Marilynne Robinson: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

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If you haven’t read Robinson’s 2015 essay on fear you should.  Today she receives the Chicago Tribune‘s Literary Prize at the Chicago Festival Humanities and Tribune reporter Steve Johnson is covering it.

Here is a taste:

She laments that “some of us” are “associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance and belligerent nationalism.” And she ties that growing strain of fear in American society with the increasing grip that guns have.

What’s especially compelling about those words is that they were published in 2015, before last year’s presidential election in which the winning candidate ran on a platform profoundly informed by fear.

Asked if she wrote that essay while in possession of a crystal ball, Robinson demurred: “Just the usual one of paying a reasonable amount of attention to what I hear and what I see,” she said.

“I’m 74 years old,” she added later in the phone conversation from her home in Iowa City. “I’ve had a fairly long career as an observer of this country. I don’t remember people using fear as an amusement or as a drug of some kind the way that they seem to do now. It scares me. Roosevelt was right. Fear is an appropriate object of fear.”

Read the rest here.

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Quote of the Day

From this article in The Atlantic:

The week of October 15 was supposed to be set aside to reflect on character.

“We celebrate National Character Counts Week because few things are more important than cultivating strong character in all our citizens, especially our young people,” President Trump said in declaring it. “The grit and integrity of our people, visible throughout our history, defines the soul of our Nation. This week, we reflect on the character of determination, resolve, and honor that makes us proud to be American.”

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Do the Victors Really Write the Histories?

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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Keenan Norris of Evergreen Valley College asks: If the victors write the histories, then why has the Confederate flag and monuments been around for so long?  It’s a great question.

Here is a taste of his piece: “To  Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?”

The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them.

The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.

Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.

Read the entire piece here.

More Court Evangelicals

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Check out Jon Ward’s piece at Yahoo News: “Laying on hands: When Trump needs support, he calls on pastors, and they call on him.”

A taste:

But there are dissenters among evangelicals, even conservative ones.

“It is hard to see these meetings apart from a lust for power,” said John Fea, history department chairman at Messiah College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania. He has written extensively about the roots of American Christianity and the debate over whether America is a “Christian nation,” and he has referredto religious conservatives around Trump as “court evangelicals.”

“They are like the religious members of the King’s Court during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance who sought power and worldly approval by flattering the king rather than speaking truth to power,” Fea said in an email.

Pete Wehner, a former White House adviser to George W. Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also homed in on the blind allegiance many religious conservatives have given to Trump.

“If evangelicals were not courtiers of Trump, they would call him out, at least now and then, on his malicious comments and actions, on his pathological lies, on his dehumanizing tactics, and on his indifference to objective truth,” Wehner said. “But many prominent evangelical leaders simply refuse to do so.”

Read the entire piece here.

By the way, if all goes as planned my Trump book will have a chapter titled “The Court Evangelicals.”

Jim Wallis: “America First” is a “theologically heretical statement”

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Jim Wallis of Sojourners offers his take on the recent “Values Voter Summit.”  Here is a taste of his piece “The Religious Right Will Rise and Fall with Donald Trump“:

President Donald Trump is the logical hero for the “religious right,” judging by how he was welcomed to their Values Voter Summit last weekend. These Christians rallied around the billionaire playboy, political bully, ethno-nationalist, and purveyor of racial bigotry. As a result, he has become the moral definition of their movement.

The religious right will now rise and fall with Donald Trump.

Trump is the natural conclusion to how the religious right movement began, and what it has become. When it comes to this movement, the operative word is clearly not “religious” (or even “Christian”), but “right.” (And for the vast majority of “values voters” who are white Christians, the operative word is not “Christian” but “white.”)

The longest applause for President Trump from the right-wing white evangelicals gathered in Washington D.C. last Friday was when he brought up the flag, not the cross. Those standing and shouting “USA! USA!” were making a clear statement against black athletes who have been protesting racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem.

Steve Bannon showed up, too, and his revivalist message of economic and cultural nationalism also wowed the crowd, with an altar call to make “war” on the Republican establishment, because “you are the transmission of the best values of the Judeo-Christian West.”

Bannon’s far-right media platform makes clear what the racial implications of this cultural nationalism are. Of course, the fact that Jewish and Christian values actually abhor the exclusion of other human beings, and hold every society accountable for how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable, was not mentioned. Muslims, of course, were also not mentioned, except for accusations of false religions and implied terrorist threats to America.

