The Damnatio Memoriae of Donald Trump
Back in my high school English classes, we were treated to one Shakespearean play each year and were required to commit to memory a soliloquy from each. I can still recite the whole of Portia’s hymn to mercy from The Merchant of Venice. Sophomore year, the play was Julius Caesar, so as to coincide with our Latin course which had us translate Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. Marc Antony’s panegyric for Caesar sprung to mind as one after another former friend and supporter of President Donald Trump flipped sides, essentially engaging in a favorite ancient Roman exercise of damnatio memoriae (the damnation or cancellation of the memory of someone). I pray that I have been sufficiently inoculated against that terrible virus.
Sometimes friends are irked by my refusal to paint persons and situations with a broad brush, even bringing up good traits in otherwise bad individuals. I attribute that “flaw” of mine to a profound sense of justice, which is generally defined as giving to each person his due. That’s why, for example, I refused to get onboard the “cancel McCarrick” train as I pointed out all the good he had done (particularly as Archbishop of Newark, where he reclaimed Seton Hall University from secular control; banned General Absolution; brought Catholic schools back from the brink; packed the seminaries; returned the Archdiocese to full communion with the Catholic Church – all done to undo the immense damage done by his predecessor.)
I find myself in a similar place with the now-former President Trump. I do so with no small degree of trepidation, fearing that I might be opening myself up to the “deprogramming” called for by Katie Couric for members of the “Trump cult.”
Let me be perfectly clear: Donald Trump is a flawed human being. And that is so because of the sin of our first parents. He can be very vulgar. His personal insecurity often caused him to regard alternate viewpoints in his orbit, not as “the loyal opposition” but as enemies. His name-calling (which at times can be quite entertaining) also came off as juvenile. All of those characteristics made me in early 2016 a “NeverTrumper.” As he became the frontrunner for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee, I realized I had no moral alternative but to put a clothespin on my nose, change course, and vote for Trump -- and to use my God-given grace of Christian prophecy as a priest to convince others to do the same. With his election and in very short order thereafter, I repented of my negative judgment on the man (all the while wishing that his personal liabilities would disappear).
Presently, I wish to take three excerpts of the eulogy Shakespeare places on Marc Antony’s lips, using them as points of reflection:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones. . .
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
What good did Donald Trump do that should not be “interred” but should “live after” him? What could cause former supporters to commit damnatio memoriae? What will happen when “men have lost their reason”?
What were the accomplishments of the Trump administration and how did they mirror classical Catholic social doctrine? Let’s survey the landscape.
- Middle-class family income increased by nearly $6000.
- The lowest unemployment rate in half a century, with particular beneficiaries being African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, veterans, and those with disabilities.
- Poverty levels for Blacks and Hispanics reaching record lows.
- Tax relief for the middle class achieved.
- The creation of nearly 9000 “Opportunity Zones” to lift a million Americans out of poverty.
- Historic support rendered to farmers.
- The Child Credit Tax doubled to $2000.
- Over 230 federal judges confirmed, along with three justices for the Supreme Court -- judges who believe in judicial restraint and a strict mode of interpretation of the Constitution.
- An historic peace agreement brokered between Israel and Arab-Muslim countries.
- No new war launched for the first time in fifty years.
- Renewed attention given to the needs of veterans.
- This administration and President the most proactive in promoting the sanctity of human life, with actions too numerous to list here, but well symbolized by President Trump’s being the first President to participate in the March for Life in person.
- Strong stances consistently taken to protect religious liberty in America and around the world, again too numerous to mention.
- Parental freedom of choice in education advocated.
- Historically Black colleges supported.
- The opioid crisis declared a national public health emergency, thus bringing it to the forefront.
Those accomplishments would gladden the heart of true papal social justice warriors like Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. John Paul II -- and so, should not and cannot be forgotten.
If all of this is the case, then how to explain “defectors” from Trumpism? Gutlessness and political maneuvering. And the very loss of reason that Shakespeare castigated. If Our Lord spoke well in asserting that “by their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:16) -- and He always did speak well -- we can say that the Tree of Trump was (and still is) a very good tree. It is a tree that had its seeds in the social teaching of the Church and bore some astonishing fruit.
Hence, far from erasing the memory of Donald Trump, I stand firm in holding it most dearly forever and intend to work and pray for the fruits he produced to remain. Marc Antony’s paean to Caesar can provide salutary food for thought for a Catholic examination of conscience. It has led me to conclude that Donald Trump, malgré lui (in spite of himself), may well be deemed the first truly Catholic president. May we Catholics never forget the immense good that he did. I surely shan’t -- even if Couric gets me sent to one of her “deprogramming” re-education camps. That said, I believe that I am genetically prepared: Many of my Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Polish ancestors endured the same.