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#MAGA Mottramism

Back in 2002 or so, Canadian Catholic writer Mark Cameron came up with the term “Mottramism” to describe all-in Catholics like the writer Mark Shea, who fell all over themselves to absolve John Paul II of any fault whatsoever in the Catholic abuse scandal. He wrote:

I would like to propose a name for this phenomenon of inveterate support for any and all Papal actions, imputing to him wisdom and spiritual insight beyond all the Saints and Popes of past ages: Mottramism.

This takes its name, of course, from Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte’s husband in Brideshead Revisited. At one point, Rex decides to convert to Catholicism in order to have a proper Church wedding with Julia. But the sincerity of his conversion becomes suspect when he is willing to agree with any absurdity proposed in the name of Catholic authority, and shows no intellectual curiosity into its truth or falsehood. As his Jesuit instructor, Father Mowbray describes his catechetical progress:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”

These days we see a lot of #MAGA Mottramism around Trump. No matter how foolish or malicious his actions, the #MAGA Mottramists are quick to explain it away. Everything Trump does is genius, only we’re too sinful to see it.

Yesterday I posted a link to a story about how Trump’s incompetent ambassador to the EU is spending over $1 million in taxpayer funds to renovate his official residence in Brussels, and the government is spending $50,000 per month to house him until the work is completed. This is exactly the kind of Swamp Creature behavior that Trump repeatedly vowed he was going to clean up. But some readers were quick to excuse it. #MAGA Mottramism usually takes one of these forms:

  1. Yeah, Trump is rude, but he gets things done.
  2. What about how bad Bush and the neocons were?
  3. I would rather have Trump than a Democrat.
  4. It didn’t happen, and you are a dupe of the media/the Deep State to think it did.
  5. Trump is playing five-dimensional chess, and we’re all too stupid to see it
  6. All criticism of Trump is in bad faith

That No. 5 was Shea’s constant fallback in his scandal coverage back then (I haven’t read him for years, so I don’t know what he’s saying now). He had faith that John Paul II had a secret plan to hold bishops accountable and to clean up the scandal. I think he was entirely serious. He said some good and tough things about corruption in the American church, but when it came to John Paul, his eyes misted over with emotion and sentimentality. Mark Shea understood that papal infallibility did not mean that the pope could never err on prudential judgments, but he was so personally invested in the JP2 cult of personality that his own judgment failed him in an embarrassing way.

This kind of thing did not help the Catholic Church. It only delayed reckoning with reality. The same thing is true of #MAGA Mottramists. For example, this news today:

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If that’s not swampy — using government funds to benefit your private business — what is?

Just now, news broke that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has told reporters that there was in fact a quid pro quo in the Ukraine thing:

He said that the aid was initially withheld because, “Everybody knows this is a corrupt place,” and the president was demanding Ukraine clean up its own government. But Mr. Trump also told Mr. Mulvaney that he was concerned about what he thought was Ukraine’s role in the 2016 campaign.

“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the D.N.C. server? Absolutely. No question about that,” he said. “But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.”

Mr. Mulvaney was referring to Mr. Trump’s discredited idea that a server with Hillary Clinton’s missing emails was being held by a company based in Ukraine.

Mr. Mulvaney’s comments undercut the president’s repeated denials that there was a quid pro quo linking his demand for an investigation that could politically benefit him to the release of $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, which is battling Russian-backed separatists on its eastern border.

There is a reason that the numbers on public support for impeachment have flipped since summer, and that now just over half of American support impeaching and removing Trump from office:

The reason has a lot to do with the fact that the president’s behavior is hard to defend. The kind of people who ought to be criticizing him, not lapdoggishly defending him, are exactly those who stand to lose the most if the GOP loses the White House to the Democrats. All of these troubles Trump has had lately have been entirely self-inflicted.

It was entirely possible to be a faithful orthodox Catholic in 2002, and to at the same time believe, and say, that John Paul II’s handling of the problem of sexual abuse in the Church was poor, and needed to change. The Mottramists — and they were all conservative Catholics, as I was then — were so afraid to say it, or even to face it themselves, in part because they didn’t want to give any aid and comfort to church liberals, that they ended up hurting the credibility and diminishing the authority of the Church.

It is understandable, though, why so many Catholics back then were docile before the Pope, who to them is the closest thing they have to the voice of God on earth. But the GOP isn’t a church, and Donald Trump isn’t a pope. He’s a political leader, with both good and bad qualities. It is not helping him, or the causes he purports to believe in, when his own supporters can’t bring themselves to confront his failures. It is possible to be a Trump supporter and to criticize him when he deserves it. In fact, that is what a true friend does. Sycophancy only delays confronting the crisis, and makes it worse.

All of which is to say that gang, I love you, but I have been through this kind of thing once in my life, and it does not end well for us.

UPDATE: I’ve had some legit criticism for No. 3 (“I would rather have Trump than a Democrat”), especially as it is a position that I tend to favor. Let me clarify by saying that I believe it is a valid conclusion one can draw. I call it #MAGA Mottramism only in the context in which I see it often deployed here in these comments threads by some folks — as their initial (and only) response to any bad thing Trump has done. My thought is, “Yeah, in the end, I might prefer to have Trump to a Democrat too, but that is not an excuse for refusing to consider what Trump has said/done critically.”

Similarly, it is true that Trump has not done anything like start a war with Iraq, as neocon G.W. Bush did, and thank you, Trump, for that. But that’s the kind of logic that liberals use to try to shut down Christian talk about anti-Christian discrimination and mistreatment here in America, e.g., “They’re not killing you or throwing you in jail for your faith, so you can’t claim to be persecuted.” No, they’re not doing the worst possible thing, but that is not any kind of reasonable response to claims that they are doing a bad thing.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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