Let’s be clear. “America First” is not just a political statement — it is a theologically heretical statement. The body of Christ is the most international and racially diverse community on the planet, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus’ gospel. But that got passed over for another gospel — that of white American ethnocentrism, a worldview hateful of “others” including immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and black athletes who take a knee. Curiously, Jesus didn’t come up very often at the Values Voter Summit, except tangentially, in Trump’s pledge that everyone will once again say “Merry Christmas” at our shopping centers—where we revere the one born in a manger by lining up for holiday sales.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump’s Assault on Knowledge

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Ariel Dorfman, a writer and literature professor at Duke, is the latest intellectual to take on Trump’s anti-intellectualism.  Here is a taste of his piece at the New York Review of Books:

There has always been a disturbing strand of anti-intellectualism in American life—the very title of Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book—but never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis (despite his untested boast that his IQ is “one of the highest,” certainly higher than Obama’s and a host of other worthies’).

“The experts are terrible,” Donald Trump said during his campaign. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.” It is hardly surprising, then, that his administration is over-stocked with know-nothing fundamentalists. Across the board, he has appointed amateurs who are hostile to science and sport obscurantism as a badge of honor. Accordingly, the policies they have adopted are as stultifying as they are noxious. The contempt for evidence-based research was immediately apparent in Trump’s original wish list of budget proposals, which would significantly defund the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, and even the Census Bureau. Government websites at the White House, the EPA, and the Departments of State, Agriculture, Interior, Labor, Education, and Energy have been scrubbed of previously posted scientific positions that would contradict the new policy program. Advisory councils have been eviscerated or abolished—the Justice Department’s National Commission on Forensic Science, no less!—and government scientists have been muzzled and forbidden from attending national forums or international conferences. The administration is obstructing the collection of data and the publication and discussion of research, as if in expectation that inconvenient truths will magically melt away.

True, antagonism toward the knowledge elite is not a monopoly of the hard right. Pol Pot’s hatred of bourgeois professionals led to the killing fields of Cambodia. Mao Zedong set the Red Guards on millions of members of the cultural elite, unleashing immeasurable suffering. It is also true enough that many authoritarian regimes in our time display contempt for reason, scientific knowledge, and intellectual expertise: witness the Turkish government’s decision to strike evolution from the school curriculum, or Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s campaign to close the liberal Central European University. But none of these incursions against reason has such encompassing power and reach as that of the American government. Nor will their destructive effects likely be as vast and enduring as the Trump administration’s.

Read the entire piece here.

James K.A. Smith: “Christmas IS Political”

merry-christmas-donald-trump-men-s-premium-t-shirtIn his piece at The Washington Post following Donald Trump’s Values Voter Summit announcement that “we will be saying Merry Christmas again,” philosopher James K.A. Smith reminds us what it really means to think politically about Christmas.

Here is a taste:

The biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ is drenched in political significance. His genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew makes Him royalty, the heir of King David. The titles Savior and Messiah, which we imagine are merely religious, carry political connotations of deliverance and liberation. When his mother hymns her Magnificat, she praises a Savior who “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:51-52).

None of this was lost on Herod, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great — Herod the infrastructure king, the tyrant who was the biggest, best, greatest ruler — knew that Christmas meant a rival was in town. When he caught wind that people were paying homage to a “king of the Jews,” he summoned priests and teachers for intel. They reminded him that the prophet Micah had promised that a ruler would emerge from Bethlehem. So Herod unleashed the heinous solution we know as the slaughter of the innocents, which was (he thought) a surefire way to eliminate any pretenders to his throne.

So yes, Christmas is political.

Read the rest here.

Gerson: “For many years, leaders of the religious right exactly conformed Christian social teaching to the contours of Fox News…”

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Michael Gerson continues to bring the fire.  He starts his October 16, 2017 Washington Post column with this line: “At the Family Research Council’s recent Values Voter Summit, the religious right effectively declared its conversion to Trumpism.”

He continues:

The president was received as a hero. Stephen K. Bannon and Sebastian Gorka — both fired from the White House, in part, for their extremism — set the tone and agenda. “There is a time and season for everything,” said Bannon. “And right now, it’s a season for war against a GOP establishment.”

