Jackson, MI. “The leader of the free world.” “The most powerful person on earth.” These are just two phrases often used to describe the President of the United States of America. Such phrases, while always simplistic and misleading, are particularly unhelpful during our current pandemic because they focus our attention in the wrong place.
Perhaps the one thing that both Trump’s fiercest critics and his most ardent defenders would agree on is that the office he holds wields the power that matters. If the stock market goes up, Trump’s supporters give him credit. If an American says something racist or if there’s a mass shooting, his critics lay the blame at Trump’s feet. If the US responds well to the pandemic or if the US falters, Trump is responsible. In fact, some even think we shouldn’t call it the coronavirus; we should call it the “Trumpvirus.” For both groups, complex, overdetermined events boil down to the actions of a single person. Trump loves this situation and exacerbates it—of course he wants everything to be about him.
I happen to think that Trump is a terrible president, but I also think that many Americans overestimate his power—for good and ill. He is not at the center of every story. The same species of idolatry that made Obama either the Messiah or the antichrist now results in MAGA boosterism and Trump Derangement Syndrome. Our hyper-partisan, celebrity-driven political circus needs an all-powerful hero or villain. Trump’s presidency is itself a result of this dynamic; he catered to these who believed in the power of the office by promising to fix everything and make Americans “win.”
The reality is more complicated. Trump did not cause the virus, and no matter who sat in the Oval Office, the virus would still be causing damage and pain and death. It is entirely possible that China, the WHO, Bill de Blasio, President Trump, members of the Trump administration, and others are all to blame in different respects for their response to the virus. Holding people in power accountable for their actions is important–and Trump should certainly be held accountable for his failures. But scapegoating the politician you already hated before this crisis is unhelpful and irresponsible. We can expect politicians to claim credit for anything positive and to blame their enemies for all manner of ills, but the rest of us have no reason to take such assertions seriously or, even worse, to join this game. As Peter Van Buren concludes in an essay outlining just a handful of the many decisions and people that contributed to our current situation, “The point is not to absolve Trump. The point is not to blame others. There exists among too many an ugly need for things to fail to encourage that. Such glee is cruel because the desire for a scapegoat, often for a political aim, coincides with much suffering.”
This desire for a scapegoat is an old one, as René Girard has argued. It is always easier to blame someone else rather than to confront the ways in which we ourselves may be complicit in an evil, broken system. Thomas Merton saw this same phenomenon in the way his contemporaries blamed Hitler for a myriad of ills while failing to recognize their own guilt: “we are all guilty… we are a tree, of which Hitler is one of the fruits, and we all nourish him, and he thrives most of all on our hatred and condemnation of him, when that condemnation disregards our own guilt, and piles the responsibility for everything upon somebody else’s sins!”
What might be the sins of which Trump is a fruit? Well, as Wendell Berry puts it in the Introduction to The Art of Loading Brush, “It is hard not to see Mr. Trump as the personification, even the consummation, of the barely divergent ‘freedoms’ espoused by the two sides [of our political spectrum]: a man, by his own testimony, both sexually liberated and fiscally unregulated, the sovereign and autonomous American individual, the very puppet of his own desires. He, more than anybody else so far, is the incarnation of our long aspiration to do individually as we please.” Despite Trump’s presidency, and despite the coronavirus, the agrarian alternative that Berry defends remains viable and practicable. He calls this vision “an entirely different way of living, thinking, and speaking: the way of what I am obliged to call economic realism, indissolubly mated to ecology, to local ecosystems, and to the traditions of good husbandry and good neighborhood, starting at home and from the ground up.” Scapegoating Trump, however, obscures this necessary, difficult work, work that must be done regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office or what crisis is revealing the fragility and injustice of our global, technological, capitalist order.
When we focus incessantly on the president and on those politicians who seem to hold all the power, we make the same kind of mistake that the events of Holy Week should teach us to avoid. On Palm Sunday, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people proclaimed “Hosanna” thinking he was coming to bring military and political victory. But a few days later he was dead. His kingdom and his mode of victory required his disciples to radically overturn their notions of power and authority.
When Pilate examines Jesus, he grows frustrated with Jesus’ silence and asks in exasperation, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus, who remains silent rather than defending himself, is quick to correct Pilate on this point: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
A few hours later, Pilate retained his titular authority, but the real power was hanging on the cross. We see a similar dynamic at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, when Herod the King seeks to forcefully maintain his rule even while it is a toddler who is the real king. Tolkien picks up on this paradox brilliantly in The Lord of the Rings: Despite all appearances to the contrary, Sauron doesn’t have all the power; two little hobbits do.
So who really has authority during this pandemic? Where should our attention be focused? On the same people who always wield true power—those who share in God’s self-giving love. Today in particular, maybe it’s the doctors and nurses, the bus drivers and delivery truck drivers, the grocery store clerks and farm laborers, the neighbors bringing food to shut-ins and the mothers patiently reading to their children. When we love our neighbor, we participate in God’s self-giving love, and it is this love that is the real motive force of the cosmos. On Good Friday, Pilate and nearly everyone else thought that he was in control. He wasn’t. And on this Good Friday, Pilate’s heirs have much less power than they think they do.