Many of us would, I think, like to be able to vote for the Democratic candidate in this election, since the Trump presidency has proven to be a catastrophe and only a candidate from a major party has a chance of winning the election. But there remain accounts to be settled, because Joe Biden has led a very long political career in which he has consistently pushed for policies that inflicted suffering on the poor, on immigrants, on women, and many other vulnerable communities for whose treatment we must answer on the Last Day. All these people are owed a public apology and a set of campaign policies drafted with a penitential spirit in partial reparation for the grave damage caused by party representatives’ personal and collective sins.
Sadly, I don’t think this will happen, because the Democrats have not historically sought forgiveness from those whom they have harmed, and they are even less likely to do so now. They elect to seek absolution from another source, one more in keeping with their aforementioned religious commitments. Indeed, I have no doubt that at least some of the party’s most seasoned leaders quietly give thanks nightly for the advent of the Messiah who has brought them the forgiveness of their sins and allowed them to campaign at last with a clean conscience. Truly, no one has done more to lift the fear of damnation from the hearts and minds of Democratic politicians and their supporters than Donald Trump.
The soteriology of the believing Democrat is difficult for a Christian to grasp, because it rests on a series of heresies sufficiently monstrous that they did not occur even to the most myopic heresiarchs of late antiquity or the Middle Ages. It rests on the now-widespread view of Trump as a unique and unprecedented evil, from which it draws its central thesis: whatever will be effective in getting him out of office is justified. If this involves electing a candidate with open contempt for poor young people, a lifetime of fealty to the disembodied corporate numina that inhabit his home state, and at least one credible allegation of rape, so be it: Trump’s evil must be defeated, no matter how corrupt our instrument for doing so.
But the centrist case for Biden goes further than this, because it demands silence and complicity from the left. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias contends that Biden’s real problem is that leftists like Elizabeth Bruenig and the small cadre of writers and podcasters in the left wing media sphere will be openly critical of him. Worth noting here is that he does not dispute the truth of anything they say: it’s the act of drawing attention to Biden’s abysmal record that causes the “problem.” For committed liberal Democrats like Yglesias, giving a truthful account of Biden’s many moral and political failings undermines the project of defeating Trump, and through this sleight of hand they have moved from justifying actions that oppose Trump to justifying people who do so. Trump’s very monstrosity effects the forgiveness of Biden’s sins and the sins of all other politicians whose tongues confess that Trump must be defeated. It is, perhaps, still acceptable for the cry of the widow and the orphan to reach the ear of the Lord of Hosts, so long as it stays off of the six o’clock news.
The reasoning I have described is, of course, repulsive on its face, but such monstrous reasoning is inescapable when one begins from the same monstrous metaphysical error that the Democratic Party does. The rendering of Trump into a fiendish Messiah began when the consensus emerged that Trump was unprecedented, a surprise, divorced from the logic of history. This consensus is wildly incorrect, since plenty of observers did foresee it: indeed, The New Yorker lauded Corey Robin for having written “the book that predicted Trump.” But nonetheless, it has remained the received wisdom of the party, embodied most fully in Hillary Clinton’s post-campaign memoir, that Trump’s candidacy broke into the track of history in a way that made preparation impossible.
St. Matthew reminds us that “of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven,” and he reflects quite well the Jewish tradition that Gershom Scholem elaborates: “The Bible and the apocalyptic writers know of no progress in history leading to the redemption. The redemption is not the product of immanent developments such as we find in modern Western reinterpretations of Messianism…It is rather transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed in its ruin because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source.” To posit Trump as fundamentally unpredictable and unhistorical is already to messianize him, and this divorce from history is vital for a Democratic leadership that wishes to absolve itself of any blame for his election.
But far worse than divorcing Trump from history is the attempt to absolutize his evil. Make no mistake: I think Trump’s presidency is a historic threat both to American democracy and to the safety of people all over the world. But here we must remember that no evil can be absolute. As Herbert McCabe reminds us, “it is the notion of deprivation that enables us to explain how it is that evil is both an absence and a reality.” Evil is an absence, a defect, a lack of what ought to be there. In being such, however, it is dependent on a more fundamental goodness. As he notes elsewhere, “It would be absurd to say that holes in socks are unreal and illusory just because the hole isn’t made of anything and is purely an absence. Nothing in the wrong place can be just as real and important as something in the wrong place. If you inadvertently drive your car over a cliff you will have nothing to worry about; it is precisely the nothing that you will have to worry about.”