A time to live and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot. A time to mourn and a time to embrace angry ethnonationalism and racial demagoguery. Yes, a time to mourn.

There is no group in the United States less attached to its own ideals or more eager for its own exploitation than religious conservatives. Forget Augustine and Aquinas, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. For many years, leaders of the religious right exactly conformed Christian social teaching to the contours of Fox News evening programming. Now, according to Bannon, “economic nationalism” is the “centerpiece of value voters.” I had thought the centerpiece was a vision of human dignity rooted in faith. But never mind. Evidently the Christian approach to social justice is miraculously identical to 1930s Republican protectionism, isolationism and nativism.

Do religious right leaders have any clue how foolish they appear? Rather than confidently and persistently representing a set of distinctive beliefs, they pant and beg to be a part of someone else’s movement. In this case, it is a movement that takes advantage of racial and ethnic divisions and dehumanizes Muslims, migrants and refugees. A movement that has cultivated ties to alt-right leaders and flirted with white identity politics. A movement that will eventually soil and discredit all who are associated with it.

Read the entire column here.

I took the weekend off, so I did not get a chance to see much of the display of court evangelicalism known as the “Voters Value Summit,” but I hope to get caught up soon.

Under Contract: “Evangelicals in the Age of Trump: Fear, Power, and Nostalgia”

EerdmansI am happy to announce that I have signed a contract with Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. to write a short book on evangelicals and Donald Trump.  (The title of the post is merely a working title).  The 60,000-word book is scheduled for publication in April 2018.

I am very excited to be working with Eerdmans on this project.  On Friday I spent the morning at the Eerdmans offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I had the chance to discuss the project with acquisitions editor David Bratt, publicist Rachel Brewer, editor-in-chief James Ernest, publisher Anita Eerdmans, and about a dozen other staff members who will be working on the editing, marketing, and sales of the book.  What a great team!

Stay tuned for more details!

The Origins of “Judeo-Christian Values”

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Last week Donald Trump told conservatives at the Values Voter Summit that he will end “attacks on Judeo-Christian values.”  Over at the Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz is curious about the origins of the phrase “Judeo-Christian.”  (Some of you may recall that we have wondered about this as well).

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post:

On Friday, President Trump told participants in the Values Voter Summit that “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.”

Now, critics found it hard to take the “Judeo” part seriously, given that Trump immediately followed that line with another version of his pledge to restore “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” And it’s highly problematic for an American president to defend a religious label that doesn’t describe almost 30% of the population. One wonders how Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and the fast-growing non-religious segments of the population feel about the president’s commitment to “Judeo-Christian” values.

But as a historian, I’m also interested in the origin of that phrase. In his critique of Trump’s speech, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin argues that “Judeo-Christian” is a creation of the Cold War, “an elegant way of saying ‘We are believers; the Russians aren’t.’” (And “a bone that America threw to the Jews, letting us think that our religious faith was an equal partner in American life…. But, in fact, this was never the case.”)

Read the rest here.

Wilentz: Trump Has No Precedent

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When it comes to Donald Trump, Sean Wilentz is no fan of historical analogies.

Wilentz pulls no punches in his contribution to a Democracy forum titled “What Compares to Trump.”  (In addition to Wilentz, the forum includes contributions from Brandon Byrd, Nancy Isenberg, David Nasaw, Allyson Hobbs).

He sees no precedent:

The best historical analogies illuminate the past for the present, but the worst analogies domesticate the present to the past. And I cannot balk from stating, with great respect to my colleagues and friends in this symposium and to the editors of Democracy who thought it up, that historical analogies to the ascension of Donald J. Trump are among the very worst.

Understanding our current situation begins with the recognition that Trump and his incipient regime are utterly abnormal. Trump represents a sharp break in our national political history—something unlike anything America, in all of its turbulence, has seen before, his election the result of a fundamental collapse in our politics. Coming to terms with this requires, in part, finally admitting to ourselves that, although the constitutional trappings were respected, the events of 2016 resembled a foreign-abetted coup d’état more than they did an American presidential election. Coming to terms also requires paying close attention to the fact that Trump, by his own admission, learned his approach to leadership not in the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, nor even in the wheeling-and-dealing of high-stakes New York real estate, but in the Roy Cohn school of political racketeering, including its links to organized crime—training that, apparently, has made Trump feel perfectly at home working with the syndicates of the post-Soviet Russian oligarchy.

