Tuesday night’s proceedings at the Republican National Convention featured avocado-farm digressions and jail-the-opposition frenzy, but perhaps the strangest moment occurred when defeated contender Ben Carson suggested that Hillary Clinton is in league with the devil. Not that she, in the sleepy-eyed neurosurgeon’s view, is morally compromised. Not that she has evil intentions for the nation. That she actually harbors sympathies for the fallen angel, Lucifer, himself.
Carson’s “receipts,” as we’re calling proof these days, for this unholy alliance were rather ingenious. Clinton’s senior thesis, he said, endorses the work of noted community organizer Saul Alinsky, to such an extent that he “affected all of her philosophy subsequently.” Alinsky wrote a book called Rules for Radicals. This book is, in turn, dedicated to Lucifer, “the original radical,” as Carson paraphrased Alinsky, “who gained his own kingdom.” (The book actually uses a winking line about Lucifer as one of three epigraphs, more on which in a moment.) So Clinton is dedicated to Alinsky, and Alinsky is dedicated to … you see where this is going.
“This is a nation where our founding document the Declaration of Independence talks about certain inalienable rights that come from our creator; this is a nation where our Pledge of Allegiance says that we are ‘one nation under God’; this is a nation where every coin in our pocket and every bill in our wallet says ‘in god we trust.’ So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that!”
While I don’t think Clinton is a Satanist, as someone whose own senior thesis focused on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I have thought a lot about Lucifer. And, whether Carson knows it or not, it’s the Satan in Milton’s epic poem—which portrays the exile of the Great Deceiver from Heaven and the subsequent fall of humanity through the temptation of Eve and Adam—that he’s referencing. Alinsky’s actual epigraph makes that much clear:
Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins—or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer.
The idea of Lucifer as a rebel possibly worthy of admiration, a ruler of his own realm (however dark and sulfurous), is absolutely Miltonic. Prior to Milton’s poem, representations of Lucifer, such as in Dante’s Inferno, generally present him as a ghastly (if restrained) beast or a rather pathetic collector of souls, as in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (via the messenger demon Mephistopheles). It’s in Paradise Lost that we first encounter a Lucifer who might, depending on your reading, have sympathetic qualities like those Alinsky identifies.
The funny thing is, when you consider the characteristics that made Milton’s vision of Satan so revolutionary and influential, he seems like someone who would fit in far better with the GOP we’re seeing in Cleveland this week than with the Democrats. Hell, given the open-mindedness with which the party seems to be selecting speakers for this year’s convention, they might want to consider giving him a slot. No worries if the schedule is set, though: Their own nominee for president bears such a striking resemblance to the father of sin and death that the latter’s presence might feel redundant.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily suggesting that Donald Trump can disguise himself as a cherub, toad, or serpent, nor am I placing his achievements on the same level as inventing the cannon during Heaven’s civil war (though Trump himself might). It’s in the sense of personality, style, and motivation that I draw the comparison.
Let’s start with the issue of allure. Whatever you think of Trump’s positions (such as they exist) or demeanor, there’s no question that he’s the most interesting person in this race. And as it turns out, that’s exactly how many readers have long felt about Milton’s Satan, the poem’s overarching Christian theology aside. Without getting lost in the pandemonium of lit crit history (John M. Steadman’s excellent review of which I relied on for this piece), Satan’s status as the “hero” of the poem has been, to put it mildly, a preoccupation. Romantics like William Blake and Percy Shelley found in the brash Satan of Books I and II—so full of swagger and righteous (so to speak) indignation against a tyrannical God—evidence of where Milton’s sympathies really lay. Others view the ignominious end Satan eventually meets, being transformed along with his minions into hissing serpents in Book X, as a clear rebuke. Regardless of what you think Milton thought, there’s no doubt that coming out of the poem the devil is the only character with whom you’d want to have a beer. Everyone else is just too, as Trump would tweet it, boring!
But what about the Dark One’s politics? If Milton’s Satan had a platform, it would definitely be against big government and for individual liberty. Satan couldn’t stand submitting to “he who reigns Monarch in Heaven,” especially because God’s power, “upheld by old repute / consent or custom,” seemed unearned. This resentment was compounded by the unilateral elevation—by executive order, basically—of the Messiah over the angels. Even in defeat, Satan explains to his followers that they can, and should, still fight back against the Divine Regulator “since no deep within her gulf can hold/ Immortal vigor, though oppressed and fallen,/ I give not Heaven for lost: from this descent/ Celestial virtues rising will appear/ More glorious and more dread than from no fall.” And then, under the pretense that this whole Hell thing might have a silver lining, Satan’s speech in Book II takes on a populist tone: “To union, and firm faith, and firm accord,/ More than can be in Heaven, we now return/ To claim our just inheritance of old/ Surer to prosper than prosperity/ Could have assured us.”
Make angels great again!
Of course, as more private moments reveal later, Satan’s motivations aren’t nearly as democratic as he wants his troops to believe. Steadman identifies in him three not-so-admirable qualities: a narcissistic “preoccupation with the self,” a “craving for dominion,” and a “hunger for glory,” all of which are supported by a sense of “injured merit.” Why can’t everyone just understand that things would be great, bigly great, if he was in control?
If all of this strikes you as unsettlingly similar to a certain presidential contender with thin, orange skin, we’re on the same page. Trump shares with Milton’s Satan a deep belief in his own brilliance alongside an equally profound sense that people don’t appreciate him enough. Their might is obvious and yet they have something to prove. The queasy tension between these two feelings is what set each on the conquering path; it’s just the destination—the White House, the universe—that differs.
But the most remarkable—and most dangerous—similarity between the devil and Donald Trump is their way with words. Milton’s Satan is one of the most effective orators in the history of literature, not least for his ability to skillfully spin new realities out of empty air in the space of a line. Watch how he quietly asserts control over Hell before anyone has even voted in this so-called “union of firm faith and accord”: “yet this loss/ Thus far at least recovered, hath much more/ Established in a safe, unenvied throne/ Yielded with full consent.” And anyway, he continues, who else would want the job when I’m God’s main target? Now let’s “debate” about what we should do next, shall we?
Trump’s rhetoric may be far less elegant (or even grammatical) but it is equally as dazzling and just as defined, as Milton puts it, by a “semblance of worth, not substance.” His arresting style allows for statements based in half- or no truth to hang in the air, buoyed by a feeling of certainty. He suggests, implies, and reports freely, and does so with such breezy confidence that lies take on the aura of fact and incitements—“The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great, I think that’s fine”—gallop off to do their work while their creator moves on to other tasks. If Trump wins this election, it will be because his comforting, homespun style will have charmed enough Americans to support his cause, just as Satan’s silken, and often unsupportable, promises seduced both angels and Eve.