October 10, 2022 Wayne Northey

Why Donald Trump was bad for America but good for Canada

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October 10, 2022

Galen Watts

FWO / Banting Fellow, Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven

image above: Donald Trump is seen in London in December 2019 during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Cultural sociology examines the role of symbols, narratives and meaning in social and political life. It begins from the assumption that everything is a matter of interpretation. People say and do things on the basis of what those things mean to them, and meanings vary from one person or group to the next.

WN: Two close Canadian relatives beg to differ with the article highlighted below. The pullquote above points to why. Generally: it appears they grew up in a different family, in a far-off galaxy . . .

But if, as the article below argues,

. . . everything is a matter of interpretation. People say and do things on the basis of what those things mean to them, and meanings vary from one person or group to the next.,

then assumptions and starting-points are hugely significant.

An example of this problematic is below in the field of biblical studies. It does point at least, in interpreting Scripture, to a galaxy removed from: God said it! I believe it!! That settles it!!!

Famous 19th-century British preacher C.H. Spurgeon once replied to a critic asking why Spurgeon held a certain doctrinal position:

I read my Bible!

But that is problematic too! For there as well, “. . . everything is a matter of interpretation.” Please read on to discover an example of why this in all of life–and in biblical studies, to which I’m especially attuned. (My undergraduate degree was in French and German literature. Literature’s–of any kind–mainstay is a range of possible interpretations . . .)

The finest Christian Hebrew Scripture exegete out there wrote the following in the “Introduction” to: Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua, Walter Brueggemann, Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers; 2009.

The conviction that Scripture is revelatory literature is a constant, abiding conviction among the communities of Jews and Christians that gather around the book.1 But that conviction, constant and abiding as it is, is problematic and open to a variety of alternative and often contradictory or ambiguous meanings.2 Clearly that conviction is appropriated differently in various contexts and various cultural settings.3 Current attention to hermeneutics convinces many of us that there is no single, sure meaning for any text. The revelatory power of the text is discerned and given precisely through the action of interpretation which is always concrete, never universal, always contextualized, never “above the fray,” always filtered through vested interest, never in disinterested purity.4

If that is true for the interpretive end of the process that receives the text, we may entertain the notion that it is also true for the interpretive end of the process that forms, shapes, and offers the text. That is, not only in its hearing, but also in its speaking, the text makes its disclosure in ways that are concrete, contextualized, and filtered through vested interest. While this leaves open the charge of relativism, it is in fact only a candid acknowledgment of the central conviction around which historical-critical studies have revolved for two hundred years. Historical-critical studies have insisted that a text can only be understood in context; historical-critical study believes historical context is necessary to hearing the text. But our objectivist ideology has uncritically insisted that knowledge of historical context of a text would allow us to be objective interpreters without recognizing that from its very inception, the textual process is not and cannot be objective.5

Historical-critical study thus gives us access to a certain interpretive act that generates the text, but that original interpretive act is not objective. This acknowledgment of the formation of the text as a constructive event is a recognition of what we know about ourselves, that we are not only meaning receivers, but we are also meaning makers. We not only accept meanings offered, but we construct meanings that we advocate.6 The receiving, constructing act of interpretation changes both us and the text. This suggests that Scripture as revelation is never simply a final disclosure, but is an ongoing act of disclosing that will never let the disclosure be closed. The disclosing process is an open interaction with choices exercised in every step of interpretation from formation to reception.

But our objectivist ideology has uncritically insisted that knowledge of historical context of a text would allow us to be objective interpreters without recognizing that from its very inception, the textual process is not and cannot be objective.

Elsewhere I have summarized our situation with regard to knowing and interpretation:

In place of objective certitude and settled hegemony, we would now characterize our knowing in ways that make mastery and control much more problematic, if indeed mastery and control can any longer be our intention at all. I would characterize our new intellectual situation in these rather obvious ways: 1. Our knowing is inherently contextual. This should hardly come to us as a surprise. Descartes wanted to insist that context was not relevant to knowing. It is, however, now clear that what one knows and sees depends upon where one stands or sits . . .

2. It follows that contexts are quite local, and the more one generalizes, the more one loses or fails to notice context. Localism means that it is impossible to voice large truth. All one can do is to voice local truth and propose that it pertains elsewhere. In fact, I should insist that all our knowing is quite local, even when we say it in a loud voice . . .

3. It follows from contextualism and localism that knowledge is inherently pluralistic, a cacophony of claims, each of which rings true to its own advocates. Indeed, pluralism is the only alternative to objectivism once the dominant center is no longer able to impose its view and to silence by force all alternative or dissenting opinion.7

Further to this, there is a whole world of interpretation opened up by the early Church Fathers and Mothers. A fine introduction to this is: Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church, by Hans Boersma, who has published widely in this field.

Sigh. We all interpret all the time . . . And that’s a real problem! (I.e.: if only everyone interpreted life just like “me”/How happy we all would be!) The single overriding hermeneutical criterion should be, for followers of Jesus, what we read in I Corinthians 13, beginning with the last verse of the previous chapter:

Love–of God and neighbour/enemy. 8

excerpts:

By now, it’s trite to say that the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure has been a travesty for American democracy.

