Donald Trump has done us all a favor (unwittingly, of course).
Consider what we have just learned: While running to be President of the United States, Donald Trump was conspiring to sabotage a carefully crafted international program of sanctions against Russia, for the sole purpose of enabling him to finance a Trump tower in Moscow through a sanctioned Russian bank. In a word, he put his personal wealth ahead of the geopolitical wellbeing of America and the western alliance. As a candidate for President, he repeatedly and forcefully lied to our entire nation about what he was doing, correctly recognizing that he would never be elected if his treachery were known. And in his dependence on that lie, he made himself the captive puppet of the Russians who were partners in his scheme and could have outed him in a nanosecond, utterly ruining him. And, of course, in so doing he gave the Russians every conceivable motivation to manipulate our electoral system to ensure his victory, as they did. Then the world watched in disgust and perplexity as Donald Trump kissed Vladimir Putin’s ring in Helsinki. Only the most cynical might have imagined that we were witnessing a traitor on public display.
But clarifying his astounding deference to Putin is not the favor he has done us; Robert Mueller did that. Trump’s favor to us goes much deeper. No matter how inured we have become to his thousands of shameless public lies and his craven demolition of treasured laws and traditions and values and truth itself, seeing this single world-record portrait of treason driven by nothing more than one man’s shabby greed enables each of us to wonder about our own behavior.
It’s a wake-up call. We see now in Donald Trump how low a human being can sink. We knew he was disgustingly low before, but we honestly could never have really imagined anything this reprehensible.
But I am not content to smugly nod in superiority at this breathtaking example of contempt for the standards we claim for ourselves. While I will take satisfaction in seeing our country set itself aright as we dismiss him from the Presidency, his behavior is so horrifying that I want to use this fresh understanding of his perfidy as a goad to self-reflection. His evil-doing prompts me to question whether I, too, am actually capable of behavior that is so casually and unspeakably indifferent to what is good and right. The Roman playwright Terence famously said, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”, or “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” Good-to-evil is a smooth spectrum without chasms; we all slide around on it from day to day. I realize that the single, simple example of Trump’s awfulness can function as a hologram capable of refracting my own mindless determination not to let the wellbeing of others get in the way of my daily gratifications.
We are entering the season where Christians celebrate the birth of a radical Jew who called for stepping up to the healing of creation and ringing in the kingdom of God on earth. Rarely one to use epithets, Jesus did reserve a choice one for those of us who are self-satisfied: “hypocrite”. The Greek word that comes to us– ὑποκριτής—didn’t mean deliberately two-faced, as we so often take it today. It’s a hybrid of two words: hypo, or “under”, and critical, or “judge”. He was saying that we inadequately assess our own performance as human beings, as children of God. And if you don’t cotton to Jesus’ (or any) theology, Socrates had a salient comment in the same vein: ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ (“The unexamined life is not worth living.”)
The stunning example of Donald Trump’s perfidy challenges my behavior as a citizen of this country, and as a citizen of the world. It calls me to account for how much—no, for how little—I do on a daily basis to correct our collective sins of omission against the children who live in poverty amidst our ridiculous wealth, against the unhealthy whom we consign to being medical beggars at the doors of emergency rooms, against the economic inequality that is increasingly hard-wired in our nation, against the continuing prejudice against any who are unlike me (or unlike who I like to think I am), against those who struggle in inferior schools and cope with other societally based handicaps that preclude their ever having the chance to get ahead in the ways I have. The list could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I am forcefully reminded that the healing of creation—and our nation—depends as never before on my taking less satisfaction in the downfall of Donald Trump and more on redoubling my efforts to be on the side of the angels.