[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Just forget about the White Horse Prophecy. It’s a fun bit of Mormon folklore, but like most folklore it’s fictitious nonsense. More important is the fact that–again, like most folklore–this fictitious nonsense is revealing of, and gives us American Mormons reason to remember, what was at one time a widely shared assumption among Mormon leaders: specifically that, as Brigham Young (and John Taylor, and Harold B. Lee, and multiple others) reportedly said, “if the Constitution of the United States is to be saved at all it must be done by this people” (see, for example, Journal of Discourses 12:204, April 8, 1868).
That’s not a reference to an LDS President of the United States–not a Romney, not a Huntsman, not a Hatch, despite the weird interpretations inspired by the aforementioned ersatz prophecy. It’s not a reference to any particular person at all. Rather, that’s a reference of the Mormon people. Many of whom will be eligible to vote this November. And maybe that is where this old teaching will unexpectedly come into its own as truth.
Let’s talk frankly about the presidential election five months from now. Unless something comparable to a meteor from outer space strikes the Republican party apparatus sometime between now and their convention in Cleveland this July, the GOP nominee for president will be Donald Trump. If you’ve somehow managed not to hear much about the man up until now, believe me, you’ll hear plenty before November. What you’ll hear about Trump will depend mostly (though not entirely) upon the source, and so feel free to disregard the opinions of a leftist like myself. Listen instead to Mitt Romney, the man whom nearly 80% of you voted for in 2012: Trump is a liar, a philanderer, a man who has regularly engaged in business fraud, a man who is willing to incite others to violence, a man who is an apparent believer in (though who can really tell?) and propagator of ludicrous rumors, scandals, and falsehoods. He is paranoid, narcissistic, at least borderline sexist and racist, untrustworthy, vindictive, and ignorant. He lacks any kind of moral center or temperamental balance; he is cruel and dismissive to any whom he perceives as weaker than him, and craven in seeking the applause of those he perceives (but will never admit to being) more “manly”; he is a bully. In short, he really should not be elected President of the United States.
Having said that, let’s be practical here. In a country with a single-member–plurality electoral system and a separation-of-powers constitutional arrangement, both mathematical logic and self-protecting political inertia tends to foreclose any sustained alternatives to the dominance of exactly two political parties–and while 2016 is likely to see a large number of independent candidates on the local, state, and perhaps even national level, the presidential contest is almost certainly going to come down to Trump vs. his Democratic opponent, which will also certainly be Hillary Clinton. And don’t start what you’re about to say: believe me, I am more than happy to grant that Clinton can be accurately described by any number of the above labels (though definitely not as many!) that have been (also accurately!) pasted on Trump. I sympathize with Alan Jacobs’s comment entirely: “If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, ‘Goodbye cruel world.'”
Note, though, how Jacobs follows that comment up: “But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.” Now, that’s an exaggeration. For whatever it’s worth, I’m quite confident that Trump wouldn’t be even remotely as bad a president as Manson would be. That is, I don’t think he’s an Adolf Hitler in the making. More likely a Richard Nixon–that is, a petty and petulant tyrant, a resentful and routine violator of the Constitution, a crook. Though perhaps not; perhaps he’d be more like a Silvio Berlusconi or a Vladimir Putin: a slightly-more-than petty tyrant, a corrupter, someone who could easily leave America’s constitutional order “battered and bloody, and ripe for something even worse.” But however we imagine a hypothetical Trump presidency, the simple facts remain that, unless 1) you’re willing to trust entirely in the unknown, or 2) you’re a single issue voter who thinks that so long as Trump will, say, appoint people who hate the Affordable Care Act to the Supreme Court, or follow through on his promise to build a 30 ft.-high concrete wall between the U.S. and Mexico, literally nothing else matters, then it’s hard to avoid acknowledging the likelihood that Clinton, however much you dislike her, will not actually be as procedurally criminal or corrupt a president as Trump may well turn out to be. Which is where you all, the Mormon voters of the American West, come in.