Although the United States was already polarized prior to Trump becoming president, the country has increasingly veered into “pernicious polarization” territory since 2016, with partisan hostility at the highest it’s been in decades.

Despite lying thousands of times, flouting basic standards of human decency and showing little respect for American institutions, Trump has managed to shape the Republican Party in his image to the extent that loyalty to him now forms the litmus test for public legitimacy on the right.

Meanwhile, the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021 solidified what Democrats have feared since Trump announced his presidential campaign: that Trump and the MAGA Republican Party he’s birthed are a grave threat to American democracy.

Scoundrel, saviour

Understood from a cultural sociological perspective, Trump is the ultimate symbol of American polarization: he is a scoundrel to those on the left, and a saviour to those on the right.

Cultural sociology examines the role of symbols, narratives and meaning in social and political life. It begins from the assumption that everything is a matter of interpretation. People say and do things on the basis of what those things mean to them, and meanings vary from one person or group to the next.

So cultural sociologists like me are interested in the stories and scripts people have in their heads because they affect how they act.

As sociologists William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas famously put it: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Canadians and Trump

As Trump fuelled polarization in the U.S., he was having a much different impact on Canada. A cultural sociological perspective helps explain why.

Two things need to be noted to make sense of this:

First, anti-Americanism has long been part of the Canadian national identity. As American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his book Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada: “Canadians are the world’s oldest and most continuing un-Americans.”

Canadian nationalism often takes the form of pride over not being American.

Second, since the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has been almost unanimously disliked and disavowed by Canadians on both the left and right.

Polls taken in August 2016 showed that, if given the chance, only 15 to 20 per cent of Canadians would have cast a ballot for Trump, while 73 to 80 per cent would have voted for Hillary Clinton. And a poll taken just prior to election day in November 2016 found that more Canadians would support a third-party candidate than Trump.

Understood from a cultural sociological perspective, Trump is the ultimate symbol of American polarization: he is a scoundrel to those on the left, and a saviour to those on the right.

This helps explain why, between 2016 and 2020, Canadians were united in their contempt for Trump, who served as a bipartisan symbol of evil they rallied against regardless of their political leanings.

This is evident in Canadian media coverage during this period. Upon analyzing mainstream print media articles published between 2016-2020 for an ongoing research project, I identified common themes: Canadian media increasingly associated “America” with “Trump,” and both of these with authoritarianism, selfishness, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, irrationality, dishonesty and a lack of concern for the least advantaged.

These shifts suggest that Trump really did change how Canadians regard the U.S. But he also changed how Canadians regard themselves.

I would argue that Trump led Canadians to be more receptive to progressive policy orientations — if only as a means of distinguishing themselves from Trump’s America.

Trump in 2024?

Second, since the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has been almost unanimously disliked and disavowed by Canadians on both the left and right.

This isn’t to suggest Trump’s continuing influence over the Republican Party is good for Canada. If America descends into civil war, Canadians will suffer with them.

I identified common themes: Canadian media increasingly associated “America” with “Trump,” and both of these with authoritarianism, selfishness, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, irrationality, dishonesty and a lack of concern for the least advantaged.

Trump’s rise has also helped radicalize the Canadian far right. StatsCan found that hate crimes rose by 37 per cent in 2020, and, per capita, Canada is among the greatest global sources of extreme right-wing online content.

The ascent of Pierre Poilievre to the Conservative Party leadership suggests there’s a Canadian audience for Trump’s brand of toxic partisanship and crude populism.

Please click on: Why Donald Trump was bad for America but good for Canada.


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Footnotes
  1. David Tracy has usefully interpreted this conviction in terms of the Bible as a “classic”; The Analogical Imagination, chapters 3–7.[]
  2. See David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology.[]
  3. Jon Sobrino has shown how “the Enlightenment” as a context of interpretation can be handled in two very different ways, depending on whether one organizes the matter around Kant or Marx; The True Church and the Poor, 10–21. Obviously Kant and Marx were interested in very different notions of what may be enlightened, and the implications for interpretation lead in very different directions. This difference is illustrative of the interpretive options more generally available.[]
  4. Jürgen Habermas has shown how all knowledge is related to matters of interest, and that any imagined objectivity is likely to be an exercise in self-deception; Knowledge and Human Interests. On such presumed objectivity, see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone; idem, Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies.[]
  5. See the helpful statement by Donal Dorr, Spirituality and Justice.[]
  6. On the human person (and derivatively the human community) as a constructor of meanings, see Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self; Roy Schafer, Language and Insight; and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality.[]
  7. Walter Brueggemann,Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, Kindle Edition  8–9; emphasis added.[]
  8. See this on my Front Page:

    GOD IS ALL-INCLUSIVE LOVE. PERIOD.

    This then is a Great Divide in Christian theology, on the one and the other hands:

    • Those who affirm that God is All-Inclusive Love. Period!
    • Those who assert God to be Anything Less!

    St. Paul says it best and succinctly:

    For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [politics nor religion; sexuality nor ethnicity; personality nor nationality; etc.; etc.; etc.] has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6).[]

Wayne Northey

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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