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The Trump effect is awful; Gilbert, Chattah are Exhibit A

 Jason Guinasso
 Jason Guinasso
Opinion
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I loathe identity politics in all of its forms and bristle at trite labels that serve as a foundation for widespread incivility, vitriol, and xenophobia, but I will submit to the label “evangelical Christian Republican” in this op-ed as short-hand for a world view and political identity that is often misunderstood and under-represented in the content and dialogue that take place in so-called mainstream media.  

I am a minority within a minority in the Republican party: I hold evangelical conservative views on a wide range of issues, but I have never been a supporter of former President Trump. Evangelicals have been handed the credit or blame for the rise of Trump to the presidency, but evangelicals are not a monolithic voting block and, even for many who supported Trump, the nod was given reluctantly with much inner turmoil and after much debate.  

Trump has done substantial damage to the office of the presidency, the nation, the Republican Party, and evangelical Christianity itself. As one author lamented, “When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.” (Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart: Christians must reclaim Jesus from his church,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2022).  

Quoting historian George Marsden, Wehner further explains, “When Trump was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers,’ it crossed a line… Tribal instincts seem to have become overwhelming.” The dominance of political religion over professed religion is seen in how, for many, the loyalty to Trump became a blind allegiance. The result, Wehner says, is that many Christian followers of Trump “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs, and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.” (Id.)

When America looks at the evangelical expression of Christ’s church and the outcome of the church’s political activism in the Republican party, sadly they see the angry rich businessman and former president, Donald Trump, who grabbed power for power’s sake and not for the sake of the Jewish carpenter, Jesus Christ, who meekly gave up his life to the political and religious establishment of the day to show humanity the power of love. 

Mr. Trump replaced the beatitudes with an attitude that disregarded facts, exalted arrogance, appealed to the angry grievances of some Americans while verbally abusing others, and undermined our system for peacefully passing power from one leader to the next.  However, “Jesus specifically told us that we are not to emulate the ugly ways of Caesar in grasping for power and dominance. Instead we are to choose the counterintuitive way of humility, service, and sacrificial love. These things are inherently beautiful. But we have a hard time learning this lesson.” (Brian Zahnd, “Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity,” 2012)  

If time permitted, I could cite at least 1,000 destructive Trump statements and actions that are not consistent with our country’s shared ideals and values.  Further, Trump completely destroyed our shared understanding of what leadership in this country should act like, sound like, and symbolize. Trump certainly does not act or sound like a president — or a Christian. (I would not hold him to this high standard but for his alleged profession of faith and the related zealous support he has among my evangelical Christian brothers and sisters.) Character matters when we call ourselves by the name of Christ.  

As Mark Galli, the editor in chief of Christianity Today, pointed out, “Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.” (Mark Galli, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” Christianity Today, December 19, 2019.)

***

In the year of Trump (2016), I ran in a Republican primary for a seat in the Assembly. When I was interviewed by then-reporters Jon Ralston and Seth Richardson, they asked whether I would support Trump. I emphatically said “no” and explained why. I think I was the only Republican candidate for public office in Nevada to publicly oppose Trump in that election cycle. I told all those who would listen that Trump was nothing more than a con-man who was willing to say anything to gain support and power. I argued that Trump should not be the national standard bearer for the Republican Party and the values we hold dear. If presented with words about a choice between the lesser of two evils, I replied that we should choose neither. 

Many potential constituents, members of my political party and people in various church circles I am a part of, were angry or disappointed with me. Some said things that caused me to wonder if I was politically naive and/or stupid. I then lost by roughly 600 votes in a low turnout primary. While I was processing the loss, I had a moment of weakness when I thought to myself, "Maybe people are right? Maybe I was naive? Maybe I should not have been as transparent about Trump as I was? Maybe it is more important to say just enough to win than to say too much and lose?"

