Silence of Latino Religious Leaders Enable GOP Tolerance of Trump Spectacle


“[The] virtue of spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees.” Roland Barthes, Mythologies

Part of what spectacle is good for is the visceral reaction you get from viewing it. Fair-minded people not driven by the cravenness of today’s politics should have been outraged at Trump’s outrageous and factually incorrect tirade against Mexicans. But, as other journalists and writers have taken him to task for these silly accusations—Gustavo Arellano’s recent Politico piece being one of the funniest and best—they don’t bear repeating here. The virtue of Trump’s spectacle is that it rendered the GOP’s inept attempt to reach out to Latinos/as to be as empty as Trump is.

The motive for GOP hand-wringing in the wake of the 2012 presidential election was simple. They can count. And you would think my home state of California would offer the GOP some caution. The GOP is dead in California. Last year’s governor’s race was a wipe out between a political legend, Jerry Brown, and Neel Kashkari, who went looking for that elusive beast called “the moderate GOP voter” (RIP, 1988). The other candidate, Tim Donnelly made a name for himself as a member of the border militia known as the Minuteman Project.

No, the spectacle called Trump laid bare just how thin the GOP’s motives were in its rebranding efforts. The GOP was not hostile to Latinos/as; they wanted our votes because we are “family values” voters. Let’s just admit that the GOP has conceded that the only way to win a state like California is to back candidates like Trump or Donnelly, because their base will not allow moderates to win.

Why else does the GOP cower in the face of someone so spectacularly comical as Donald Trump? Even a candidate like Marco Rubio, who attempts to use his immigrant status as a way to score points, had to be cornered by Fox Business News to say something, anything bad about Trump. Where I come from there are some choice words we have for people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush, who exploit their ties to Latinos/as when it’s politically useful and run and hide when it is not. Not until Trump insulted Bush’s Mexican-American wife, Columba, was there any hint of outrage. The party of “God, Guns and Gravy” seems to have misplaced its cojones.

Spectacle becomes virtuous because of what it lays bear. Trump’s spectacle abolished all political consequences for the GOP. Especially troubling is the moral capital lost to Trump’s squalid xenophobia. For a group so keen to constantly remind us all, with preening sermons, that consequences matter, Latino/a evangelical leaders are curiously silent. I expected that of the Koch-funded Libre Initiative groups deployed by the GOP to “represent” the comunidad, but not of religious leaders whose flocks are from those same immigrant classes Trump called rapists and disease-carriers.

After weeks of scouring the news and press releases, and having a Google alert at the ready. I searched for the op-eds of scorn, judgment, and coals heaped on Trump’s head. Instead, apart from National Latino Evangelical Coalition founder Gabriel Salguero, who called Trump’s comments xenophobic, I found a great deal of silence. Calling Trump xenophobic isn’t a stretch, but demanding action requires courage. If one expects consequences to be meted out by any organization, by any class of people in the Latino/a community, one would expect its religious leaders to speak about consequences.

Aside from fearless Latino Catholic politicians like Rep. Luis Gutierrez, whose C-SPAN comments on Trump are a must watch, the only other public figures who demanded action were folks in the media: the Hispanic Media Coalition, among others, deserve praise for their work putting a dent in Trump’s vast media dealings. Latinos/as watch TV, use social media, and are moved to action when leaders in media and the entertainment industry lead the way. In fact, if one wanted to tally up how many Latinos/as have spoken out against Trump’s hysteria, entertainers would probably emerge as the true leaders (thank you America Ferrara). So where are these religious leaders? And where is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)?

No, I’m afraid one reason Latinos/as are following the rest of the younger U.S. population into the much-debated “nones” category according to the latest Pew Religion Survey, is they view religion as simply not important. Part of that is the lack of political will so many of their religious leaders display especially when it comes to taking on someone with Trump’s vast financial resources.

Lukewarm responses, Christians are fond of telling us, will bring the most feared of responses: being spit out for lack of steel to stick to one’s principles. What the near silence of Latino/a religious communities tells us is quite unsettling. It tells us that a group that helped end the death penalty in red-state Nebraska has little pull with a national GOP. The GOP is now beholden to its most racist elements, and religious groups who resonate most with the GOP’s conservative social agenda are paralyzed to say or do anything to stop the spectacle from speaking.

As much political capital as Latino/a evangelical elites think they have purchased from the GOP, I’m afraid they have it backward. It is the elites who’ve done the bidding for the GOP with the price being political access in return for bloodless diffidence. To paraphrase Barthes again, what matters is not what the spectacle Trump thinks, but what we see. That it is comically ugly and pathetic should matter.

But because I am writing about Trump, it has to get worse. The other Latino/a evangelical political group, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference NHCLC, led by Samuel Rodriguez, said absolutely nothing. This organization has trumpeted and oversold its political abilities for over a decade, and aside from some excellent religion journalists, like RD senior correspondent Sarah Posner, these hyperbolic claims have largely gone unanswered.

One reason I never bought the claims made by self-appointed leaders like Rev. Sam Rodriguez of the NHCLC, that they would deliver millions of votes to candidates that supported their agenda is simple: because they don’t. The stark reality is that Latinos/as don’t vote in proportion to their billion-dollar buying power. The political realities do not stop Rodriguez from delivering banalities about how NHCLC is only interested in the “Lamb’s Agenda.” This agenda bears a striking resemblance to every Christian Right agenda since the 70s. Apparently, it also means allowing the likes of Donald Trump to insult the millions of Mexican and other Latino immigrants who attend iglesias evangelicas.

So where is the GOP now, whose branding with Latino/a voters was next to nil? The best-case scenario is that it can’t get any worse. And where are the religious leaders who’ve dedicated a significant portion of their cache to claims that they can work with the GOP and get them to tone down the invective against their church members? Well, there are always those spurious religious freedom cases to rally around, making sure the local panaderia doesn’t make a dulce de leche cake for the wrong wedding party.

So what indeed are we all left with when spectacle is virtuous because it’s spectacle? Because it’s empty of ethical motives and empty of just consequences? We’re precisely here, where Latino/a economic power can shut down some business deals, but can not muster enough political power to shut down the GOP’s rhetorical war against immigrants. Until Latinos/as grow tired of viewing the spectacle of American politics as outsiders and vote in proportion to their numbers, we have no stake in this sad game.