I happened across an article in Vanity Fair over the weekend that is stunning in its insights regarding the formation of Donald Trump. For modern readers with sound bite attention spans, it will seem long. But if you want to understand the seemingly inexplicable pathologies of Trumpland, this article is must reading.
It is not my practice to sum people up as evil. It’s far too easy to divide the world into us and them based on any number of arbitrary bases and identify evil in the other while ignoring it in oneself. In so doing, we inevitably project our own evil onto the other, seeing it clearly in their behavior while denying its presence in our own lives. As my own mentor, Franciscan Richard Rohr, often says, “That which we do not transcend we inevitably project.”
The list of people to whom I would point as having led patently evil lives is very short, indeed. Because I am prone to draw my conclusions based upon my own experience rather than relying upon others' interpretations of historical figures, that list primarily includes people from the 20th CE like Stalin, Idi Amin and the architects of the Final Solution.
Roy Cohn, the legal assistant to Joseph McCarthy, the architect of the paranoiac Red Scare campaign of the 1950s, is definitely on that list. His self-serving agenda saw no limits in terms of the sleazy, dishonest tactics he was willing to employ. And his obsessive fear of and hatred toward most of the world was deep, vitriolic and lasting.
Sadly, that loathing began with himself.
Cohn was a self-hating Jew and a self-hating closeted gay man. In projecting that self-loathing outwardly, his actions destroyed hundreds of innocent lives during the course of his hate-filled career including the state killing of an innocent Ethel Rosenberg based on a case of treason of which she was never a part in the days just prior to my birth in 1953.
In the end, Cohn died alone in agony from HIV-related symptoms, a disease he not-surprisingly denied ever having. To the end, Cohn was angry, fearful and patently dishonest. A gut-wrenching depiction of that miserable end can be seen in Tony Kushner’s powerful play, Angels in America.
To say he was a pitiable character is a decided understatement. But knowing that Roy Cohn was essentially Donald Trump’s mentor causes a lot of pieces to fall into place in understanding the seemingly inexplicable behaviors of the latter. To wit:
It would be far too easy to simply hate Mr. Trump, the protégé of one of the most pathological figures in American history, dismissing him as patently evil.
But like Cohn, Donald Trump remains a fellow human being, a pitiable figure whose skin I would guess most of us would not want to inhabit for even one hour.
Like his mentor, Trump is an angry, hate-filled man with access to major power and no moral compass to restrain its use. And, even more than Cohn, he has the ability to cause incredible damage to everything he touches and everyone his malevolent career affects.
While I absolutely refuse to default to a mindless hating of the CEO of Trumpland, dismissing him as patently evil, thus becoming the very thing I abhor, I do recognize the need to resist his destructive behavior in any and every way possible. That begins with the insistent recalling that as the popular voter loser in the 2016 election, he is not the president of the American people. Indeed, the people of America explicitly rejected his bid to become their president by a three million vote margin even as an archaic electoral process - ironically designed by our Framers to prevent populist tyrants like Trump from ever becoming president - provided the means for his electoral victory.
Holding office on the basis of an electoral fluke, from the very beginning, Donald Trump has lacked even a semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the American people, particularly among younger voters. And the polling data consistently reflects that. All the more reason to resist the tyranny of a moral monster.
Donald Trump, like his mentor, Roy Cohn, may not be evil himself and I refuse to see him as such. I also refuse to allow him the privilege of shaping my response to him through a hatred that ultimately tends to consume the hater. But Trump has the potential to generate incredible evil through his fearful, self-focused exercise of power.
I have nothing but pity for those whose greed and pathological love of power cause them to devolve into a Gollum. And that is surely what we see in Donald Trump. But we should never confuse love for a fellow child of G-d and the willingness to honor the divine image they bear - no matter how well disguised that image may be beneath layers of depravity - with a willingness to indulge them in destructive attitudes, rhetoric and behavior that have the potential to harm the world. As Cohn’s example so readily shows, that is precisely how tragedy unfolds.
We must take that lesson from history very seriously.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017