By Matt Gordon
President Donald Trump is damned.
I don’t mean that statement in some sort of soul/eternal sense—the beyond is beyond my paygrade. What I mean harkens back to the old saying: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
I think I already knew he had worked himself into this station but his bout with COVID-19 solidified his damned status in my mind. First, he got the illness. A lot of people do, and they tend to get sympathy. And he got sympathy, but also a lot of open and backhanded derision. There was plenty of mockery. Like Chris Rock’s quip: “My heart goes out to COVID.”
Then to cement any doubts I had on President Trump’s standing, he left quarantine. He wanted to encourage supporters, but his detractors noted, “Um, that is breaking quarantine!” That is dangerous or selfish or pigheaded or foolhardy or sinister, etc. But where my mind went is, Would he have been applauded/respected/commended/ignored had he stayed in quarantine?
My answer—of course not! He would have been a coward or weakling or served right or doing that wrong too.
Because he is damned.
Now, let me be clear, I get it. My interest here is not in saying, “Don’t be mean to the President” or somehow taking up for, really, any of his actions, especially irresponsible ones. I am interested in politics, but this post is not. No, my fascination is more with this thing that happens when a person—through word, deed, or mere fate—gets hemmed in on all sides. Every step, for this lonely soul, becomes a false one; mines lay hidden in every direction.
Here is another person that has pivoted in and out of the precarious position of the damned: LeBron James. If LeBron James passes the ball a lot in an NBA Finals game, he is no Jordan; if he shoots a lot in an NBA Finals, he is a ball hog. He tweets and he is called a loud-mouthed ego-maniac; he muzzles his social interaction and he is a hypocritical coward. He makes the Finals and loses and he is a loser; he makes the Finals and wins and he rigged the system and needed a stacked team. I could go on. But the summary will do: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
It is pretty easy to find some famous people who have been chiseled onto this Rushmore of infamy. But more interesting than who they are is why they are cemented in a place of constant criticism and scathing scorn. And the reason the why is worth considering is because it doesn’t just happen to the well-known. There is likely some person you work with who has this effect on people; or some neighbor who has lost the cul-de-sac. Recently I’ve seen the avenue by which I could, for a few folks, become this person. Knowing what causes this is half the battle, and navigating the way out before the river is dammed (or damned) is the other half.
So what are some reasons for the damning?
It is hard to hate what you don’t know. President Trump has become more damned as he has become more known. Is he a worse man now than he was in the 90’s? I don’t know for sure, but when you read quotes and watch interviews, it seems like he was an even more energetic and effusive version of the Donald Trump of today. But when you become leader of the free world, yeah, a thing happens. Suddenly every American is hearing every word from his pursed lips. Not hearing them? He’ll tweet them. He is visible all the time, and, it would seem, the more visible he is, the more damned he becomes. Case in point, the COVID-19 briefings. When he was on TV every night for weeks, his window to move became tighter and tighter. Either the number of his foes grew to limit behavioral mobility or his own presence and ego did, stretching him to the limits of the encroaching circle of enemies. Many saw and heard more of him, and came to trust and like less of him. The grace quotient dwindled as public perception was fortified. Coronavirus wasn’t the only thing spreading.
LeBron was not hated as a high school kid. His games were on TV already and people were riveted by this basketball savant. Then he was drafted by his hometown team—loved from a distance. Hard to hate someone in Cleveland of all places. But then he went Big Willy Style down to Miami, made a tone-deaf announcement, and declared the number of championships he’d win with his new swanky team in a cocksure pep rally. Now, he’s seen; now he’s damned.
