The Bad Neighbor: Presidential Discourse and Christian Witness in the Age of Trump
We Americans like to think of ourselves as neighborly. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” declares the Statue of Liberty; “This Land is your land, this land is my land,” sings Woody Guthrie. Redwood forests and Gulf Stream waters aside, the notion of neighborliness—being friendly, helpful, and known by one’s fellows, or the sense that we are all in this together—is deeply embedded within the ethos of American public life. And it is under attack.
Like many other elements of U.S. political discourse, our concept of the neighbor can be traced to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his first inaugural address, a speech more popularly reminiscent for its axiom “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt employed the power of presidential rhetoric to metaphorically redefine our nation’s role in the world. He proclaimed:
Unlike the Good Neighbor mandate from FDR, Trump’s America is motivated by insecurity.I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.
FDR’s Good Neighbor is notable in several respects. First, he retains a distinct sense of identity. He not only possesses a clear conception of who he is, but he is also willing to “resolutely” act upon those beliefs to uphold his rights. The Good Neighbor is not a person who can be trampled upon, dismissed, or otherwise disrespected. Second, the Good Neighbor’s identity provides the basis for his sincere engagement with the world. As Roosevelt would later elaborate, he is the type of person who would loan his garden hose to a neighbor whose house caught fire, confident that his neighbor will replace any portion that is damaged. Secure in himself, the Good Neighbor respects and acts to support the rights of those who are not of his household. Third, and most important, the Good Neighbor recognizes the claims of the community upon him—his “obligations”—and lawfully abides by his agreements. He acknowledges the “other,” seeks to acquaint himself with others, and wishes to ground his interactions with others in mutual goodwill.
Roosevelt returned to the Good Neighbor metaphor throughout his time in office to justify his administration’s foreign policy stances, as can be seen in his response to the Munich agreement (“we covet nothing save good relations with our neighbors; and we recognize that the world today has become our neighbor ”), Lend-Lease (the garden hose reference), and his vision of the post-war settlement (“unless the peace that follows recognizes that the whole world is one neighborhood and does justice to the whole human race, the germs of another world war will remain”). Indeed, every president from Truman to Obama has invoked the metaphor in some fashion, making evident the enduring appeal of FDR’s Good Neighbor to the U.S. body politic.
Metaphors work both ways, however. In demarcating the nation’s principled role abroad, the Good Neighbor worked to highlight particular aspects of U.S. identity (hardworking, religious, community-minded, and honest, to name a few) while maintaining enough ambiguity for Roosevelt to maneuver around the country’s regional, racial, or class-based divisions. As Mary Stuckey notes, Roosevelt’s “glorious compendium of mixed metaphors” functioned to “fuse opposites rather than forcing a choice between them.” In other words, FDR’s rhetoric—alongside the fires of World War II and the Great Depression—amalgamated the populace by redefining national identity in corporate terms, and the Good Neighbor, by identifying the aspects of U.S. identity essential the nation’s life abroad, played a uniquely compelling role in this process. Roosevelt’s rhetorical prowess, in turn, generated an unassailable bond between himself and many millions of U.S. citizens. His persuasive appeal was such that farmers, intellectuals, union workers, African Americans, northerners, southern conservatives, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all counted themselves a part of his New Deal coalition. In short, FDR’s rhetoric achieved what Kenneth Burke called “consubstantiation,” or the complete identification between the orator and members of his audience, and in so doing redrew the boundaries of national identity.
All of which brings us to . . . Donald Trump. The septuagenarian businessman and media mogul (in the most richly 18th-century sense of the term) has, among the many other contemporary political shibboleths he has shed, bid adieu to FDR’s Good Neighbor and along with it much of the conventional wisdom regarding U.S. foreign policy. In place of the Good Neighbor who stands by his agreements, prizes dialogue, and seeks common ground, Trump dissimulates, disparages foreigners, exploits loopholes, and seeks personal gain at the expense of others. He denounces Mexicans as rapists, calls our allies freeloaders, threatens trade war with China, likens refugees to poison, praises the authoritarian rule of a Russian dictator (while questioning the utility of NATO), and favors Bashar al-Assad to the civilians he is massacring. Regardless of whatever policies a President Trump would actually enact, it is difficult to imagine a rhetoric less neighborly than that articulated by the candidate at the Republican National Convention:
The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.
