What can God and Shakespeare teach us about Donald Trump? Two different essays in two very different newspapers this past weekend argue the answer is quite a bit.
The first was from The Deseret News. In the wake of the release of the infamous video on which Donald Trump bragged about committing sexual assault, the LDS Church-affiliated paper called on the Republican candidate to resign. Their key argument was illustrated with a quote from scripture:
The belief that the party and the platform matter more than the character of the candidate ignores the wisdom of the ages that, "when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn." (Proverbs 29:2)
We understand that politicians and presidential candidates are human and that everyone makes mistakes. We do not believe that what is expressed in an unguarded moment of conversation should be the full measure of an individual. And we unquestionably support the principle that people deserve forgiveness, compassion and a second chance.
But history affirms that leaders' examples either elevate or demean the lives of those being led. When choosing the ostensible leader of the free world, the American electorate requires the clear assurance that their chosen candidate will consistently put the well-being of others ahead of his or her own personal gratification. The most recent revelations of Trump's lewdness disturb us not only because of his vulgar objectification of women, but also because they poignantly confirm Trump's inability to self-govern. [The Deseret News]
On the one level it can't have been easy for a staunchly conservative paper to turn against the nominee of the party that the vast majority of their readers support. But on the other hand, they can't have seen much choice but to repudiate a candidate who personally represents the antithesis of everything they believe in.
For many others, though, the choice has not been so stark. Donald Trump has the support he has for a reason. What brought his supporters to him has not vanished with the continued accumulation of evidence that he is unfit to govern. And it will not vanish when he loses the race for the presidency.
What the editors of The Deseret News, and a number of other Republican leaders who have repudiated Trump, are doing is necessary and correct, but vastly insufficient. Because that quote from Proverbs is only half of the wisdom about the relationship between wicked rulers and mourning people.
From the other side of the cultural aisle, on the same day as The Deseret News editorial, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The New York Times about how Donald Trump was prefigured by William Shakespeare's portrait of Richard III:
Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.
From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character's weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.
Richard III, which proved to be one of Shakespeare's first great hits, explores how this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne. As the play conceives it, Richard's villainy was readily apparent to everyone. There was no secret about his fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.
His success in obtaining the crown depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him.
Greenblatt goes on to anatomize those responses: complacency, denial, fear, venality, and even the occasional nihilistic impulse. And, again, this is all correct, both as an understanding of the play and of the Trump phenomenon.
But it is equally insufficient, because it ignores the providential scaffolding that structures the play, just as The Deseret News implicitly ignores the question of God's interest in having a wicked man achieve rule, and cause the people to mourn.
Richard III is described as the scourge of God, sent to cleanse England of everyone with a speck of civil blood on his or her hands, from the murder of Richard II down through the War of the Roses. He is able to thrive not merely because people are complacent or see a chance for advancement, but because his society had already suffered civil ruptures so deep that most if not all of his crimes had already been normalized before he achieved their apotheosis.
Similarly, the biblical understanding of the relationship between the Israelite monarchs and their people is not merely that it's a bad idea to allow a bad man to become king. Rather, God allows bad kings precisely to punish the people for their transgressions.
This is not a modern, liberal idea. But it has a proper modern, liberal analogue, and that is to see the ascension of a demagogue like Trump not merely as due to our failure to take him seriously, or to condemn him vigorously enough, but of our failure to be fellow citizens together. It is our failure to see those civic bonds as more important than victory for the side we see as right that has, above all, made Trump's rise possible.
It flatters us to say to ourselves that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, because it implicitly casts us as the good people, and our opponents as the evil. That is why no amount of moral condemnation will put an end to the Trump scourge. After all, The Deseret News was hardly the first newspaper to condemn Trump. Trump has managed the astonishing feat, after all, of being supported by essentially no national newspapers, most definitely including those that traditionally endorse Republicans. Similarly, he triumphed in the Republican primaries in spite of nearly universal opposition from the party leadership. He is being condemned and denounced daily, by leaders in both parties as well as by nonpartisan leaders. All of that only confirms to those who express their die-hard support that he must be on to something.
It may be more than enough to defeat him at the ballot box — Trump has never mustered sufficient support to win the general election, and he's not likely to gain that support now. But defeat will do nothing to address the reasons why Trump was able to come so far in the first place.
Today is the Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. On that day, those who observe are encouraged to confess their sins individually, but also collectively. We stand before the Almighty penitent for our own transgressions, but out loud we confess to sins that we individually may never have committed — murder, theft, fraud, and so on — in part because to separate ourselves from those who have committed such transgressions would itself perpetuate the cycle of transgression. We may not know our individual part in any of the wrongs committed in our world, and so we should not stand and say we know the limit of our own transgressions.
Americans of all political stripes could do worse than to conduct a comparable search of our civic souls, both before and after election day. And rather than demonstrate to each other our righteous opposition to a would-be leader who would make us mourn, we should take on individually the burden of the collective failures of solidarity that made him possible.