There are innumerable examples, stacked one upon another, making it nearly impossible to grade them from bad to worse to worst. But arguably the two most significant were Trump’s equivocating on the issue of racial hatred, (the now famous “There were good people on both sides” statement), and the ripping of toddlers from their parents and then imprisoning these little children in cages. The latter example can only come from a man who has no soul. And if a nation allows that action to continue, the only conclusion is that the country is equally soul-less.
Enter Joe Biden. He began his campaign by declaring that this is a fight for the soul of the nation. He knows that we are, that we must be, better than this. Better than what Trump has made of us. He knows that America cannot survive if it continues to wallow in the gutters into which Trump has dragged us.
There are, of course, people who disagree with Biden’s policy proposals and are hesitant to vote for him. After forty-seven years in politics he is accustomed to that. He expects it. But Biden also knows that the country needs an opposition party. It is not healthy for a democracy to run by a single party. That is what we expect from countries like China, Russia and a host of other autocracies, very few of which even pretend to be democratic.
An opposition party need not agree or capitulate on every issue. The two parties must balance each other. They must compromise. They must work together for the common good. And that requires a soul.
Today Trump has remade the Republican party in his own image. And in virtually every act as president, he has demonstrated that he has no soul. That may also be the reason he has no remorse for anything he has ever done. Recall that prior to his election Trump said he had never asked God for forgiveness. That admission set up a new paradigm for irony. For these days when Americans go to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship, they are greeted by a God of remorse. A God who asks the people’s forgiveness for having created Donald Trump.
Joe Biden is not deterred. He still seeks to restore the fundamental values, the basic goodness that has defined America. He knows that there have always been failures. Our history is checkered at best. We have enslaved and unjustly imprisoned our people. We have denied many groups a myriad of rights. Even today there are continuing attempts to restrict or flat out deny the right to vote—the most fundamental principle of democracy. But before Trump, we had never been a country without a soul.
One fading example of America’s goodness can be seen in the way we rally around the underdog; the way we had been accustomed to setting aside our differences when someone suffers or is in need.
When Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, Americans of all persuasions supported him. People of faith prayed for him. Some Americans thought that this deadly diseased would enable him to empathize with the millions of other Americans who have contracted the virus; that he would understand and express sympathy for the more than 210,000 who have died. Maybe Americans are not so much good, as they are naïve.
Trump emerged from the hospital, neither human nor humbled. He puffed himself up like the rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sun rise. In Trump’s case he thinks his arrogance will cause COVID to retreat. He is not only soulless. He is heartless.
I still think Joe Biden is on to something. I still think that our country can reclaim its soul. But I also think that there is room in that soul for one negative. I would never suggest we pray that Trump dies. But maybe we don’t have to pray that he survives.
TRUMP TO PRIEST: “I Will Kill Myself!”
October 20, 2016
When my phone rang at 6:00 AM this morning, I had just stepped out of the shower. The screen indicated an unknown New York telephone number. I was about to push the reject button when curiosity won the day. And what a day!
“Good morning, Rev. Messenger. I hope I did not wake you. My name is Kellyanne Conway. Mr Trump would like to speak to you.”
It was way too early for a practical joke. Besides, I’m not a Trump supporter. Suspecting this was the work of one of my friends, I decided to play along.
“And why would he want to speak with me?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” she replied. That was my first indication that twisted truth was on the line. She answered media questions about Trump in just the same way.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll speak with him.”
“Hello, Rev. Messenger, this is Donald Trump.”
“Good morning, Mr. Trump. What can I do for you?”
“I need someone to talk to,” he replied.
“Because you’re a priest and a good counselor.”
“Why would you say that? You don’t even know me.”
“As you know, I’m very well liked. And I have friends, many, many friends in Los Angeles. They tell me good things about you.”
“I have to be honest with you, Mr. Trump…” He interrupted.
“Call me Donald.”
I continued, “I’m a Hillary supporter.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re a priest and I have a problem. Will you at least listen?”
This was a man I did not respect and I was tempted to decline. But he was right about the priest part. Listening to a soul in distress comes with the job. The voice I heard was desolate and full of anxiety. And I was intrigued. This did not sound like the Donald Trump I had seen at campaign rallies or read about in the papers. The Trump of the campaign trail would never admit to having problems.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Look. I never wanted to be president. I started this as a way to help Hillary. I’ve known her a long time. She’s a good person. Hillary and Bill were even at my third wedding. They both said very nice things about me.”
“You haven’t been saying very good things about her lately,” I prodded.
“That’s because she’s started saying mean things about me. At first I liked her. I started my campaign to force the other Republicans out, because I’m a winner. That’s what I do. I win. I thought low energy JEB would survive and then I could find an escape. But that fool quit and I couldn’t stop winning. All those other guys, and I include Carly Fiorina in that, they all turned out to be losers. Now I’m stuck.”
“You might not win, Mr. Trump. Hillary is way up in the polls. And that Access Hollywood tape only made matters worse.”
“I have a secret. I leaked that tape.”
I did not know where this conversation was going, but I did not believe him. I asked, “Why?”
“I was looking for a way out. I couldn’t quit. I’ve never done that in my life. That’s why I didn’t respond to the tape until my family forced me to. I thought maybe the useless Republican leadership would get rid of me. I could live with that. But they proved what I’ve been saying about them all along, especially Paul Ryan. He is disloyal and incompetent. They never wanted me.”
After years as a priest, I bought into the “nothing new under the sun” idea. This conversation changed that. What Trump told me on the phone was as bizarre as his candidacy itself. I tired to be reasonable.