Historically problematic phrasing aside, the implications of Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric are evident. Unlike the Good Neighbor mandate from FDR, Trump’s America is motivated by insecurity. Fearing disrespect, this body replaces FDR’s altruism with (hyper-masculine) egocentrism and eschews any sense of solidarity with other nations. Far from the trusting neighbor willing to lend his garden hose, this America steadfastly sets his jaw to the pursuit of his own self-interest and explicitly rejects the notion of global responsibility. The foreign policy vision Trump seeks to project constitutes, in the fullest sense, the Good Neighbor’s antithesis: the Bad Neighbor.
Trump’s Bad Neighbor expresses himself through the idiom of nationalist mercantilism. He is nationalist, threatening to use America’s overwhelming military and economic power with wanton punition. ISIS-controlled cities will be wiped from the face of the earth, terrorists’ families will be assassinated, and prisoners will be subjected to waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse”—all this, rhetorically, is part and parcel of Trump’s campaign promises. The Bad Neighbor demands we “take the oil” from places like Iraq and Libya as a type of plunder, and he wishes to exact tribute for protecting our allies in Europe and Asia. And, if you haven’t heard, he wants to build a wall.
The Bad Neighbor is also mercantile. The privilege of trading with the United States must be bought by other nations, and companies that wish to import their goods will be rigorously taxed. Trade deals, to the Bad Neighbor, are an anathema: rather than fostering amity and enriching understanding, agreements like NAFTA have “destroyed our country.” The Bad Neighbor sees other nations as ungrateful manipulators enriching themselves at the expense of the United States; the foundational principle for his diplomatic engagement is not mutual goodwill, but Machiavellian maneuvering in a zero-sum, hostile world. Thus, nuclear first-use, dissolving NATO, and abandoning the Middle East are all on the table—unless someone makes it profitable for them not to be. Unpredictability is an asset.
Despite the Bad Neighbor’s dissimilarity to the Good Neighbor, Trump and Roosevelt share surprisingly much in common; what makes the rhetorical comparison between the men truly fascinating is not their dissimilarities but their resemblance. While they possess much in common on the surface—both achieved power in New York, attended elite East Coast schools, led questionable sex lives, and were generally members of the well-connected upper class–it is the likeness of their rhetorical appeals which intrigues (and alarms).
Like Roosevelt, Trump’s mode of appeal is intensely personal. His followers’ zeal has dwindled little over the course of the general election campaign, even when he softened on tariffs and immigration (in the words of one Royce Barnes of Delray Beach, Florida: “I believe that God anointed Trump to be the agent of change necessary to defeat the so-called wise politically correct crowd that presently stands in the position of power and authority.”) Like FDR, Trump has forged a coalition out of seemingly disparate parts: evangelicals, secular Appalachians, immigration skeptics, conservative intellectuals, the alt-right, and Fox News all appear ready to pledge allegiance; like FDR, many Trump voters feel as though they have nowhere else to turn. While Trump’s rhetorical tour de force likely lacks the staying power of Roosevelt’s–unless, of course, he wins—the larger question remains as to whether he has ushered in a new mode of speaking about the role the United States plays in the world. Is the Bad Neighbor here to stay?