Trump’s humanity is monstrously defective, but this absence must throw into relief both the good that ought to be there and the good that remains (and good there must be, else he would not exist at all). This is the only account of the matter that a Christian can admit, because the transcendent reality that lies beyond and beneath all things is the Love from Whom all substance has being. To absolutize any evil, not just Trump’s evil, is to invert the account above. If evil is absolute, then evil is the fundamental reality in opposition to which good is defined. In such a moral universe, goodness has no reality of its own, but exists only as an absence of or movement against evil; indeed, goodness becomes nothing but lesser-evilism by another name.
Liberals are often criticized from both the left and the right as lacking a substantive vision of the good, and in the case of Democrats who have absolutized the evil of Donald Trump, this is quite literally true. This view is on full display in Matthew Yglesias’s recent scolding of the Sunrise Movement for giving Biden’s climate plan an F grade in their comprehensive assessment of the candidates. That Biden’s plan does not take the existential threat of climate change seriously seems not to matter to him—what matters is that it’s better than Trump’s. The young activists of the Sunrise Movement have a much clearer picture of things: they know that conflating goodness with lesser-evilism is virtually guaranteed to kill us all in the long run, and they graded Biden accordingly. Yes, it is true that evil is ultimately an absence, but we do not fill absences by further negation: starvation is an absence that is filled by food, just as poverty is filled by sufficient goods and loneliness by loving connection. It is not enough simply to negate them: non-hunger, non-poverty, and non-loneliness can just as easily describe death as they can life, and someone who is “not Trump” can still inflict incalculable suffering on the most vulnerable people around the world. To say no to evil is not the same thing as saying yes to the good.
The Christian call to proclaim the gospel demands that we reject this conflation. We are commanded to preach the good news that the ground of all existence is Love Himself and that the God Who is Goodness and Truth and Beauty beyond telling has set us free from sin and death. We can give no quarter to anyone who asserts the absolute reality of evil and who thereby lets evil become the measure of good. We must reject with equal fervor the profanation of sacramental life that makes evil the dispenser of forgiveness, for this counterfeit forgiveness demands the silence of the wronged and the amnesia of the sinner. It inverts the confession of sins that is commanded to us and makes forgiveness falsely dependent upon the concealing of truth, both from others and from oneself.
Beyond that, to measure all things by evil is a form of idolatry. I am certain that a number of liberals who consider themselves good Christians would object to this characterization, but I can see no other way to name it. Idolatry is the paradigm of sin, for all sin involves placing some lesser good above a greater one; its fullest expression is the insistence on clinging to some earthly and worldly good over the full and infinite goodness offered by God, an insistence which, if carried to the end of one’s life, culminates in damnation. In this case, the Democratic leadership’s commitment to exonerating itself and Joe Biden leads them to set up Donald Trump as the true north of the moral universe, the immovable point from which every moral standard is derived. If this is not a form of worship, I do not know what else to call it.
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And yet the greatest irony of all is that in the construction of this necrotic messiah—whose putatively infinite corruption allows them to lay claim to the oblivious silence which their catechism lays out as the condition of forgiveness—the Democratic leaders set themselves up as the inevitable losers of their cosmic struggle. They fashion themselves into a blessed inverse of the infernal host, doomed to struggle forever against the absolute evil whose continued existence is the ground of all their action. This, we are expected to believe, is a grand romantic tragedy, where the losers are the true heroes.
This stylistic choice gives the game away. The Democratic leadership imagines a world in which the struggle against evil is doomed to be lost because this is a more comfortable world for the sinner: if the fight against evil is doomed to be lost, then the “good” need not ever reckon with how they failed to measure up to goodness. But it is still incumbent on us to bear witness to this metaphysical fraud and call it what it is, and to proclaim the truth that God has revealed to us: that goodness knows no standard except the Good Himself, whose great revelation to the people He led out of Egypt was that all idols and gods are false, and that friendship with the One Who sustains and liberates us demands that we cast them all aside and begin to live out the truth that will be disclosed on the Last Day, when the mighty will be brought low and the whole earth resound with the unending hymn of the Most High, and each of us will be made to reckon with how we failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend to the sick.
Delusions will not help us then, and they do not help us now; God will strip them all away in the end. The last time the Democrats’ delusions were stripped away, we all suffered the consequences; I pray that their present delusion does not last until November.
Daniel Walden is a writer and doctoral candidate in Classical Studies. He spends his non-work hours thinking about Thomistic Marxism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines.
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