Scandal, Satan, and the Trump-Russia Connection

It is one scandal after another with the Trump administration. And there are so many layers of scandals within the scandals. So. Many. Layers.

The Russia investigation is heating up, as we learned today that George Papadopoulos attempted to arrange a meeting for the Trump campaign with the Russian government. According to page 9 of the “The United States of America vs. George Papadapoulos,” a campaign supervisor apparently encouraged Papadopoulos to make a trip to Russia, “if it was feasible.”

I hope we will discover soon what exactly happened in the scandal involving Trump administration and Russia. But I’d like to explore this word “scandal” with you and how mimetic theory can help us make sense of the many layers of this particular scandal.

I was listening to Morning Joe today as I was making school lunches for my children. There was a segment called “WH downplays aid’s role, but emails show opposite.” The segment is a good illustration of what mimetic theory means by the term scandal.

Willie Geist: You know, what I’m struck by reading through this plea agreement is the same thing I’m struck by with the Donald Jr story that we had a couple of months ago with the meeting in June of 2016. When they are presented in the Trump campaign with an opportunity to get dirt from a foreign power about the political opponent, they don’t run from it. They are thrilled by it. Don Jr. said, “I love it.” That was his quote when he got that email. Another campaign might say, “I don’t want to go anywhere near this. I don’t want to touch this. I know what the implication will be of my having a relationship with a foreign power meddling in this election.

Joe Scarborough: And by the way, let’s just stop for one second and say, “Every campaign that any of us have ever known about, worked on, reported for, would have all said, ‘Get away from me. Get behind me Satan. I want nothing to do with any of that.’”

Joe refers to the Gospel story where Peter told Jesus that Jesus shouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem and experience great suffering. “God forbid it,” Peter said. Jesus responded to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

The phrase “stumbling block” is a translation of the Greek word skandalon. Jesus was scandalized by Peter. But scandal in this story doesn’t mean that Jesus was offended by Peter’s moral sensibilities. Rather, it means that Jesus was attracted to Peter’s idea. As James Warren writes in his book Compassion or Apocalypse, Jesus was “attracted to it and tempted by it.” In fact, scandals both repel us and attract us. Warren quotes René Girard’s book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “…’scandal’ means, not one of those ordinary obstacles that we avoid easily after we run into them the first time, but a paradoxical obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid: the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us.”

We do not yet know what the Trump investigation will bring up. But if there was collusion with Russia, I think we could trace it to the Trump campaign’s fixation with defeating Hillary Clinton. They were intensely scandalized by her. They were deeply attracted to Clinton, because she is one of the most successful politicians of our time. But they were repelled by her precisely because she had that success and was leading in virtually every poll. She was the supreme scandal for Trump. They admired her, and wanted to be like her in so many ways, but also hated her for being an obstacle to their own success. Deep down, they knew the risks involved in colluding with Russia. But on another level, certain members of the campaign loved the idea of beating Hillary at her own game. If they did collude with Russia, they loved the idea so much that they couldn’t resist.

But here’s the thing about scandals – they are incredibly difficult to resist! If certain members of the Trump campaign couldn’t resist colluding with Russia, it’s not due to the fact that they are evil. It’s due to the fact that they are human. After all, Jesus was able to put Peter’s scandalous suggestion behind him, but we can’t always put scandals behind us.

Take Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist, for example. They claim that every other campaign would resist colluding with Russia. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I do know that the history of American politics is fraught with scandals. I also know that if Russia did meddle in our election, we can’t really claim the moral high ground. The United States has done our fair share of meddling in foreign elections.

On some level, I think we’re all fraught with scandal. One way that you can tell if someone is scandalized is when they claim moral superiority. Scarborough and Geist are both scandalized by the Trump administration. Essentially, they do claim the moral high ground over the Trump administration., “I would never do something like that! I would do it so much better!”

Now, before I get too high on my horse, I always find myself thinking that I could do it better than someone else. Take my kid’s soccer coach … Oh man, I would be a much better coach …

Here’s the point: We all get caught up in scandal. We would do well to find ways to move through them and, with some humility, put them behind us, as Jesus did.

I hope that the Trump campaign will be held responsible if the investigation shows that it colluded with Russia in its attempt to defeat Hillary Clinton. But I hope even more that we begin to see that scandals don’t just infect Donald Trump and his colleagues. Scandals infect all of us. One doesn’t need to look further than the Russia investigation to see that our culture is deeply repelled and deeply attracted to scandals. I hope that we move through this scandal, learn from it, and put it behind us.

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