Visibility doesn’t have to be long-term either. It isn’t really about duration, but scope. Steve Bartman is the Chicago Cubs fan who infamously interfered (maybe?) with a foul ball that might have otherwise been caught by the home team’s leftfielder. He didn’t know, as he sat there with his headphones on, that he’d been thrown, like said baseball, into the borderlands of the damned. For less than an hour he sat there, occasionally getting shown on TV as an apparent playoff series-altering menace—maybe a minute’s worth of visibility. But it was enough. Pizza, beer, and taunts were hurled. Security was alerted. Bartman was ushered out for his protection, with the first of a litany of death threats raining down on him from an entire city. He then went into hiding—the only thing that kept him from becoming officially damned. Had he come out with a lengthy press conference the next day, rationalized, defended himself, appealed to logic, fought against the mob mentality fomented against him—every claim would have been met with contempt and escalation. Our scapegoats need only to shut up, bleat, and take their beatings. Often earned, sometimes not.
Usually the person, like President Trump, determinedly rows their way to the lonely island of the damned, but occasionally, like Bartman (like you and me?), one can be caught in a gale-force storm and wash unwittingly upon those desolate shores almost by accident.
Bartman communicated with his silence. The fact that he sat there aloofly in headphones, almost like he didn’t know he had ruined Cubs fans’ hopes and dreams, propelled the crowd over the line of decency into the intoxicated groupthink world of vengeance. Paradoxically, that same silence is what permitted him to wriggle off the hook.
Usually it is words that do the trick, conjure the devil magic. It doesn’t always take a lot of them. Take these seven words:
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”
That was it. LeBron went from a gifted, yet humble, kid to bloodthirsty mercenary. Jerseys were burned in the streets that night. That line was meant to pay homage to Kobe Bryant, but the attempt to stand on the shoulder of giants was missed in the moment. Had this humble nod been clarified would it have softened the blow? I’m not sure. But what people heard was a talented person flaunting his talent—holding these illustrious talents like food before a starving crowd and then snatching them away, a devious withholding. What they saw? A megalomaniac, a monster, a traitor, a villain. Every other word LeBron uttered for years after that statement flowed out from that seared perception. And even now, a decade later, that image is reawakened when the King decrees an edict we disagree with. When he doesn’t put a social justice message on his jersey, we think of that image. When he tweets a social justice message, we think of that image. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
President Trump is not tied to one statement. And his damnward trajectory is more akin to how it works for us common folk. A statement here and there will follow us, but it is generally the accumulation of our words and ideas over time that begin to open the world for us or have it close in around us.
What has President Trump said that has bothered you? For some the list is massive—hard to even know where to start. But even for his ardent supporters, there are probably a couple statements that they wish he could unsay. He’s been a volume shooter, and that has paved the road to a social hell. But what is more, as a volume shooter, things begin to blend. The narrative is writ, and so we will bend the words to fit it. What happens to the damned is that they have become their personas and their personas have become them. Misquotes stick, as long as they stay in-line with the narrative.
President Trump is a difficult case study because, well, you know why. But George W. Bush may be a better example of narrative-realities. The prevailing narrative that got shaped for W is that he is stupid. He had some verbal missteps early, which set up the scrutiny for every pronunciation blunder throughout his presidency. And with each one came the collective thought of the masses: dumb, da-dumb, dumb. That was the joke on parody movies or SNL or what some segments of media delighted in portraying. I don’t know the man’s intellect, only the narrative, which is why, years after his presidency, it was surprising to hear coworkers of his talk about him. Speechwriters, for instance, say that he was a rigorous student of the craft of rhetoric and delivery. He’d pore over and find subtle mistakes in speeches. He may be dumb, da-dumb, dumb, but the reason I would think that—he is terrible at all things speeches—reflects a partial narrative and rejects a fuller story inaccessible to me.
Yet he avoided the dang damning. Why? Because he didn’t fight the narrative. He doesn’t defend his intellect; he doesn’t claim to be a terrific speechwriter. He just went with things, did his job, and left—with some hating him, some loving him, and some not paying much attention one way or the other. This ability to shrug and bear it is a valuable maneuver in dismantling polarization or keeping narratives from getting up and walking around, from becoming the true form. We can probably all take a page from this speech. Even now I think of Ellen DeGeneres. A kindness warrior who—wrongly or rightly—has been called into question, has received a good measure of piling on, and will somehow escape her banishment or sign the executive societal orders of exile. For now, every move she makes to address the allegations made on her character receive a share of damnation and eye-rolling. But if she can power through by powering down, she may outlast the amassing negative sentiment. 2020 is littered with those who have escaped undoing, and usually it is through owning some of the responsibility, making some noteworthy changes, and then moving on, shrugging and bearing whatever lingers.