The aforementioned political norms and practices in the U.S. have resulted in a political culture than is, at least formally (if not substantively), hyper-partisan; witness the fact that the great majority of the Republican establishment, despite having viciously fought against a Trump victory for months, is lining up behind him. They clearly don’t like Trump–but they hate Clinton worse. And that’s going to be a problem, because even though the demographics favor a Democratic presidential victory in 2016, and even though Trump’s approval rating is abysmal, Clinton’s number aren’t much better. Given the electorate which Trump’s rallies are bringing out, and given all the other ways this election is cycle is proving predictions wrong left and right, is it really likely that Clinton will be able to hold on to Democratic Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Michigan, or prevent Virginia from flipping back to the Republicans? It is, in fact, no sure thing. Donald Trump really could be elected President of the United States. Unless, of course, he can’t secure his electoral base.
I live in part of that base–Kansas, which I have every reason to assume will vote Trump in November. As will Oklahoma, Texas, and probably all of the Deep South, and probably all of the northern Plains; partisanship being what it is, Republicans will turn out to vote for Trump, even if they dislike the man intensely, because everyone knows Clinton is just as bad or worse, right? (She’s not, by the way.) But partisanship is shaped by socio-economic and cultural variables…and in the Mormon Corridor, those variables are obviously different in many ways. On the crude level of national politics, those variables are not often visible: witness the way that Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, faithful Republican that he is, has lined up for Trump. (Former Utah Senator Bob Bennett, a less hackish man all around, to his credit made his contempt for the man known up to his dying day.) But if there was ever a time in my lifetime when the Mormon voters of Utah (who in theory could determine the result of 6 Electoral College votes), Idaho (4 votes), Wyoming (3 votes), and Arizona (11 votes), responding to the kind of civic imperatives and ethical principles which we members, whatever our degree of orthodoxy or heterodoxy, assume to be right and good, could make those variables actually result in a substantive political difference…well, now would be the time I’d like to see it happen.
Could American Mormons really determine the fate of the election? Perhaps not–aside from Utah, there’s not any states where Mormon voters alone could prevent a Republican majority from handing Trump their Electoral College votes. But imagine if, by reaching out to moderate non-Mormon Republicans and using their language skills to help register Hispanic voters, they did? Imagine if American Mormons swallowed their partisan leanings, uneasily remembered the story of Amlici from Alma 2 (think 2:4 in particular: “if it were possible that Amlici should gain the voice of the people, he, being a wicked man, would deprive them of their rights and privileges”), and used their informal networks and social connections to make it clear that, however much you agree with some of his claims, a man as crude and mean-spirited as Trump should not be elected…and as a result, Trump was robbed for 10, or perhaps as many as 24 Electoral College votes? Even if Trump is able to maximize Clinton’s negatives and recapture parts of the Rust Belt and the Upper South, it would be just about impossible for him to make up for losing the Intermountain West. Between the Mormons and the newly enfranchised Hispanic population (which American Mormons are already more willing to work with than the rest of the Republican mainstream), America, if all else this election goes badly, would still be spared President Trump.
And what would we get in return? Presumably President Hillary Clinton, a person that the great majority of American Mormons won’t like for reasons from the political right (in the same way I won’t like that result from the political left). But politicians–and laws, and regulations, and even Supreme Court rulings–one doesn’t like is part of life in a pluralistic mass democracy which at least aspires to operate like a constitutional republic. In the end, as citizens, we have to make the best decisions we can, standing on principle when we are able, and compromising for the greater good when push comes to shove.
Over the next five months, Trump is going to be shoving on all Republicans–which most American Mormons are–quite hard. Mormons like me here in Kansas almost certainly can’t do anything more than symbolically resist the Trump wave. But in the American West…there, you can do more. You just may be able to turn that shoving back on this potentially dangerous blowhard. And by so doing, you all just may be able to be the people that 19th-century prophets were convinced would act to save the Constitution. I’m a political scientist; I know that every election it’s always in the interest of those involved to make like the upcoming election is the most important election ever. Well, amazingly enough, this year, that just might be true. And that means maybe, just maybe, if the Mormon voters of the western U.S. do what’s right, some element of the ridiculous White Horse Prophesy might turn out to be true as well.