Is it just me or does much of Donald Trump’s presidency seem driven by spite against the former occupant of the White House? There are theories that Trump ran for president in the first place to spite President Obama for mocking him at the 2016 Correspondents Dinner, and, true or not, a personal element seems to enter into a number of his presidential decisions. If so, it’s worth looking at a character who is defined by spite: Satan in Paradise Lost.
Merriam-Webster defines spite as “petty ill will or hatred with the disposition to irritate, annoy, or thwart.” In politics, it’s important to distinguish between honest policy differences and spiteful retribution. Many have seen the latter at work with Trump.
For instance, when Trump fired all of America’s ambassadors all at once rather than waiting for replacements to be found, former ambassador to Finland Derek Shearer said, “It feels like there’s an element just of spite and payback in it. I don’t see a higher policy motive.” Same with federal district attorneys.
New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz, meanwhile, thinks that spite is at work in Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act. The 24 million newly insured may have to pay for the fact that they have been helped by Obama. Similarly, the earth will have to pay for Obama’s focus on renewables, regulation, and conservation.
Milton’s narcissistic villain believes that everything is about him. God made Adam and Eve, he is convinced, just to spite him:
[T]o spite us more,
[God] Determin’d to advance into our room
A Creature formed of Earth, and him endow,
Exalted from so base original,
With Heavenly spoils, our spoils…
If spite motivated God, Satan says, then his own spite is justified:
Whom us the more to spite his Maker raised
From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.
Satan’s follower, like Trump’s, are fully on board. In their council of war, the fallen angels approve Satan’s plan to stick it to God:
But from the Author of all ill could Spring
So deep a malice, to confound the race
Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great Creator? But their spite still serves
His glory to augment. The bold design
Pleased highly those infernal States, and joy
Sparkled in all their eyes; with full assent
Satan takes a sadistic relish in imagining the suffering that Adam and Eve will undergo, even while pretending to be sympathetic. Gazing at them, he purrs,
Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy…
They will have God to thank for this suffering, he tells them:
Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring; if no better place,
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wronged…
Milton notes that Satan’s is utilizing “the tyrant’s plea” here, pretending that Adam and Eve will be victims of political necessity rather than pure spite. But don’t be fooled. As with Trump, this is not about policy. He wants to make the Big Guy suffer.