With President Trump it is different because not only is his intellect called into question, his morals and ethics are too. The louder one yells “I AM NOT A LIAR!” the less believable it is, whether it is true or not. The narrative has been shaped—fighting it tends to be an act of fortifying it. Yet he fights on, a dogged inability to shrug and bear things.
Words do much to damn the damned and tend only to serve as a shovel once the hole is formed. Steady action might save one, but if the hole gets deep enough through verbosity, there is nothing left but empty shouting.
I mentioned Bartman earlier—a representation of the age-old practice of scapegoating. Read the Old Testament. Constantly the sins of the people are foisted upon an animal for sacrifice. Ancient Israel is not the only scapegoating society. This has been a worldwide human proclivity since Eden. In the original sin story Adam scapegoats his wife: “It was the woman! She did it!” Eve scapegoats Garden society: “It was the serpent!” (Read: marketing, media, culture, entertainment, and the like). We’ve been doing these same thing ever since.
When we think of damned people, we often turn to villains or fools. But there are the heroic too. Since I opened the Bible, I’ll stay there a minute longer. The gospel of Jesus hinges on this idea, that Jesus would be the sacrificial lamb for human sin. He was mocked and beaten and tortured and killed, but even before all that, he felt the weight of the societally damned. Look what he says in Luke 7:
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
In other words: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Jesus could fast and he’d be viewed as a self-martyred heretic or he could feast and he’d be an irreverent glutton.
The Bible may close but this tendency to scapegoat is left wide open. Early in his presidency, Lincoln faced a similar dichotomy as the one Jesus describes and experienced. Mohammed Ali went there and back again, in terms of being cast away but then redeemed. Villains, heroes, anti-heroes, and nobodies—we are all susceptible to the sociological tightrope for all manner of reasons.
Here’s how I like to scapegoat: I know there are things wrong in me. I envy and slander and I’m prideful. There is this lurking immorality within, so the only reasonable thing for me to do: look without to find someone worse! Give me a more lecherous wretch to point to and it alleviates any responsibility to deal with these things in myself. I take my talents here and there, with tiny chest puffed, but LeBron using his to knife Cleveland in the back publicly? Let’s get him! Sometimes I have the scapegoat pegged right and sometimes not. Regardless, it feels good and righteous and safe. For me at least.
And what happens with the damned is that a bunch of people pick them as scapegoats all at once. Whether it is in the work office or the Oval Office. Across entertainment, History, sports—the potentially damnable occupy every medium. And yes, many of these people ask for it—sometimes repeatedly. Not all scapegoats are innocently birthed. Warranted or not, justified or not, still the considerations remain: Is my derision meted out justly? Is there nuance to my judgements? Are my condemnations protections to further harbor my own flaws? How quick am I to condemn? Am I walking toward similar damnation or a freedom from it in whatever social circles I occupy?
I’m not sure on most of this. But watching this historical moment from a sociological perspective this is a pretty safe conclusion: We humans are an odd sort. We talk when we shouldn’t. We go out when we should stay in. We fight when we should surrender and surrender when we should fight. And some of us become socially damned for one reason or another or many reasons altogether.
But, odd as we are, we are not damned—the collection of us. Whether we do or don’t, there is choice in the matter, all matters. Declaring and decrying the damned is a hit-and-miss business. I guess hope is that way too. And as I look at a topsy-turvy, election-seasoned, pandemic-laced world, I choose hope. A hope for better days ahead; a hope that transcends our mere fickle humanity or brittle existence or befuddling celebrities or ineffectual leaders (and effectual ones too, I guess). Perhaps, I, myself, am on the path to becoming a damned one for doing so? Even so, I’ll look about this island and hope on nonetheless.