In Dante’s Inferno, one of the lowest layers of hell is reserved for fraudsters. The poet Virgil, who is escorting Dante through Hades, reveals that these members of hell have a worse fate even than those who perpetrated violence on their fellow man while on earth. The medieval prose, while difficult for the modern reader, is illustrative for the reasons why these types are relegated to such a low level of hell:
Hypocrisy, flattery, and who deals in magic,
Falsification, theft, and simony,
Panders, and barrators, and the like filth.
By the other mode, forgotten is that love
Which Nature makes, and what is after added,
From which there is a special faith engendered.
Dante takes aim at those who are fraudulent precisely because they feign love for others in order to induce loyalty, only to exploit that loyalty for illicit and selfish gain. Is this not the precise nature of Donald Trump, whose overnight conversion to the Republican party, Christianity, support of police and veterans, and the white working class reeks of many of the charges laid out in Dante’s verse? Interestingly, barrators was a term for those who brought baseless lawsuits to courts. Trump is well documented for doing this incessantly throughout his career. Leaving that aside, we have before us a candidate whose staying power continues to defy predictable orders of gravity. I recognize that much has been made of his second place finish in Iowa as his demise, but let’s not forget that he still hauled in 25% of the vote and is still leading by a wide margin in New Hampshire. No matter what happens from here, his candidacy and its success should long serve as a source of embarrassment and an important lesson.
If I was a PhD student in the social sciences I would love to pursue a thesis on just how white working class and evangelical voters wound up supporting Donald Trump, but barring that I can only sit back in constant amazement and wonder how a person that went through an all expenses paid excursion through the Ivy League followed by a $400M gift from his father to invest in real estate and who has never known privation in his entire life somehow became a champion of the working class. I am dumbfounded that a man who wrote in his book, The Art of the Comeback that, “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller,” somehow gathered a sizable following of self-described Evangelicals. This is the type of irony one would expect to see in a Heller or Vonnegut novel but which we are seeing unfold as a tragicomedy in real life right before our eyes.
Alas, the only explanation I think I can come up with is that people have indeed been deceived out of Trump’s pandering, flattery, naked aggrandizement and courting of flawed evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, and people simply succumbing to a cult of personality. On this last point and as it relates to Christians, whose embrace of Trump I find to be the most outlandish, I am reminded of an admonishment Jesus made to the disciples to, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) in which Jesus was warning the disciples not to find comfort and succor in the temporal powers and rulers of earth. Similarly, the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned Christians “Do not be slaves of human masters” in his Cost of Discipleship. He would elaborate that becoming slaves of men could happen by working too hard to overthrow existing government or to attach too much religious sentiments to governments or those seeking to take on the government mantle. Bonhoeffer used 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 (Donald Trump would pronounce this as, “One Corinthians”) as the backdrop for his text to indicate a point that Christians should not get too wrapped up in the prevailing occupations or government of the time. Ominously, Bonhoeffer wrote at a time in which many Germans were flocking to the Nazi Party, including many of his fellow Lutheran churchmen, who no doubt found many excuses and religious pretexts for their views. His Cost of Discipleship was written for all times, but the Nazi terror in the background is obviously palpable in much of his narrative of how Christians ought to take a stand against evil and not be co-opted by brutish politics. Indeed, Bonhoeffer would ultimately pay the ultimate price of his life for his fight against the Nazis, showing a remarkable courage. Now, I am in no way comparing Trump to Nazism, but I can’t help but feel that the same impulse to summon dark powers as government “saviours” is born out of the same human frailty now as it was then.