However, those moments of self-doubt were quickly overcome by the conviction that I would rather lose an election than compromise my character and the principles informing my desire to serve. I would rather be honest with people regarding my views on important issues so they know how I think and what my position is on things they care about than to be politically calculating, manipulative and opaque.  

This matters, I think. Since 2016, we have been in what historians will likely label the “Age of Trump” in American politics. During this period of time, his influence is ubiquitous, particularly over what passes for “leadership” today in the Republican party.  As Ed Stetzer, dean and professor at Wheaton College, where he also leads the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, pointed out many evangelicals have been, “Tempted by power and trapped within a culture war theology, too many evangelicals tied their fate to a man who embodied neither their faith nor their vision of political character.” (Ed Stetzer, "Evangelicals face a reckoning: Donald Trump and the future of our faith", USA Today, June 6, 2021).

Nevada has not been immune to the fever Trump injected into populist opportunists seeking power. Most Republican candidates for public office in Nevada are still modeling themselves on Trump’s brand of leadership. They have adopted his toxic rhetoric.  Like him, they seek higher public office without the competence to effectively do the job. Like him, they routinely lie to voters, prey upon the anger and fears of the public, and take credit for things they did not do. Rather than be accountable for their divisive and xenophobic brand of leadership emulating Mr. Trump, they recklessly sow seeds of doubt in the electoral process, rule of law, and the democratic institutions that truly make America great. 

***

In this year’s election cycle in Nevada, the two quintessential examples of Trump’s brand of “leadership” in the GOP are Joey Gilbert, who is running for governor, and Sigal Chattah, who is running for attorney general. I have been biting my tongue until it bleeds as I have listened to Chattah and Gilbert engage in destructive rhetoric that manipulates and inflames the fears and frustrations of voters who have various grievances against the government. I have heard both make false or misleading statements to voters, and attack our political system and the rule of law with unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in Nevada. While both possess the legal minimum qualifications to hold the public offices they seek, neither have the competence and experience to do the work of a governor or attorney general. 

In an effort to bolster their respective resumes when giving stump speeches across the state, they each try to take credit for “winning” the cases challenging the governor’s directive shutting down houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. While they may get loud applause from those who don’t know any better, they are both guilty of shamelessly misleading voters with these claims.  

Gilbert did not do any of the legal writing for the cases challenging Gov. Sisolak’s directive, and he did not provide oral advocacy at any of the court hearings. His sole role was to solicit clients to oppose the governor. Gilbert is a skilled marketer of his brand — as both a lawyer and politician. He markets himself and his law practice like a promoter of a prize fight.  In the legal profession, he is known as a “rainmaker” for a firm. However, like many rainmakers at law firms in Nevada, he rarely, if ever, does the legal work for the clients he solicits. 

Unfortunately, Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain decided to hire Gilbert and Chattah despite the fact that neither of them share the values of the church. As an example, Gilbert’s list of clients include brothels owned by the notorious pimp and land developer, Lance Gilman. Gilbert has represented the interests of brothels before the Story County Commission, including advocating to change the brothel ordinance to weaken the sheriff’s ability to regulate and oversee the brothels in Story County. Despite this and other similar concerns, Gilbert was able to convince the church to let him represent its interests. He did this by appealing to their anger concerning the governor’s directives shutting down churches. The church saw him as a means to an end, and looked the other way on questions of morality.   

Meanwhile, though Chattah did some legal work for Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain, she did not represent Calvary Chapel in Lyon County, the church the legal team selected to serve as the plaintiff in the case after talking to numerous churches about their concerns. I know this because I was the one who represented Calvary Chapel in Lyon County, along with several attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom. In that litigation, we ultimately defeated the governor’s directives restricting gatherings in houses of worship in Nevada — despite Chattah’s incompetence and what appeared to be her best effort to sabotage our legal position, not because of her good legal work.  

