Obama Sends a Warning to American Progressives

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In a speech in Germany, Barack Obama warned progressives in the Democratic Party to avoid becoming a “circular firing squad.”  Here is a taste of Martin Pengelly’s article at The Guardian:

Barack Obama warned on Saturday that US progressives risk creating a “circular firing squad” at a time when prospective presidential candidates are competing fiercely against each other to run against Donald Trump.

The former president was speaking in Berlin, at an Obama Foundation event.

“One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States,” he said, “maybe it’s true here as well, is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Uh, I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be’ and then we start sometimes creating what’s called a ‘circular firing squad’, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.

“And when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens.”

Read the rest here.

Who does Obama have in mind?  Bernie?  Or perhaps he is responding to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”s comment that moderation is “meh.”

Thoughts on Mike Pompeo and Queen Esther

Here is Mike Pompeo talking with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN):

Sarah Pulliam Bailey gets us up to speed at The Washington Post.  Read here piece here.

Here are some really random thoughts about Pompeo’s remarks:

The fact that CBN asked Pompeo to compare Trump to Queen Esther in interesting in and of itself.  Let’s be clear:  Pompeo was responding to a question, not offering-up his religious views on Middle East foreign policy in an unsolicited fashion.

CBN has a long history of trying to connect biblical prophecy to developments in the Middle East.  The people at CBN believe, along with millions of other evangelicals, that God still has a special place in His plan for the nation of Israel.  The establishment of the state of Israel will be a sign that Jesus Christ’s return is coming.  This theology is often described as dispensationalism.  Those at CBN understand their mission in terms of 1 Chronicles 12:32.  In this Old Testament passage, David builds an army at Hebron to overthrow King Saul.  It says that “the men from Issachar” were men “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do….”  Today CBN wants to “understand the times” so that it can help evangelicals win the culture war and shape foreign policy.

Pompeo’s answer reveals that he also believes God still has a plan for Israel.  His answer makes it clear that he favors a pro-Israel foreign policy partially for dispensational or “end times” reasons.  It does not surprise me that he would see Iran as Haman and Esther as Trump.  What is most telling is that Pompeo is not running for office (like Trump) and thus does not have to appeal to evangelicals to shore-up an electoral base for 2020.   Unlike Trump, he seems to really believe this stuff.

One illustration of the evangelical love of Israel comes from Peter Lillback, the President of Westminster Theological Seminary, an evangelical Reformed seminary in the Philadelphia area. In 2011, Lillback wrote an entire book arguing that George Washington was a supporter of Israel.  Here is one of his arguments: “If there had been no George Washington, there would have been no American Independence.  If there had been no American Independence there would have been no United States.  If there had been no United States, there would have no super-power to support the existence of Israel.  If there has been no super-power to support Israel, there would be no Israel.”  He then concludes that George Washington was part of God’s plan for “the destiny of Israel.”

Trump has also been compared to King Cyrus. Some evangelicals make this comparison metaphorically—Trump is a pagan ruler who set the evangelical church free from the captivity of the Obama administration much in the same way that Cyrus, a pagan ruler, set the Israelites free from Babylonian bondage.  Others apply the Cyrus example to Israel.  Mike Evans, a Christian Zionist, has said that God used Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem much in the same way God used Cyrus to advance biblical prophecy as related to a future for Israel.  I wrote extensively about this in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

It is worth noting that Harry Truman was also hailed as a King Cyrus after the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Back in 2012, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu gave Barack Obama a copy of the Book of Esther.  It was a clear message that Obama, according to Netanyahu, was NOT acting as an Esther in his support of Iran over Israel.

Many evangelicals compared Sarah Palin to Queen Esther when she was John McCain’s vice-presidential candidate in 2008.  (She would save Christian America from the threat of an Obama administration and secularism.

Abraham Lincoln was compared to Queen Esther for freeing the slaves.  (He was also compared to Moses).

And that brings my random thought to an end.  🙂

Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago.  You can read all his posts here.  –JF

Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?”  As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”  So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.

Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19.  Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone.  Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked.  Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).

Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights.  He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.”  The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue.  Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.”  As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.

According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.”  She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP.  She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.”  Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party.  Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted.  The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.

Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms.  The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully.  Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans.  The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative.  As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.”  The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today.  When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”

Thanks, Matt!