Read the rest here.

Episode 27: From Mount Vernon to Mar-a-Lago

podcast-icon1Here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, we have traveled to both Mount Vernon and Monticello in our explorations of presidential history. Today, we explore a much more recent addition to the world of presidential real estate, Mar-a-Lago. While host John Fea explores the history of presidential vacations, guest Julian Chambliss (@JulianChambliss), historian and author of the Boston Review article “Draining the Swamp,” dives deeper into Mar-a-Lago as a lens for understanding Florida’s unique history, the disproportionate effects of climate change, and the origin of Trump’s unique and at times inscrutable blend of everyman populism and billionaire branding.

Let’s Remember That Young Evangelicals Have Never Been a Moral Majority

183a7-wheatonThe Economist “Lexington” columnist visited Wheaton College and this is what he/she found:

...One of America’s foremost Christian institutions, it was founded by abolitionists in 1860 and doubled as a stop on the Underground Railway. These days its leafy campus also houses a museum dedicated to a famous alumnus, Billy Graham, “America’s pastor”, in the admiring phrase of George H.W. Bush. And in the political-science class to which Lexington was welcomed, the students, 14 evangelical sophomores from across America, seemed mindful of that dual legacy.

They were contemptuous of the acquiescence, or worse, of their co-religionists to Mr Trump’s racial divisiveness. “Evangelical Christianity is supposed to be about love thy neighbour,” said Tim, a uniformed soldier from Ohio. “It gave me a sense of betrayal,” said Jessica, a Mexican-American from San Diego. “It was like our own community turned against my family.” Like Mr Graham, the students also worried that the church had become too political and too partisan. “We’ve become over-identified with a political party,” said Drew, from Pittsburgh. Only two of the students had voted for Mr Trump (though most of their parents had). Nine said they were now uneasy about being identified as evangelical.

Read the entire piece here.

Rod Dreher Calls Out the Court Evangelicals

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In a post criticizing Donald Trump’s handling of Puerto Rico, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher (of Benedict Option fame) wonders why the court evangelicals have been so quiet.

Here is a taste:

Where are Donald Trump’s court Evangelicals on this? If you cannot stand up to your friend the US president when he threatens to stop sending humanitarian aid to American citizens who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and without shelter, then God help you when you come before the King of Kings.

Read the entire post here.

Sarah Huckabee’s World

Sarah_Huckabee_Sanders_screenshot_2I was struck by this part of Michelle Boorstein’s Washington Post article “How Sarah Huckabee Sanders sees the world“:

As a girl, she watched her father, Southern Baptist pastor-turned-GOP-governor Mike Huckabee, sidelined when he entered politics. Arkansas Democrats literally nailed his office door shut.

In the years after, she saw conservative Christians — like her family, like most everyone she knew — ridiculed in American pop culture.

As a young woman, she moved to Washington for a government job, and noticed right away, she says, that people in the nation’s capital care more about your job than who you are. “Certainly not like where I’m from,” she says.

Sanders described this perpetual interloper experience from her other world: an elegant, well-appointed office at the White House, where reporters from places such as the New York Times and CNN metaphorically prostrate themselves at her door day in and out, and from where she can receive guidance on the phone every day from her father, long a political darling of conservative Christians, a TV celebrity now worth millions.

Despite my never-Trumpism, I find myself in sympathy with this.  I need to think more about why that is the case.

Read the entire piece here.  See our previous post on Jennifer Rubin’s take on Boorstein’s article.  I resonate with it as well.

Linker: The United States Has Become “a madhouse, a freak-show circus…”

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And Donald Trump is “its ringleader, but the rest of us gamely play along….”

Here is a taste of Linker’s column at The Week:

Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats.

few noble souls strive valiantly (and in all likelihood futilely) to keep alive a more vibrant, genuinely public-spirited, and positive vision of political engagement that places the common good of the country as a whole ahead of the good of its tribal parts. But such efforts push against powerful counter-trends that threaten to turn what remains of the political center into a vacuum characterized mainly by its disgust for partisans of every stripe.

“A pox on both your houses” might not be a viable politics. But it’s a perfectly understandable response to the grotesque sideshow that American public life has become.

Read the rest here.

