Comedian Louis C.K. recently unburdened his anxiety about the 2016 presidential election to his fans, and in the process, repeatedly invoked the memory of a character who has, for many people, slid out of history and into demonology: Adolf Hitler.
The comedian wrote, "I'm not saying he's evil or a monster. In fact I don't think Hitler was. The problem with saying that guys like that are monsters is that we don't see them coming when they turn out to be human, which they all are. Everyone is. Trump is a messed up guy with a hole in his heart that he tries to fill with money and attention. He can never ever have enough of either and he'll never stop trying. He's sick. Which makes him really really interesting. And he pulls you towards him which somehow feels good or fascinatingly bad. He's not a monster. He's a sad man."
In a similar way, Horace Bloom writes in his new book, Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler: Making A Serious Comparison, that the placement of Adolf Hitler into a transcendent category of demonic evil that is completely unrelated to human reality in our own times is a dangerous temptation.
Bloom urges that, "Instead of turning away, and pretending that the Holocaust was some unique aberration, and that Hitler was an unexplainable manifestation of pure evil, let's rededicate ourselves to understanding how the Nazis rose to power and used it to such terrible ends. Let's look at the many other instances of popularly-supported atrocities too, so that we understand the symptoms of growing totalitarianism. Most importantly, let's reject the temptation to imitate Adolf Hitler ourselves. Let's avoid the easy path of attributing all evil to a single scapegoat, and casting it out of our sight to gain an irrational feeling of protection from it."
Demonology, as Bloom and Louis C.K. imply, enables people to avoid dealing with moral challenges. Even as it pretends to confront evil, it reduces cruelty to a supernatural cartoon that is always from somewhere foreign, outside of themselves. The mythology of demons enables an unspoken companion mythology: The myth of the pure people, who, if the demons can only be cast out, will finally be full of virtue.
Making Donald Trump a sad man, rather than the epitome of all evil, makes his mythology different. It transforms the mythos that drives Trump supporters as well. It recognizes that their fury and violence, and hatred are born out of fear and suffering. Trump supporters are emotionally and economically vulnerable people.
If American politics are to heal, Trump supporters need to healed as well. They won't be healed by rushing into the arms of a demagogue who seeks to exploit their emotional intensity for the sake of his personal ambitions. They can only begin to heal when we allow them to step back from the fray, when we give them permission to explore the underlying pain, for which their racist nationalism is only a mask.
Instead of blaming external scapegoats as Trump and Hitler have urged their supporters to do, people need to learn to look inward, to recognize their weaknesses, and express their needs. In the old, 20th century culture of machismo, such expressions were regarded as weak. In the 21st century, we need to recognize that such admission of vulnerability is the first step on a journey toward sustainable strength.
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