One of the hallmarks of our time is that you can’t seek to understand anyone who is morally at fault without being accused of complicity with what you are trying to understand. In this dynamic, the very act of understanding threatens to become a moral aberration—heaven forbid that comprendre should be followed by pardonner!—which means that the deeper the understanding, the more it approaches the status of a taboo. Maybe that is why the labor of intellect and imagination is being replaced by ruthless spasms of moral condemnation. Behold the apparent outrage aroused by the people who remain loyal to Donald Trump.
It is a great perplexity all right: The more Trump’s vices are exposed, the more his followers rally around him. There is, though, to my mind, a simple and unacceptable explanation for this. They believe that Trump resembles Jesus Christ. I am not talking about the Trump who is unceasingly petty and seems incapable of forgiveness. I have in mind Trump’s utter social and spiritual isolation, the relentless pursuit of him by respectable society, and his quest for a following among society’s outsiders.
I myself loathe Trump—though I am in awe of his symbolic power. The goal of civilization, from time immemorial, has been to channel the human ego toward a transcendent principle that will regulate people, with as little coercion or friction as possible, so that they may live together without harming each other or themselves. By that precious standard, Trump, enclosed in his ego like a safe whose combination has been lost, is an abomination. People I know who have dealt with him claim that he has an uncanny capacity to be unaware of another human presence. If it is true, as Father Zossima says in The Brothers Karamazov, that suffering is the inability to love, then behind Trump’s oddly vulnerable out-thrust chin, and his crooked smile, half-sneer, half-pout, Trump must pity himself for the mortal anguish he does not know he is in.
And yet, people love him. Or they roll their eyes at him and love that he seems to speak for them. Or they have contempt for him but aren’t yet ready to proceed without him. Decent people who do know how to love are devoted to Trump. Waxing prettily or ingeniously about all the reasons he doesn’t deserve their devotion, or about why they themselves deserve his lies and deceitfulness, gets us nowhere. For people to overlook the character flaws Trump doesn’t just display, but flaunt, he must touch them in the depths not of their anger, but of their longing.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus accepts an invitation to dinner from a Pharisee named Simon. By that point, Jesus was a legendary teacher, a celebrity you might say, and having him over for dinner was a social coup. For whatever reason, though, and perhaps because he cares about Jesus’s celebrity status but disdains his teachings, Simon doesn’t treat his honored guest with the standard hospitality. No one greets Jesus with a kiss, washes his feet, or anoints his head with oil.
It was the custom in those days to leave the door open and allow strangers to come in to sit unobtrusively and listen to the conversation. Suddenly, a woman enters, a known “sinner,” or prostitute. She rushes over to Jesus and weeps as she pours perfume over his feet, drying both her tears and the perfume off his feet with her hair. Simon thinks to himself that if this man Jesus was** **a prophet, he would know she is a prostitute and wouldn’t let her near him. Intuiting what Simon is thinking, Jesus tells him a parable, the gist of which is that the greater the sin, the greater the humility of the sinner, and the more intense the sinner’s need for grace and forgiveness. Then Jesus says to him, “You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” In other words, the larger the corruption, the greater the forgiveness. Leave aside the necessary presence of humility, and of the spirit of love. What is most important in the matter of Trump is the spectacle of his corruption, and the question of forgiveness that it raises.
Jan. 6 came, and its violent desecrations, and also a revelation of hidden American lives: piles of traffic and parking tickets, and misdemeanor convictions, and foreclosure notices, and eviction notices, and court appearances, and tax liens, and collection agents, and lousy jobs, and fractured marriages, and catastrophic divorces, and child-custody payments, and wounded children, and bad diet, and unhealthy habits, and premature grave illness, and chronic pain, and all the American travails of the working class and lower-middle class that liberal politicians smile their way past, and on account of which Barack Obama said that people cling to their guns or religion or “antipathy”—there is a ten-dollar word for you—toward people “who aren’t like them.”
“What all these individuals found in Trump was someone who stumbled.”
What all these individuals found in Trump was someone who stumbled, and like them, kept stumbling. The fact that he was wealthy made it all the more satisfying that he kept stumbling, because it put money, the elusiveness of which eternally plagued them, in its rightful place as a socially significant but morally unimportant factor in life. Even great riches couldn’t protect you against the uncomprehending, unforgiving forces of respectable society. And the fact that Trump thought nothing of lying and cheating to increase his wealth wasn’t a crime against decency, but a revenge on the money that underlay society’s official pieties. Trump did unto money as money had done unto his struggling followers all their lives: He treated it with contempt.
Respectable society pursued Trump with the same sanctimonious zeal with which it pursued them. He made mistakes having to do with appetite and desire; they made the same mistakes. His mistakes seemed to derive from his privilege; you see, that’s what privilege brings you. His sins were fundamental; they involved money and sex, and since he brushed his sins aside with a shrug, thus conferring forgiveness on himself, it only followed that he instinctively understood his devotees’ own sins, and forgave them for their sins just as he pardoned himself.
In fact, if the establishment ever let up on Trump, he would be entirely discredited in the eyes of his followers. It would mean that he had disappeared back into the world of virtuous appearance and hidden sordid realities; it would be like the cavalry arriving on Calvary and saving Christ in the nick of time. Trump’s perpetual crucifixion, like his incessant sins, are the proof of his transcendent worth. They keep coming after Trump, one prosecutor after another, from Annas to Caiaphas to Pilate. “God’s in his heaven—/All’s right with the world!” In the face of such an unforgiving quest for revenge, Trump’s followers’ act of forgiving Trump itself possesses a Christ-like quality.
This isn’t to say that people’s unconscious projections should have the last word; it isn’t to say that Trump should be allowed to hustle America again for another four years. It is also not to say, historically speaking, that hypocrisy and sanctimony aren’t preferable to unabashed nihilism—better Clemenceau than Hitler—or that materially pressed outsiders can’t be cruel and inhumane in their self-pity and their search for vindication.
It is merely to suggest that it is the most natural thing in the world for people to forgive figures who remind them of themselves, no matter what such figures say and do, and for them to be all the more fierce in their loyalty when they see those figures being as maligned and mistreated as they are. To understand this dynamic might seem to some to approach forgiving its effects and repercussions. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
It sure beats throwing moral tantrums in place of any understanding at all.