In fact, what the people to whom she boasts in her stump speeches do not know is that she did not even plead a First Amendment Free Exercise claim when she filed another (separate) complaint on behalf of Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain. While most regular folks may have no idea why that matters, the District Court judge in oral arguments pointed out the problem and explained to her that the only viable legal claim available for her case was a First Amendment Free Exercise claim. (I have included a copy of the complaint she filed. I invite you to compare it with our successful complaint.)

The judge then gave Chattah an opportunity to make that First Amendment argument in court. Unfortunately, she did not have a firm grasp of the principle or the law and struggled to make coherent points. As an attorney who has practiced law in Nevada since 2003, it was probably the most painful first 20 minutes of a hearing I have ever attended. I literally felt like I was going to vomit at various points. Chattah is among the least competent and least prepared attorneys I have ever worked with or against. And she did not do much better at the Ninth Circuit. The case was won despite her efforts, not because of them. 

Why am I going to such lengths to tell you all this? Because when Gilbert and Chattah argue that they should be elected because of all the great legal work they did for Nevada churches, voters should know those claims are utterly false. They are taking credit for outcomes in important legal cases that they had nothing to do with; their general rhetoric on the campaign trail is toxic; and neither is competent enough to be governor or attorney general.

Look no further than their messaging to see how leadership and candidacy in the image of Trump has been reduced to an angry caricature of patriotism and populism supported by inflammatory rhetoric and dishonest marketing tactics in order to manipulate voters and incite emotion. If we were not in the Age of Trump, neither would be serious contenders for public office in Nevada.  

***

Tragically, it seems the entire Republican Party apparatus and many in the evangelical church in Nevada continue to fully embrace Mr. Trump. From fringe candidates like Gilbert and Chattah to establishment candidates like Lombardo and Laxalt, the Republican Party in Nevada has become the Trump party. The logic goes that Trump is popular and religiously revered for both his rhetoric and actions. Supporters minimize his destructive words and actions because they agree with his “policies.”

I am sure many will belittle the opinions expressed herein as another “attack” from a “never Trumper” who has always been a “RINO.” I think there is a saying that goes something like, “The finger points to the moon, but all people see is the pointing finger.” It means people disregard the message by focusing on the messenger.

For the record, I am not a RINO. I have been a Republican since I turned 18 nearly 32 years ago. I have not left my political party, because it is the only party that aligns with my views on protecting life from conception to the grave, defending liberty, and creating opportunities for people to pursue their dreams and what makes them happy in this life. I do wonder, though, whether my party has left me.

I have always been okay with being someone who holds a minority viewpoint, a dissenter. I’m also okay with dissent, generally. But something is different of late regarding how people and communities engage in dissent and public dialogue, particularly by those who have staked their identity to the political right or to the political left. The vitriol, the lack of tolerance, the close-mindedness, the lack of critical thinking, the raw emotion, the violence, the focus on “winning" at all costs, and the complete disregard for a shared understanding of truth, civility, and humility have created a toxic and combustible political environment in Nevada and across the country.

The Trump effect on American politics is symbolic of a deeper set of problems in our political system, no matter the political party or religious affiliation. I don’t know if I adequately articulated all of the problems here, but I do know that our communities, our state and our country desperately need leaders with the courage to lead us into a nation of shared values and hopes instead of so-called leaders who want to engage in divisive culture wars, hateful distrust, and cynicism.  

We need leaders who are truth-tellers — even when telling the truth could result in them losing an election. We need leaders who will put the people they are serving ahead of their political affiliations and special interest loyalties. We need leaders who will work with diverse coalitions of people to solve problems and improve the lives of the people they were elected to serve. And we need voters who will elect the leaders we need, rather than voters who reward the nasty rhetoric and appalling behavior that now dominate this period of American history.  

Jason Guinasso is associate pastor at Ministerio Palabra De Vida and an attorney for several churches and ministries in Nevada. He also is the managing partner for the Northern Nevada offices of Hutchison & Steffen.

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