The president of the United States is known the world over for his infidelity to the whole truth. The most recent tally from the Washington Post has him at 18,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. If telling a lie puts Donald Trump in a better light, by his estimation, he will tell it. Conversely, telling the truth rarely puts him in a better light, because he’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad president.
Given this incontrovertible fact, I can’t stop thinking about the time earlier this month when the president told the truth even though telling a lie would have probably put him in a better light. I can’t stop wondering if this rare moment of truth, like flickering candlelight in the dead of night, touched supporters in ways they’ve never been touched, and if it did what all the lies could not: introduce, or perhaps deepen, doubt.
The time I’m thinking about is when the president emerged from the White House bunker where he had been hiding for the weekend from demonstrators demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white cop. After enduring days of withering criticism for appearing to be scared of facing protesters, Trump decided on a show of strength. The White House or the Department of Justice ordered federal authorities to tear gas peaceful protesters out of the way so Trump could stand with the Bible in his hands in front of nearby St. John’s Church. That photo op, according to polling by USA Today and CNN, would be described later as a “defining moment.”
Much has already been said about the photo op. Trump didn’t say a prayer, didn’t go into the church, didn’t do much of anything worthy of a president who enjoys a commanding influence over the country’s large and politically powerful bloc of white evangelical Christians. But not much has been said of what he said about the Bible he was holding, other than the completely obvious: that Donald Trump, a thrice-married womanizer subject to serial accusations of sexual assault, cares nothing for scripture, doesn’t even know how to talk about the Bible with knowledge, much less reverence.
A reporter asked: “Is that your Bible?” Trump answered: “It’s a Bible.”
Other than some social-media tittering, little or nothing has been said of the fact that Trump for once told the truth. No one to my knowledge has wondered why he didn’t just lie? Saying that the Bible was his, after all, would have been in keeping with the purpose of the photo op, which, we were told, was shoring up lagging support among white evangelical Christians at a time when his image as a strong leader was in jeopardy. This president lies about virtually everything else. Why not this?
The answer I keep coming back to is that telling the truth this one time was, by his estimation, putting himself in a better light according to the people constituting the president’s real audience, which, in this case anyway, was not white evangelical Christians. Instead, his real audience was people who accept the artifice of photo ops as a given and play along: the press corps. By telling the truth instead of lying like he normally would, the president might have made a grave political error. By telling the truth, he might have drawn attention to the artifice, possibly heightening awareness among white evangelical Christians that this president is taking them for fools.
By saying “it’s not my Bible,” Trump in effect winked at the press, letting White House correspondents in on the joke he’s been playing, though the joke required gassing peaceful protesters out of the way for the punchline to work. This, in combination with holding the Bible as if it were a Trump Steak, as Karen Park pointed out here on RD, may have had the effect on twice-born Christians of draining the holy from the moment. By telling the truth, the president broke the fourth wall to confess to playing a fake Christian on television.
I have been, and I still am, very skeptical of the president losing support among white evangelical Christians. At the rate he’s going, however, Trump won’t have to lose too many to lose the election. Christianity in this country is transforming just like every other social phenomenon. The protests over George Floyd’s murder are taking on the form of a religious movement that even twice-born conservatives are not immune to. The president can’t afford to lose too many supporters, yet he’s given ammunition to minority voices inside the evangelical community to stand against him in November.