In his short story – really a fictionalized academic essay – “The Three Versions of Judas,” Jorge Luis Borges plays with the idea of Judas Iscariot as the holiest figure in the New Testament. It’s the first version of Judas that interests us here.
Borges’s fictional scholar points out that it wasn’t logically necessary for Judas to betray Jesus. Sending Roman soldiers to pick up the guy who preaches at the synagogue every day and has a thing for flashy miracles would have done it. If there wasn’t a practical need, there must have been a mystical one. (Or a narrative one, in my way of looking at it.) The first version of Judas is one who was a mirror image of Christ – a heavy who was necessary to set Jesus’s greater story into motion. Perhaps Judas’s wickedness is even necessary to fully understand Christ’s goodness. If I may paraphrase Bob Ross (and his mentor/mirror/enemy Bill Alexander), you need that layer of dark in there, or you won’t be able to see the light. You need that flashy act of evil to slingshot the whole story back around to redemption.
I’m not a Christian, but I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately because it has helped me think in a more productive and comforting way about Donald Trump.
Because as he has doubled down on his racism and Islamophobia, as he has retweeted anti-Semitic and White Power memes, as he has called for violence at his rallies and issued barely veiled suggestions that his opponent should be assassinated if she wins, as he has attacked the free press, as he has turned out to be even more appallingly misogynist than we thought, as he has both defended and denied the nonconsensual groping he crudely bragged about, as he has called a woman too homely to sexually assault, as the press has unearthed his routine practice of refusing to pay contractors and small businesses who worked for him, as he spouts increasingly unhinged far-right conspiracy theories openly in campaign speeches, as his “charity” has been unmasked as a cynical fraud, and as volatile crowds have cheered him on for all of these things, it’s hard not to give in to shame and despair.
It’s easy to see Donald Trump’s candidacy as a low point from which our nation will never recover. A few months ago, Trump had me thinking about the ancient city of Angkor a lot. In recent years, scientists have determined that the city was abandoned because of prolonged drought. But at one time, the theory was that people had simply given up on their own culture. What I was taught in college was that they got exhausted, lost faith in their entire society, and walked away. Donald Trump’s candidacy made me understand why someone might do that. It made me wish that I had a jungle to walk into.
But there has always been another way to look at this, and now it’s a real possibility: Trump is our nation’s chance to redeem itself.
Barack Obama’s presidency sparked our country’s most vicious bigotry to slither out from under the rocks and dead logs where it had been incubating. Our culture’s misogyny, also always coiled close to the surface, took a similar surge of new life with each of Hillary Clinton’s candidacies. We have watched as a segment of the population got uglier, angrier, and louder, and finally it picked up Trump and thrust him to the top on a geyser of bile.
But in rejecting Donald Trump as a nation, we can say no, this is not who we are. No, this is not what we stand for. We can reject our worst national impulses and reinvigorate our best vision of ourselves: We are kind. We are honest. And, though flawed, we are constantly working towards true equality.
Trump’s descent into bizarre and cruel behavior as a part of his “defense” is, in all probability, just a series of breathtakingly stupid moves dictated by his damaged psyche. In all likelihood, he’s simply unable to see how he looks to others or think about changing his behavior. He’s a sociopathic bully who’s lashing out because he’s never in his life been told no.
But if we choose, we can look at this as poetic, or even mystical if you’re so inclined. Trump gets worse and worse so that we can be propelled to our higher good.
And as Trump’s once distressingly high poll numbers start to crater, it becomes easier for us as a nation to do so. Non-bigots finally hit their limit. Women see that he hits all the marks of a classic abuser. Sometimes it’s as simple as the undecideds seeing which way the wind is blowing or the media switching from the excitement of a horse race story to the deliciousness of watching a true sinner flame out. It would be great if it could all be for the highest reasons, but at least it all pushes us toward doing the right thing by getting on board with soundly rejecting the wrong.
The Borges Judas, or at least one version of him, is a figure of profound sacrifice. He spends his life being rejected and reviled as the villain so that the rest of humankind can be raised up. In that light, we should thank Trump – not directly, for he deserves no words of praise – but silently and inwardly, as an abstract figure in the insane story that this election has become. We need to thank him for being so broadly, cartoonishly horrible that he helped the rest of us shout our good.