“Mr. Trump, there’s no shame in dropping out of the race. Tell people you changed your mind. Tell them it’s not what you thought. Being president is not what you really want after all. They’ll accept that. I’m sure some people will be disappointed. But those who see you as real, who know you speak your mind, they won’t have a problem.”
“Listen, Reverend. I need you to understand. I can’t quit. I have to think of my fans. I have many of them. Millions all over the country. No Republican ever won as many votes in the primaries as I did. They want me to stay in the race. But I also can’t lose.”
“I’m not an expert in politics, Mr. Trump, but if you stay in you will lose.”
“And if I do, I will kill myself.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but then I was one of those people who did not take his candidacy seriously, either. So I cautiously asked, “What will you accomplish by suicide?”
“I’ll go out hugely. Just like I’ve lived. I’ve never lost before—at anything. I always found a way to win, even when I cheated on my previous wives. This will be my way out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“My life’s a mess right now. My daughter Tiffany thinks I’m a pig, Ivanka is tired of defending me and Melania is not even talking to me. Did you see her at the debate last night? She said if I lose the race she’ll leave me. Only my sons understand me. I raised them right. They’re just like me.”
“About that debate.”
“I know what you’re going to ask. You want to know why I won’t accept the results when Hillary wins. Because I won’t have to. I won’t be around to give a concession speech. That’s what I meant about keeping people in suspense.”
“But Mr. Trump…”
“Look, Reverend. I know I can’t win. Then, for the rest of my life I’d be known as a loser. That’s not who Donald Trump is. I built a great business with just a small loan from my father. It was all me. And I have properties all over world. Beautiful, massive properties worth billions of dollars. I won’t become a loser. I’ll kill myself if that happens.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“I already told you it’s because you are a priest. After I shoot myself you’ll know the reason and you can explain it to everyone. You can help people understand me. If I kill myself that is the only thing people will remember. They’ll forget about the weak Republican leadership, the rigged election. Maybe they’ll blame the media. But they’ll only say one thing about me—Donald Trump was huge. He even chose his own way out.”
I suddenly realized that I was dripping wet from my shower. I was standing with the towel in my hands and no telephone. Had I just been speaking with Donald Trump? Either my imagination had gone wild, or I was the victim of a cruel science fiction time warp.
If only the country could warp back to June 6, 2015. Maybe we could start over. Maybe Trump would not run. Maybe Donald Trump would not commit suicide on November 8, 2016. Maybe.
The misnomer of the common title has allowed generations of people to miss both the point and the challenge. The younger son is not the focus of the story. The father is. The younger son serves as a catalyst, his actions giving movement to the story. But Jesus does not present him as a model. In truth, when reading the parable we are probably all able to find ourselves at least partially reflected in both of the sons. In their own ways they are each self-centered. Greed and immaturity cause the younger son to demand an inheritance he is not yet entitled to; self-righteousness and jealousy flare in the older son who whines about never having been given his own party.
But the father. He is the one Jesus suggests we emulate. He is the character who is defined by love—a love that is displayed in forgiving his younger son and expressing tender compassion for his older son. So what? You may ask. The idea of forgiveness still comes through irrespective the name we give to the parable.
I suggest that the problem with the common title actually enhances the mistakes we make in our own lives, and should serve as warning when we examine the actions of others. As I noted, we probably all see ourselves occasionally reflected in the younger son. Who among us does not pursue self-centered goals and desires? Who among us, given the opportunity, would not use seed money from our parents to feed our debauchery? Those are mere human, adolescent foibles acted out in various scenarios simply indicating that we are not perfect. And when we come to our senses we ask pardon and promise to right ourselves.
If that were all, I might agree. But since most humans are not sociopaths or pathologically ill in multiple arenas of our psyches, we know when we have done wrong and we seek amends—or at least forgiveness. For many people that is what the prodigal son did.
No. He did not.
There is not one word in Luke’s telling of the parable that suggests the son expressed any sorrow or remorse for his actions. He returned to his father’s house the same self-centered little brat he was when he left. He returned because he wanted something. And it was not forgiveness. He had bankrupted himself through carousing and revelry. With no food and no money—and no one to give him anything—he returned to his father after carefully concocting a speech containing not a single suggestion of contrition. He was hungry. He was not sorry.
Oh, it’s true that the father did forgive him. But once we understand who the son really was—what he was really like—perhaps we will not so naïvely want to see ourselves in him. More importantly, we will be able to recognize when someone else is merely playing the game of the younger son. Enter the prodigal candidate.
Donald Trump went to Philadelphia and Detroit after having first traversed the continent denigrating, degrading, and demeaning the African-American community as a whole. Like the son in the parable there was no hint of contrition for anything that he said or did, no sorrow for fanning the flames of racial hatred and prejudice. Well, that should come as no surprise.
Last week Donald Trump went to Mexico after having launched his candidacy and spending the last year and a half belittling, berating and besmirching Mexican-Americans all around the country. He stood on a platform with the Mexican president and spoke not a word of contrition. He flat out lied.
Having spent months in a vituperate intemperance Donald Trump now comes before the Mexican-American and African-American communities playing the perfect prodigal son. Should we forgive him? Absolutely. After all, the father is our model in Jesus’s parable. At the same time, there is nothing in the story to suggest that the father was stupid. It is doubtful that he ever entrusted his son with another dime. So we should forgive Donald Trump—even if he is not remorseful—but we should not give him a vote and should never allow him to become president.