I once wrote a blog entry about the song, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." In the song, a boy named Johnny bets his soul for the chance to win a golden fiddle. My point was that once Johnny enters the bargain, he loses no matter what. Either his soul is immediately gone, or it gets corrupted by his cynical act. The Devil himself cannot lose. It seems almost optimal for him to send the shiny fiddle out into the world with the boy, a catalyst of envy and pride centered on acquisition and ostentation.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? Although Trump is not literally the Devil, there is something Screwtape-Letter-ish about him. To engage with him is to face the possibility of great corruption and descent. It is to encounter a critical moment of choice. To bow to Trump, hoping for power or money, to praise or normalize him, is to suffer a taint. This includes defending him even when you know he is wrong, or should know.
Trump, on the other hand, can't lose. He is devilishly impervious. His infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" remarks to Billy Bush on the Hollywood Access tape cost the latter his job. Bush wasn't the one saying offensive things. He chuckled and affirmed, which was bad enough for damnation. Trump defended himself by claiming it was "locker room talk." Athletes everywhere took offense. Nevertheless, Trump went on to win the Presidency, thereby gaining a perverse reinforcement of public approval, and showcasing how deep the rabbit hole of sexism goes.
Bush recently said, "I'm in a lot of locker rooms, I am an athlete, and no, that is not the type of conversation that goes on or that I've participated in." He added that he regretted his response to Trump's comments. After listening to the tape replayed just once, he said he was "shocked and alarmed and totally and completely gutted."
Donald Trump 1, Billy Bush 0.
Consider Trump in relation to women, money and prestige. In all cases, he accumulates 'victories,' measured by crass standards, while spreading harm, pain and anti-virtues, which is to say, sinful attitudes and acts. His so-called victories are ethical tragedies, bringing out the worst in people, groups, towns, and now even a nation. It is not an exaggeration to say that Trump will maim the world order. The USA, his bully pulpit, sets an imperious standard.
Regarding females, Trump habitually focuses on physical appearance and sex. He has bragged coarsely about his exploits and dropped insults of the most vulgar sort. A large number of women have come out and claimed he has assaulted them. Over years of visits on the Howard Stern show, he amused a large audience with the crudest of objectifications. Miss America entrants report abuse and voyeurism, including participants in Miss Teenage America.
Concerning money, Trump swims in a golden lifestyle. His aureate towers surely remind well-read Christians of Baal, the false god in the Bible whose symbol was the golden calf. He has gone bankrupt a number of times, leaving a wake of ruined investors and crumbled enterprises, including casinos. Many have claimed he cheated or swindled them. He settled one recent lawsuit concerning Trump University for an undisclosed amount.
In terms of prestige, Trump has been a mogul, a media star, and now the most powerful man in the world. A large portion of Americans support him ardently. Wherever he goes there are fawning admirers and servile workers. And yet he lies continuously. These lies are of such flagrant magnitude that for almost anyone else they would bring backlash and downfall. Trump hurtles onward. He throws juvenile insults at anyone he wants, it seems. A war hero. The parents of a slain soldier. A disabled journalist. Fellow Republicans. Women. Blacks. Immigrants. It doesn't stop.
In a Devil-worthy sense, you could say that Trump has it all. He revels in carnal obscenity and filthy lucre, infecting as he goes. To be clear, making money is not necessarily a bad thing. The female/male interaction can be complementary and beautiful. And fame offers a platform for healthy role-modeling. But Trump redefines achievement as narcissistic excess. He renders it ugly. He rides a zeitgeist of anger that festers in a bigoted demographic. He is, in essence, an ambassador of bullying. Verbal violence has been his way to reach conclusions and win arguments. Physical violence will also be his tool, now that he has control of military and police forces.
David Letterman recently remarked that Trump has no soul. Letterman hosted Trump many times on his show ("He was just a big, wealthy dope who’d come on and we would make fun of his hair"). But now, "He’s demonstrated himself to be a man without a core, a man without a soul ... Is there a guy in there?”
One of the scariest commentaries comes from the person who ghost-wrote "The Art of the Deal." Tony Schwartz now has massive regret. In the New Yorker he says, "I put lipstick on a pig." It wasn't sufficient for his contrition. In a Washington Post article a few days ago, he writes:
Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time ... When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt.
At Halloween, many of us roleplay the Darth Vader, the monster, the vampire. We might fantasize about being a dictator. Wouldn't it be nice to be rich, surrounded by servants, to insult and command who we want? But Trump makes it obvious that he is in his own personal hell. The fantasy of power is not the reality.
Maybe Trump's most devilish quality is that he seems like somebody who has already lost their soul. It's not that the soul will be lost later as part of some Faustian bargain.
From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It’s forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch — when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he’ll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it.
Bottomless addiction. Permanent shallowness. Incessant pain. It's a sad tale. It makes me think of a person who has been 'taken', a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
A lot of Trumpian traits are common. Domestic abusers contradict reality. Pathological criminals claim innocence, show no compunction, manipulate with ease. Addicts accuse others. The general tactic of ranting to subvert critical thought is ubiquitous.
If Trump is like the Devil then the Devil is impotent. Small and diminished of capacity and sense. Closing the mind and refusing to budge is cowardice next to a journey of self-reflection, education, and all the wonderful, painful, joyous freedoms that arise. The ability to appreciate in humility at the miraculous level, attaining a fundamental compassion, is humanity at its best.
I said above that Billy Bush lost. But he didn't. He won. Bush is now trying to make a comeback. He says that his experience with Trump has made him more aware of the issues women face. He has connected more with his three daughters.
We romanticize dark gambles. Johnny betting his soul for a golden instrument. The real way to win is not to play, to eschew the bargain. Trump shows us that sexism, racism, and many other psychological sicknesses are prevalent. He shows us what we need to change, if civilization is to survive. We should resist Trumpian dysfunctions, not just as standards for our leaders but as social norms as well. On one side sits a conformist intransigence whose mortar is hate. On the other, a fascinating frontier of mind and passion awaits us.