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Atoning For Trump

I had a Yom Kippur-themed column in The Week yesterday:

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.

I should probably have atoned for writing another Trump column.

But seriously: this isn’t going to be over when Trump loses the election. Trump will still be out there, actively promoting the myth that the election was stolen from him by some combination of a deck-stacking media, a back-stabbing party, and a vote-fraud-perpetrating opponent. The temptation will be powerful for Republicans to turn those very charges into the cornerstone of their recovery, and for the Democrats to dismiss the entire Trump phenomenon as evidence of “deplorability,” rather than for either to attempt to repair the civic bonds with the people who were so disgusted that they would cheer on their own destruction so long as the collapsing temple crushed their enemies with them.

And, equally, the temptation of those who lost with Trump — particularly the more sophisticated sort such as frequent this magazine — to despair of ever succeeding in changing the country’s direction, and nurture even more extreme fantasies. But the fact is, victory is impossible, and so is civic divorce. They may not like it, but the burden will be on them as well to imagine their way into actual future, which means imagining their way into civic reengagement with people who they are convinced hold them in contempt, rather than turning that contempt into a badge of perverse honor.

Trump is not a builder; he’s a destroyer. But he is our destroyer. We are all responsible for conjuring him up, and we all have to participate in the exorcism.

UPDATE: A commenter writes:

Trump is one of us. He and Clinton both [are] mirror reflections of our culture. And our humanity.

If we forget the ubiquity of that fact, then we are destined to be self-righteous and feign innocence.

What Trump has said and done we have all at least thought of at one time or another. No one can speak as an outside to the human race.

The Yom Kippur liturgy speaks to that, does it not?

That was pretty much the point of my column.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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