Kicking the Trump Habit

Can You Beat the Devil?
Thoughts on Trump's America

Long before January 1 rolled around I resolved to stop obsessing about Donald Trump. I too am appalled and frightened, but I can't waste my life being frustrated and angry all the time. A Facebook friend warned me last summer that Trump was Satan, and he wasn't being metaphorical. I still think the clownish monster Mussolini a closer match, but I understand how some might see Trump as the Devil himself.

My own thought processes seem to make metaphorical thinking the default setting. Maybe that's why I find myself foraging amidst folkloric and religious metaphors. Does it matter if Trump is a literal demon, or just an unspeakably awful human being? It all boils down to the same question: How do you beat the Devil?

The are legions of folktales about making deals with the Devil, the usual being a bargain struck for immediate gain in exchange for one's soul at a later date. An oft-told one tells of how Robert Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads and pledged his soul for the talent to be a great bluesman. The tale's roots are ancient and its variants many. The crunch comes when payment time rolls around and one must "give the devil his due." We have expressions such as "beat the Devil at his game," "trick the Devil," and "lucky devil." We admire "daredevils." There are even handfuls of tales in which someone manages to outsmart, cheat, or overpower the Devil. Key word: "handfuls." As an old idiom puts it, "He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon." Most of the time the Devil cleans the plate.   

The moral from folklore is simple: don't make pacts with the Devil. That's how I feel about supporting anything Trump advocates and it's the advice I implore my representatives to follow. Some Democrats think they can be like Robert Johnson and gain pieces of something they want: a compromise on DACA, a salvaged piece of the Affordable Care Act, a tweak on tax reform, a stopgap spending bill…. Don't do it. The Devil lies and cheats and he will claim your soul. My liberal friends won't like this, but this is not a "lesser of two evils" scenario; the choice is Hobson's. We might have to tolerate suffering now in order for a better world to emerge later. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, "the arc of the moral universe is long." He didn't coin that phrase; he borrowed it from 19th century abolitionist, the Rev. Theodore Parker—to whom I'll return. 

Maybe we can learn some political lessons from religious traditions. I can hear some sneer across the screen. I'd be the last to deny the great evils done by hucksters, charlatans, zealots, Pharisees, and hypocrites. I am certainly not advocating that we pray for Trump to go away (though I'd not discourage it). But most religions and humanitarian philosophies began life as ethical systems centered on the greatest of all questions: How shall we then live?

Such a weighty question requires, first and foremost, focus upon things noble and worthy. One of the greatest sorrows of our time is that so many good people spend their waking moments obsessed by Donald Trump, which makes him the center of all things—exactly as he would have it. There is little point to railing against the Devil. It's not like we can will good from evil. Mostly, obsession is the gateway to possession. Many religious texts tell of how a good person—among them Job, Elijah, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Zoroaster, and most bodhisattvas—are deluged with temptations and distractions. Those who do not fall by the wayside keep their eyes on the prize, not glitter or woes. It's not easy to do, and yours truly too often gets lured into the traps.  

Ultimately, though, we ask ourselves stinging questions. What kind of America do we want? How much time do we invest in bringing that about versus the amount of time we spend obsessing about Trump? Let's return to the question of what Trump wants. Wealth? He has that. What would wound him most to lose? Probably glorification; attention is his oxygen. In the 1960s activists dared ask, "What if they had a war and nobody came?" Today's parallel is, "What if Trump spoke and nobody listened?"

Perhaps that sounds naïve. Okay, I'm being metaphorical again, but not entirely. The ultimate naïveté is the belief that government changes society. It doesn't; government institutionalizes changes that percolate up from the bottom. Government, with rare exceptions, is reactive, not proactive. Consider the aforementioned Theodore Parker (1810-60), a white prosperous farmer's son who went to Harvard Divinity School. How did he become an abolitionist? In the decades before the Civil War, legions of Northern evangelicals concluded that the federal government would not repair the nation's wrongs. Great grassroots campaigns—moral reforms, temperance, and abolitionism among them—took in hand tasks government would not.

It's an old story. Not to trash political icons such as Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Wilson, or LBJ that signed into law landmark reforms, but each acted in response to the grassroots, not vice versa. Politicians can be persuaded to march for justice, but they seldom organize the parades. Think of the great crusades: anti-slavery, women's suffrage, labor unions, old-age pensions, consumer safety, settlement houses, benefits for the poor, civil rights, Social Security, the peace movement…. In each case, the politician's role was ex post facto. You don't even have to open a history book to see that. How did gay marriage happen? Reproductive rights? Awareness of sexual harassment? The Sanctuary movement? When it comes to social justice, the train is pushed, not pulled.

Would grassroots democracy thrive if Trump were cast out like a demon? Probably not right away. The moral arc isn't impossible to climb, but it is long. All the more reason, though, for a collective exorcism. We must stop nursing demons through our attention. We must move forward, not wallow in self-pity. How shall we then live? With hope, not despair.

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