In a 2011 article in First Things, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart pondered why so many literary depictions of the devil present him as attractive, witty, stylish and debonair. If there is a devil, Hart ventured, he is a thug and a bore, “probably a monomaniac who talks about nothing but his personal grievances and aims, and in the bluntest, most unrefined language imaginable—the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party.”
Hart recalled a legal case from 1993 in which a poor, elderly New Jersey woman, Vera Coking, fought to keep her home while a ruthless developer used all his power to have the land seized by eminent domain so he could buy it at a discount and turn it into a limousine parking lot for one of his Atlantic City casinos. Hart then offered the following verdict on that developer and on the nature of the diabolical: “Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.”
Conservatives have long decried the relaxing of sexual ethics and the loss of codes of etiquette as markers of liberalism’s moral impoverishment and as political perils to Western civilization. Yet with the rise of Trumpism, they are themselves now deeply and irreversibly implicated in the expressivist turn. All of the old pieties, it turns out, are completely fungible for most conservatives as well. Basic principles of rationality, truth-telling, civility, decency and restraint have been laid waste by the reality television star’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party and ascent to the White House on a tsunami of emotive tweets and hyperbolic promises of “better deals.” Yet an astonishing number of Americans, abandoning their own earlier proclamations of the necessity of virtuous character for wise and just political leadership, now cheer the unraveling—and the cruelty.