 

Tweeting the History of Slavery at the University of Virginia

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The Daily Progress has a nice piece on Kirt von Daacke, Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the university’s co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery, who has been tweeting the results of his research. Check out his tweets @slaveryuva

Here is a taste:

Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean of history and co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University, writes most of the tweets. The periodic intrusion into Twitter timelines helps to keep the immediacy of slavery alive at the university, von Daacke said, and helps users get a sense of how interconnected and violent the system was in Central Virginia.

“Real people lived and died to build and maintain the U, it’s not just abt Jefferson. #SlaveryU,” he posted in January.

“I started tweeting out information eight or nine months ago just as a way to share it, promote our existence and begin to think about the evidence,” von Daacke said. “As I did it, I was struck by how useful it was as a way to begin to see patterns in all the data.”

So he kept tweeting between classes and meetings, sometimes enlisting students or other researchers to write a few posts about their own research.

“Each individual tweet doesn’t do much, but if you are following, it starts to creep in just how many people were involved, how much money, how much violence and misery,” he said.

Read the rest here.

This project is certainly fitting in light of what happened on the Charlottesville campus in August, but it also serves a great model for using Twitter to share snippets of historical research.

 

 

Two Evangelicals Talking Trump

Julie Roys of Moody Radio and Vince Bacote of Wheaton College discuss Trump with Chicago-area evangelical television host Jerry Rose.  I am very disappointed with Vince.  He is an old friend of mine (groomsman in my weeding) but will not use my “court evangelical” term when talking about evangelicals like Jeffress and Falwell getting too close to power.  🙂

Having said that, Bacote is in rare form here:

 

 

Newsweek’s Cover Story on Trump and the Evangelicals

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Nina Burleigh‘s piece, “Does God Believe in Trump?” is worth reading.  There is not much new here, but Burleigh brings together several threads from the short history of Trump-inspired court evangelicalism.  Unlike other journalists, Burleigh places a lot of emphasis on a 2011 meeting between Trump and several evangelical leaders gathered together by court evangelical Paula White.  She also examines the faceba.se study that shows Trump is the most stressed when he is talking about God and the least stressed when he is talking about The New York Times.

Here is a taste of Burleigh’s cover story:

Now comes the most presumptuous—perhaps even heretical—question a journalist could pose: What does God think of Trump, who, according to The Washington Post, has already told over 1,000 lies since he moved into the Oval Office and is on a trajectory to hit 2,000 by the end of the year?

The same digital voice analysis that measured Trump’s comfort level when talking about God and the allegedly godless New York Times shows that when the president tells an obvious lie (a statement PolitiFact has determined is false) he is more relaxed than he is at most other times during his speeches and interviews.

That would seem to be a vexing problem for the faithful, since the Bible repeatedly associates lying with the devil. To cite just one of many examples in Scripture, John 8:44 (NIV) refers to Satan thusly: “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Now recall that millions of white conservative fundamentalists who take the Bible literally are awaiting the fulfillment of its prophesy about the apocalypse—the end of days—which will feature the rise of an evil force that will briefly rule the world. He goes by many names, among them the Prince of Lies.

Read the entire piece here.

“We wouldn’t be in this mess if Donald Trump were a Cubs fan.”

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Rich Cohen, the author of Chicago Cubs: The Story of a Curse, makes his case at The New York Times:

I don’t know how closely Mr. Trump even follows baseball, but if he does, he’s probably a Yankees fan — because that franchise, with its pinstripes and nonstop talk of winning, is Donald Trump all over. It’s good for fans but bad for humans, as it teaches the wrong lessons. What we want for a president is a person who grew up in the bleachers of Wrigley Field, learning humility and loss, the fleeting nature of glory.

Though the Cubs have clinched the National League Central and are poised to make another playoff run, our character, that old Cubs thing, has not gone away. We are what happened to us, and what happened to us was decades of losing. The team won the World Series in 1908 and did not win it again until last fall. Generations came of age in the 107 years in between, grew up, grew old and were still waiting when they died. The dry spell was said to result from a curse placed on the team by the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, and we did feel cursed, but blessed too.

The wilderness formed our character, turned us into the sort of fans who make the best of a bad afternoon. Even now, with the championship so close behind us, I find myself wondering just how the wheels will come off this time. A Cubs fan will always be a kind of Buddhist. She knows how to enjoy a typical August afternoon, as for her there is hardly ever such a thing as October — only here and now.

Read the entire piece here.