I have always been fascinated to learn what can lead powerful people to do great harm. The reason I am so affected by such revelations is that we can often find that we face the same challenges as they do, on the smaller stage of our lives. Then, the distance between those we might think of as evil, and the rest of us is suddenly diminished. We ourselves in them, and them in us, instead of placing them in a different category from us.
Recently I listened to an interview with Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci and Anthony Schwartz, three men who were in the public eye in the USA because of their involvement with Donald Trump. Each described how they had become involved with the ex-president. They then described what had caused them to cease being Donald Trump’s loyal aides and to become some of his severest critics. Listening to their stories, I became aware of the small human frailties which had ended in them becoming so alienated from their true selves. Through understanding this, I ceased seeing them as monsters; they became evolving human beings.
Schwartz was the ghost writer of Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal. This book inspired many aspiring businesspeople to follow Trump’s model. Cohen and Scaramucci worked for Trump for ten and seven years respectively. In the interview they were asked what motivated them to join Trump and to do things which they felt would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Schwartz admitted that he had never trusted Donald Trump but that he had ignored his conscience because the book contract was so lucrative. What drove his pursuit of wealth was a frailty that he felt that he shared with many American men. This is a sense of worthlessness that resulted from his never having felt recognised and encouraged by his parents, particularly his father. Trump stood as an example of someone who seemed to have overcome this sense of worthlessness by pursuing a false sense of self that comes with fame, wealth and power. The others’ accounts were similar: the glamour and fame of Trump’s life, which he lived so extravagantly and publicly, had inspired these three men to imitate him. Stardom, fame and power gave them a sense that they too had lived their lives largely and risen above the mediocrity of the norm. This had made them lose touch with their moral compass and to do and say things which would eventually endanger democracy in America.
Cutting their ties with Trump felt to them like emerging from a cult. Asked what had changed, one of them described how suffering at the hand of Trump had educated him and made him aware of the consequences of his actions. His pain had brought his unquestioning obedience to an end: he began to think for himself and, most importantly, to develop empathy. All three men are now working on mitigating all the divisive impulses that they helped to inflame in society.
Rudolf Steiner describes three qualities essential for a healthy social life. They are a love of truth, responsibility for others and courage for destiny. At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, I was very shocked to hear a White House press officer countering a factual statement with a lie which she called, ‘alternative facts’. In response to this extraordinary act, people wanting to protect democracy made it their business to record every untruth uttered during the next four years. This ended with the great lie regarding who won the election. In my lifetime, the words, ‘What is truth?’ have never seemed more important and more elusive. Never had it seemed more important to develop a sense of responsibility for others and the courage not to ‘blank out’ the seriousness of the situation, but rather to own that we are responsible for helping to form the world we want to live in.
I have searched long and hard for images of true personhood and service. One such figure is a character from literature: Dorothea, heroine of George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Although she is a figure born from imagination, her journey is a model for what is possible in terms of self-knowledge and true success. She is brave, loving and sincere. She is also remarkably intelligent and beautiful. However, she lacks all life experience. This makes her prone to making unwise decisions. As a woman of her time, she has no proper outlet for her great gifts. Instead, she tries to do the good by marrying someone whom she believes to be a great man, serving him so that he will be able to do good.
Her marriage is a disaster mainly because she has misjudged the true character of Dr Casaubon, her husband. After his death she suffers the pain that comes with the recognition of her mistake. She begins to know herself and the world more clearly. She gives up her fortune and marries again, this time to someone worthy of her ideals. This means giving up her place among the wealthy and influential and entering a life of comparative obscurity. Nevertheless, this is how Eliot describes Dorothea at the end of the novel:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
This image of achievement that consists in making the world better for others rather than seeking recognition for ourselves, runs counter to the popular image of success. Perhaps the greatest challenge that we face is to develop the courage and wisdom that will so ground us in our sense of self that we have no need to be recognised. An older mentor once spoke to me about how to become secure in real selfhood. This was someone who had once been deeply addicted to this negative, worldly recognition. He described how he had struggled with many different kind of addictions and how he had finally found a sense of his own worth through keeping his promises to himself. Released from the craving for love and recognition from without, he became a person who gave others love and recognition.
Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci and Anthony Schwartz know what it is to lose their way in life. Interestingly, this has not made them scathing about those who still follow Donald Trump. Instead, they seek to understand others and to meet difference with empathy. Their failure has made them men of character. Schwartz said that he had learned not to be defensive about his failings but to learn from them and do better. Embracing failure and committing to learning to do better is an essential precondition for the development of our true sense of self. Embracing this would mean that our families, our communities, our governments would be made up of people who were there for the needs of the world rather than to mitigate their own sense of worthlessness. Is this true selfhood and true power? Is this how we become part of what Eliot calls ‘the growing good of the world’?
First published in Perspectives, Journal of The Christian Community
Image by Jane Chase