Barack Obama at the University of Illinois

Some quotes:

Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do, that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time. And in a healthy democracy it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in, and people of goodwill from across the political spectrum callout the bigots and the fearmongers, and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature. But when there’s a vacuum in our democracy, when we don’t vote, when we take our basic rights and freedoms for granted, when we turn away and stop paying attention and stop engaging and stop believing and look for the newest diversion, the electronic versions of bread and circuses, then other voices fill the void. A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold. And demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. They promise to fight for the little guy even as they cater to the wealthiest and the most powerful. They promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability, try to change the rules to entrench their power further. And they appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all….

They’re undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia. What happened to the Republican Party? Its central organizing principle in foreign policy was the fight against Communism, and now they’re cozying up to the former head of the KGB, actively blocking legislation that would defend our elections from Russian attack. What happened? Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act has already cost more than three million Americans their health insurance. And if they’re still in power next fall, you’d better believe they’re coming at it again. They’ve said so. In a healthy democracy, there’s some checks and balances on this kind of behavior, this kind of inconsistency, but right now there’s none. Republicans who know better in Congress — and they’re there, they’re quoted saying, Yeah, we know this is kind of crazy –are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence. Seem utterly unwilling to find the backbone to safeguard the institutions that make our democracy work. And, by the way, the claim that everything will turn out okay because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the President’s orders, that is not a check — I’m being serious here — that’s not how our democracy is supposed to work….

I complained plenty about Fox News but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans. We’re supposed to standup to bullies. Not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination. And we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up, clearly and unequivocally, to Nazi sympathizers.  How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad. I’ll be honest, sometimes I get into arguments with progressive friends about what the current political movement requires. There are well-meaning folks passionate about social justice, who think things have gotten so bad, the lines have been so starkly drawn, that we have to fight fire with fire, we have to do the same things to the Republicans that they do to us, adopt their tactics, say whatever works, make up stuff about the other side. I don’t agree with that. It’s not because I’m soft. It’s not because I’m interested in promoting an empty bipartisanship. I don’t agree with it because eroding our civic institutions and our civic trust and making people angrier and yelling at each other and making people cynical about government, that always works better for those who don’t believe in the power of collective action….

How Liberals Treated John McCain

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During John McCain’s funeral service, Barack Obama and George W. Bush made veiled attacks on Donald Trump for the current president’s failure to promote civil discourse across political parties.  But University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman argues that liberals are also to blame for eroding “the civil discourse that McCain held dear.”   Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

Like body odor and accented speech, however, incivility is a lot easier to notice in the other guy than in yourself. So I hope that those of us at universities will pause for a moment and ask ourselves how we, too, have eroded the civil discourse that McCain held dear.

How many professors have made snarky comments about Republican candidates or causes, instead of engaging our conservative students in respectful dialogue? How many students have denounced anyone they disagree with as racist, thereby cutting off discussion instead of promoting it?

And how many of us have insisted that only certain views — our own, of course — should be aired on campus, and that opposing ones should be discouraged or prohibited?

That’s what happened at the New School in 2006, when nearly 1,000 students and faculty signed a petition urging the school to rescind its invitation to McCain. “Pre-emptive War is Not a New School Value,” declared one sign at a rally outside the school. Other protesters denounced McCain’s position on abortion. “He has been opposed to Roe vs. Wade for more than 20 years,” one professor told the rally. “He is a man who believes in female sexual slavery.”

Got that? We (always “we”) are opposed to the war in Iraq, so we don’t want to hear from anyone who thinks otherwise. And if you’re pro-life, you don’t belong here either. In fact, you’re an advocate of slavery!

And so it goes, right down the line. If you question affirmative action, you’re a bigot; if you oppose gay marriage, you’re a homophobe; and if you resist gender-neutral bathrooms, you’re a transphobe.

Read the entire piece here.

Remembering John McCain

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McCain with Jerry Falwell

Here are some things I remember about John McCain (1936-2018).

The “Straight Talk Express” was a breath of fresh-air in 2000.  McCain was strongly critical of the Christian Right approach to politics.  He blasted George W. Bush for visiting Bob Jones University before the South Carolina primary.   During the campaign he said, “I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore.  Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”  At one point he called Jerry Falwell and Robertson an “evil influence” on the Republican Party.

