I’m currently fighting a cold so here’s a past post, from September 1, which I still find only too relevant. Trumpism, in my opinion, has given people permission to display dark sides of themselves, darkness that sometimes even they aren’t aware of. Usually this darkness is limited to verbal expressions although occasionally it manifests itself in physical acts. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where we are supposed to follow “the St. Mary’s Way” and where “St. Mary’s nice” is a term of pride, we have seen a spike in racial incidents, so it penetrates even supposedly protected enclaves. Suddenly social norms that we took for granted appear fragile.
John Milton, who lived through tumultuous times and saw his share of demagogues, understood the phenomenon well. When one takes a bite into the apple of hatred and intolerance, all the earth shakes:
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
Reprinted from September 1, 2016
To the delight of white nationalist David Duke, rightwing provocateur Ann Coulter, and many other members of the alt-right, Donald Trump’s recent hate-filled rant against immigrants indicated that he is not “softening,” as some in the media had thought. Reading about Coulter’s enthusiasm—she called the speech “Churchillian” and tweeted, “I think I’ll watch this speech every night before going to bed so that I will sleep like a baby”—I was put in mind of how Milton’s Sin and Death are energized by Satan’s success in the Garden of Eden. The passage captures how Trump is exciting many of America’s darkest forces.
Sin is Satan’s daughter, having emerged Athena-like from his head (at which point he proceeds to rape her, thereby giving birth to their son Death). Although she is far from where Satan has just seduced Adam and Eve, she senses his victory and is intoxicated:
Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on,
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.
Just as the alt-right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:
Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn
By this new felt attraction and instinct.
Once confined to the shadows, she will join us on Earth. Or as Hillary Clinton puts it, Trump is “taking hate groups mainstream.”
Sin, in her excitement, turns to Death, who promises to accompany her to Earth. His eager anticipation resembles how the alt-right is salivating over the chance to impose a harsh regimen upon immigrants, Muslims, Hillary, and whomever else it hates. Milton’s Death smells the scent of blood:
I shall not lag behind, nor err
The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable, and taste
The savor of Death from all things there that live…
Some commentators have observed that, even if Clinton beats Trump in November—not a certainty—he has unleashed forces that will not be easily contained. The Paradise Lost version of this is the bridge, constructed of “asphaltine slime,” that Sin and Death construct between Hell and Earth. This is the bridge across which all of Hell’s fallen angels, turned into snakes, will travel.
In other words, whatever happens in November, Trump has opened the gates of hell, and we will be dealing with the consequences for years to come.
I find this such a dispiriting prospect that I must remind myself that Paradise Lost ultimately projects a happy ending where love triumphs over hate. To be sure, it takes a while–the arc of justice bends slowly–but the Archangel Michael assures us it will happen:
Add virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.
To be sure, this is a vision of inner Paradise. Milton had just seen his Puritan commonwealth crumble and was retreating from the world. We, on the other hand, can continue to work towards a more perfect union. I like to think that most American are charitable toward their immigrant neighbors and that, out of this spirit, we will create a nation happier far.
But we’ll have to battle a lot of snakes first.