul returns to that theme in the book of Colossians:

Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

What’s more important than what we see on the outside of people is what’s going on inside. Our hearts are being changed through Christ; we are being transformed into His image. And our “race” doesn’t matter.

In our nation, we look back on a history of slavery and segregation that never should have occurred. We do need a sense of proportion, though: slavery has existed throughout human history.

As a nation, we have taken steps to try to erase that blight in our treatment of our fellow humans. In my opinion, great progress has been made over the years. Others don’t see it that way at all. Unfortunately, some are more interested in hanging on to grievances and fomenting racial animosity—and that occurs on both sides of the divide.

Martin Luther King wanted a complete integration of man’s artificial racial classifications into the one race that has Biblical backing, the race that Jesus Christ died for, the race that includes all men and women regardless of those external differences so many want to emphasize.

We need to advance the Biblical perspective on the human race: we are all the descendants of one family, and we are all made in the image of God. It’s time to begin treating each other accordingly.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 1)

Finding something by C. S. Lewis that I’ve never read previously is always a joy (and I believe I’m talking about “joy” in the true Lewisian sense). One of his essays, “On Criticism,” has a series of pearls that I will share over the next few Saturdays.

Every author needs to receive constructive criticism. Lewis welcomed it to improve his writing, and since he wrote so much, he was subjected to a vast number of critiques. While he appreciated good critiques, he did have a few words to say about those that were not offering an honest appraisal.

Lewis freely admitted that while an author is not necessarily the best judge of his book’s value, “he is at least an expert on its content.” What amazed him was how often a reviewer simply neglected to carry out “a careful reading of what one criticises.”

He continues:

Unless you have been often reviewed you will hardly believe how few reviewers have really done their Prep. And not only hostile reviewers. For them one has some sympathy. To have to read an author who affects one like a bad smell or a toothache is hard work.

Who can wonder if a busy man skimps this disagreeable task in order to get on as soon as possible to the far more agreeable exercise of insult and denigration.

Lewis, of course, in his quest to be scrupulously fair to others, inserted this proviso:

Now of course it is true that a good critic may form a correct estimate of a book without reading every word of it. That perhaps is what Sidney Smith meant when he said “You should never read a book before you review it. It will only prejudice you.”

I am not, however, speaking of evaluations based on an imperfect reading, but of direct falsehoods about what it contains or does not contain.

Lewis then shared a personal anecdote about a certain volume of poetry in his library that previously had belonged to a scholar he admired.

At first I thought I had found a treasure. The first and second pages were richly, and most learnedly annotated in a neat, legible hand. There were fewer on the third; after that, for the rest of the first poem, there was nothing. Each work was in the same state: the first few pages annotated, the rest in mint condition.

Why had that scholar focused on those first few pages and then ignored the rest? Lewis called this the “first lesson” the reviewers taught him: “Let no one try to make a living by becoming a reviewer except as a last resource.” He declined to accuse all reviewers of “laziness or malice.” Rather, he contemplated,

It may be mere defeat by an intolerable burden. To live night and day with that hopeless mountain of new books (mostly uncongenial) piling up on your desk, to be compelled to say something where you have nothing to say, to be always behind-hand—indeed much is to be excused to one so enslaved.

I know Lewis was in that position often as well. In my research into Lewis’s letters to Americans I came across one letter in which he was responding to longtime correspondent Mary Van Deusen about a book she wanted him to read. It was particularly interesting to me because that book was Witness by Whittaker Chambers.

I consider Witness to be one of the best autobiographies of all time. I’ve written a book on Chambers and his influence on Ronald Reagan, primarily because of how Reagan was impacted by Witness.

So when I came across this letter, I eagerly anticipated what Lewis would say about it. Did he get Witness? Is it possible that these two authorial giants that meant so much to me might have crossed literary paths after all? I knew Chambers had mentioned Lewis in one of his famous essays, “The Devil,” so what would Lewis’s response be?

When Van Deusen suggested he get the book, Lewis merely answered, “I’m afraid I can’t find a W. Chambers book. It’s better not to send the book. They all get lost in the pile on my table.”

This could be one of the great lost opportunities of the twentieth century. One would have loved to know Lewis’s response to that book, which, although written as an autobiography, is a wordsmith’s delight. But it was not to be.

Lewis understood the reviewers’ lament, so even while he wrote about the deficiencies of some critiques, he could empathize with the plight of those reviewers.

Fake News Is Not New News

Everyone is now decrying “fake news.” As if it’s a new phenomenon. I’m a historian; I can testify that fake news is nothing new.

Three decades ago, while working on my doctorate, I was immersed in fake news—from the 1790s. Newspapers of the era were sponsored by either Federalists or the Democrat-Republicans. The “news” in some of those papers was sometimes pure speculation, often made up just to undermine the political opposition. My subject of study was Noah Webster, who was editor of a New York City newspaper at the time. He stood out as one of the few who refused to succumb to the fake news temptation.

Read all the commentary on Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, then tell me that fake news has only popped up in the last campaign. I recall scurrilous stories about Ronald Reagan when he took office. He supposedly hated minorities; he sought to throw old people out in the streets; Nancy was taking taxpayer money to buy china for the White House (that’s “china” as in plates, not the country).

I hate to be the one to break this “news”—human beings lie, cheat, and slander other human beings all the time. It’s something called sin.

The latest example, apparently, is the report of a dossier about Russia that purports to show Donald Trump is pretty much owned by the Russians. Beyond that, there were hints of sexual improprieties. Those were only hints until a liberal organization called Buzzfeed decided to open the sewer.

Is everything in this dossier untrue? We don’t know. Is anything true? We don’t know. Why? Nothing has been substantiated. It was unethical in the extreme for Buzzfeed to feed the controversy without proof of the allegations.

Unfortunately for Trump, he has not done himself any favors by seeming to be almost buddy-buddy with Putin. He has made a number of statements that show admiration for the Russian dictator. He is the one who has created that impression, so if it’s not really how he feels, he needs to correct that impression as soon as possible:

Maybe Putin can do his part to help:

There also has been pushback against Trump in the arts. Some performance artists have decided to use the liberty this country provides to decline to perform at Trump’s inauguration (it’s a good thing they aren’t Christian bakers or photographers, for whom that liberty doesn’t exist). Well, who needs them? I’m sure Trump’s people can find substitutes:

Meryl Streep, at the Golden Globes, where Hollywood pats itself on the back each year, gave a short speech that, while not mentioning Trump by name, made it clear that she had contempt for him. Hollywood wants to think it is somehow the conscience of the nation.

Streep didn’t say anything unusual; these award ceremonies are always politically liberal. It’s just expected. Yet because Trump is going to be the president with the thinnest skin since Andrew Jackson, he couldn’t help himself—he had to immediately tweet that Streep is an “overrated” actress.

Now, while I disagree with everything Streep said, there is no way she is an overrated actress. When I know Streep is in a film, I know at least one thing about that film: the character she portrays will be handled wonderfully. She is an excellent actress.

Trump continues to hit back at anyone who insults him. Streep is only the latest in a long line of individuals and/or organizations to be called overrated, losers, etc. What if even the pope were to give him advice he doesn’t like, advice he considered insulting?

Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.