In 2008, McCain did a flip-flop on the Christian Right. (I wrote about it here). He knew he needed its support if he was going to defeat Barack Obama.  McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University on 2006.  He said that the United States Constitution “established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”  (I wrote about this in the introduction to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).  He took the endorsement of Christian Zionist John Hagee and then rejected it after Hagee made an anti-Semitic remark.  He started using the phrase “City Upon a Hill.”  And, of course, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

During the 2008 primary season, the sponsors of the “Compassion Forum” at Messiah College invited McCain to come to campus to talk about his faith and its relationship to politics. The event took place several days before the Pennsylvania primary.  CNN covered the event and it was hosted by Jon Meacham and Campbell Brown.  McCain declined the invitation.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton accepted the invitation.  I will always be disappointed that McCain did not make this a bipartisan event.  I spent a lot of time that night in the press “spin room” explaining to reporters that McCain was invited, but chose not to attend.  (Later he would attend a similar forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).

I will remember his “thumbs down” on the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare.  I still watch this video with amazement and study all the reactions of his fellow Senators

I will remember this and I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again.  When civility and respect for the dignity of political rivals is disregarded, the moral fabric of a democratic society is weakened.  What McCain did at that town hall meeting in 2008 was virtuous.

Rest in Peace

The Wrong Kind of Hope

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Last night, after I spoke about how white conservative evangelicals too often privilege fear over hope, a friend noted that Trump’s evangelical supporters seem pretty “hopeful” right now.  Trump is delivering on the Supreme Court.  He has moved the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.  He is trying to do something about religious liberty (at least as white evangelicals understand it).  For a group of evangelicals who see political and cultural engagement in terms of winning the culture wars, Trump has been anointed for such a time as this.

I thought about my friend’s comment this morning as I read Laurie Premack‘s review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trumppublished at The Conversation.  Here is a taste of her very fair review:

Do you remember that Barack Obama poster? The one of him looking into the middle distance, as if gazing upon a future only he could see, the word “HOPE” spelled out across his chest in blue – the colour of clear days and sunny skies? It was in Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Conference – the one that catapulted him to the presidency four years later – that he first made the audacious promise that the country had the power to choose hope over cynicism. Farewell to the grim ironies of the 20th century, hello to the brave promise of the new millennium.

But Obama’s hope was always a vague one: something to do with slaves, immigrants, soldiers and mill workers. He said it was “something more substantial” than “blind optimism” but didn’t go into the details. It was simply what you harness in the face of difficulty and uncertainty. The thing that keeps you believing that the future will be better than today.

The general public is accustomed to thinking about hope in political terms. That is the American eschatology (the belief in the nation’s ultimate destiny) – that through democracy the country will enter the promised land. Indeed, hope is, at its essence, faith in the future. And people tend to talk about hope, as Obama famously did, assuming a shared understanding of what it means. It is not a loaded term. It is a light one – bright, buoyant, chirpy.

Or so I thought. John Fea, author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump has a different take. For him – an evangelical historian of American politics – hope is not the vague optimism of Obama, but the precise hope of Christian theology. Hope rests on the truth of Jesus Christ. It is, as Christian political philosopher Glenn Tinder described it, a divine gift “anchored in eternity”. There can be no real hope without God.

Read the rest here.

Marilynne Robinson Would Like to Talk to Donald Trump

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Lisa Allardice of The Guardian recently spoke with Pultizer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson.  There is a some stuff in this piece on fear, democracy, and history.  She also talks about Donald Trump. Here is a taste:

Of Trump’s predecessor she says: “He’s very gentlemanly, very thoughtful, very funny.” They have kept in touch since he left office. She wrote to him expressing her worries about Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and he is consulting her on preparations for his library in Chicago. “There are jokes about the Trump library,” she says mischievously. “Because there won’t be any books in there.” But what if the current incumbent of the White House decided he, too, would like to sit down with one of his country’s greatest writers? “I would like to get a look at him,” she muses. “Everybody has seen every cartoon – those little hands, his long neckties, his strange bald spot and all the rest – but when all is said and done, he is a human being and it would be sort of interesting just simply to talk with him.” She would hate anyone to think it “was any gesture of approval”, although she concedes of his recent conversations with Kim Jong-un, “I like it when people talk to each other. I don’t care why they do it.”Perhaps the most engaging of all the essays is the last, “Slander”, an unusually personal reflection on her sometimes difficult relationship with her mother, who, until her death, aged 92, she would speak to for nearly an hour every day. “My mother lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic, never having had the slightest brush with any experience that would confirm her in these emotions, except, of course, Fox News,” she writes drily. Her mother was “scary and wonderful. Taller than me,” Robinson recalls now. “I realised that there was a great intensity about her. It was almost as if there was a kind of selfness about her that really kept her vividly alive for a long time, which I always found quite beautiful.”