Of course, Trump only represents but one-half of the electorate. If he stands for the Bad Neighbor, Hillary Clinton and her friends on the left advocate the very office’s abolition. Far too often, as J. Budziszewski puts it, contemporary U.S. liberalism advocates the notion that “human divisions are unimportant,” leading to a fallacious drive to eliminate any and all distinctions between persons. The dissolution of particular ties—spearheaded by the replacement of specific titles with general ones (“partner” for wife)—and calls for the creation of an “empathic civilization” or the recognition of the common humanity of all, carries with it an implicit threat against the neighbor. While well-intended, such declarations risk offering a kind of cheap solidarity. If everyone, everywhere is my neighbor at all times, can a person in my physical proximity or fellow citizen (otherwise known as a neighbor) lay exclusive claim to my affection? If no distinction is possible between a neighbor and a non-neighbor, then the term becomes meaningless. As C. S. Lewis noted, “You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that; and if you do it to these men, you can’t also do it to those.” The British soldiers defending their country in World War II necessarily chose to love their fellow Britons more than they chose to love the German pilots bombing London. Likewise, the Good Samaritan was a neighbor to the man waylaid on the side of the road by treating the man’s wounds, transporting him to safety, and providing for his care. In choosing to help the fallen man, he also chose not to help anyone else at that particular moment. Declarations of universal solidarity ignore this reality. The command to love one’s neighbor is meaningless if one cannot distinguish one’s neighbor from another; the presence of the neighbor with an immediate, dire need demands the ordering of loves.
Furthermore, this rhetoric is disingenuous. Does the “inclusive society” described by Hillary Clinton in campaign announcement speech extend to those who dissent from her ideologically exclusive version of inclusion? Or are they, as she stated during the debate of October 13, 2015, her “enemy”? As has been pointed out many times, political agendas premised on the universal solidarity of all human beings often end poorly and degenerate into tribalism. Iran’s Rouhani and Germany’s Merkel demonstrate these points well. Rouhani steadfastly refuses to see the world in shades of collaboration despite the Obama administration’s best persuasive efforts, and Merkel is desperately staving off Alternative for Germany’s ethno-nationalist assault on her pro-refugee policy. In both cases, center-left Western politicians like Clinton failed to fully appreciate that some people, stubbornly, have different interests than others. The particular is inescapable; people are not interchangeable like spokes in a machine. Sometimes when a nation’s president calls you “Satan,” he means it—assertions of his “moderation” aside.
Where does this leave us? For one, presidential rhetoric matters. While we should refrain from simplistic explications of the Executive’s rhetorical effect on the public, the fact remains that either Trump or Clinton will soon assume the office of the presidency and with it the power to, as David Zarefsky put it, “define political reality.” What the president deems important becomes important, and as the head of state, the president wields massive symbolic power. Just as these candidates have not emerged from a vacuum, neither will they be impotent to shape the electorate in significant ways through their speech.
Second, we should remember the command of Christ: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second one is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” We must reject the protective self-interested withdrawal of the Bad Neighbor as well as the temptation to seek universal human harmony outside the healing redemption of the cross. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek—and it is only in Christ that this unity is to be found. Love for one’s neighbor is premised upon love for God, and love for God overflows into love for one’s neighbor. As Christians, our understanding of the neighbor comes not from Trump or Hillary—or even FDR—but Christ.
Regardless of this election’s outcome, Christians in the United States will be confronted by a political culture and presidential rhetoric that cultivate a relation to others that is inimical to the gospel. In such an environment, seeking the welfare of our neighbors—the particular flesh and blood portion of humanity given to us—will be as powerful a statement of Christian witness as any other method of engaging the world. May we be up to the task. I leave the final word to G. K. Chesterton:
“We make our friends, we make our enemies, but God makes our next door neighbor. . . . We may be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbor because he is there—he is the sample of humanity actually given to us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody.”
 Mary E. Stuckey, The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 204–205.
 Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkley: University of California Press, 1969), 20–23.
 J. Budziszewski, “The Problem with Liberalism,” First Things (March 1996).
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 75.
 David Zarefsky, “Presidential Rhetoric and the Power of Definition,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34 (2004): 611.
 Matthew 22:37–39
 G. K. Chesterton, “On Certain Modern Writers,” 1905. Taken from In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 14.
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