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Will Create a New Faith-Based Initiative

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George W. Bush instituted the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.  Barack Obama continued the initiative with the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  Now Donald Trump is getting into the act.  According to Adelle Banks’s reporting at Religion News Service, this new faith-based initiative will have a decidedly court evangelical flavor.

A taste of Banks’s article:

Johnnie Moore, a minister and public relations consultant who serves as an unofficial spokesman for a group of evangelicals that often advises Trump, said the new initiative takes an approach different from the previous ones.

“Ordering every department of the federal government to work on faith based partnerships — not just those with faith offices — represents a widespread expansion of a program that has historically done very effective work and now can do even greater work,” he said.

Florida megachurch pastor Paula White, one of the key evangelical advisers to the president, also cheered the new initiative.

“I could not be more proud to stand with President Trump as he continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities of faith,” she said. “This order is a historic action, strengthening the relationship between faith and government in the United States and the product will be countless, transformed lives.”

Moore and White, of course, are both prominent court evangelicals.  It appears that their are few details thus far.  Stay tuned.

Read Banks’s entire piece here.

Court Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. Defends Trump

I wouldn’t be surprised if Falwell Jr. is on the Trump payroll.

Falwell Jr. quotes “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Fair enough.  Hey Liberty University students, did you hear that?  I am sure the person in charge of student discipline at Liberty does not operate this way.

Falwell Jr. also says that only president who was “above reproach” was Jimmy Carter.   I agree that Carter was above approach, but what about Barack Obama?

Who Do Evangelicals Trust on Politics?

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A recent poll has found that almost fifty percent of evangelicals say a Donald Trump recommendation would make them more likely to vote for a candidate.  Meanwhile, fifty-four percent of evangelicals said a Hillary Clinton endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidates.

Here is the list of evangelicals’ most-trusted celebrity endorsers:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Mike Pence
  3. George W. Bush
  4. Paul Ryan
  5. Barack Obama
  6. Michelle Obama
  7. Oprah
  8. Joel Osteen
  9. Bernie Sanders
  10. Jerry Falwell Jr.

Here is the list of evangelical’s least-trusted celebrity endorsers:

  1. Hillary Clinton
  2. Kim Kardashian
  3. Nancy Pelosi
  4. Bill Clinton
  5. Kanye West
  6. Barack Obama
  7. Michelle Obama
  8. Beyonce
  9. Ellen DeGeneres
  10. Bernie Sanders

Kate Shellnut has a story on this survey at Christianity Today.  Read it here.

A few quick observations:

  • Joel Osteen is the only minister who made the top ten.
  • Evangelicals trust Oprah more than ministers to offer them political advice.
  • The Obamas and Bernie Sanders are on both lists.
  • Evangelicals do not take political advice from Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Beyonce, and Ellen, but the fact they they made the “least-trusted” list shows that they are clearly obsessed with these celebrities.

Barack Obama’s “Weariness” With Evangelical Political Engagement

WearCheck out Michael Wear‘s piece at Christian Today: “What Barack Obama’s Christianity can teach white evangelicals“.  Wear is the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House and was the director of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president’s council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to ‘reduce the number of women seeking abortions’ while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama’s signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America’s effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.

In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, also describes why the president’s olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.

Of course, evangelicals’ had long-held, substantive disagreements with the president’s own positions on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom that were real hurdles to political partnership. At times, the Obama White House unnecessarily exacerbated these tensions, too often choosing to stoke conflict around social issues rather than find common ground, particularly as the re-election campaign neared. Obama called evangelicals to a more constructive politics, but some of his decisions and the political strategy of his party also helped sow the seeds for their embrace of Trump. Nevertheless, though he faced accusations of waging a ‘war on religion’ and ran as the first nominee to support same-sex marriage, President Obama won significantly more support from white evangelicals in his re-election campaign than Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

However, in the president’s second term, his posture toward evangelicals began to shift. While the fact that he no longer had to win election may have played a role in this change, I believe it had more to do with his weariness with the nature of evangelicals’ engagement with his Administration, and in politics generally….

Read the rest here.

Wear and I are in complete agreement about the role that fear has played in the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump.  I develop this argument more fully in the first three chapters of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.