Many years ago, I was laboring through my High Holiday sermons, trying to find a contemporary angle, something to connect my barely-formed ideas to today’s America, when I flicked on the TV and witnessed a clip of then-President Clinton testifying before the grand jury. Referring to whether he’d lied about a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton said — with an admirably straight face — “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Perfect! I thought. I’ve got it. One sermon could be about the ingenious ways we manipulate language to evade responsibility, the temptation to define our way out of guilt. Did I lie to you? Well, it depends on what you mean by “lie,” or by “truth,” and who knows what truth really means anyway? Thank you, President Clinton. He bequeathed to many of us rabbis all the material we needed for at least one talk.
This year, of course, we have Donald Trump — and where to begin? With lies, bullying, ego, aggression, abusive language? There’s too much to choose from. But my aha moment this year didn’t come from the news — it occurred when someone sent me the video of the new Taylor Swift song, “Look What You Made Me Do.” This was evasion of responsibility on a presidential scale (and perhaps material for a High Holiday sermon). The song teems with menace. Taylor prances around as a zombie, brandishes an ax, and dances on a grave. But any violent crime she commits is your fault, because “look what you made me do.” It’s the victim defense as pop art, and elevated to the extreme. It can never be her fault, she seems to be saying, because her permanent victimhood absolves her of responsibility for all time.
As it happens, the victim defense is the Torah’s first cautionary tale in dealing with sin. Adam, Eve and Cain all use some version of “look what you made me do” to deflect responsibility, Eve pointing to the snake, Adam pointing to Eve, and Cain, in several midrashim, blaming God and the way God created the world. So it’s not exactly a new idea.
But Taylor Swift picked the perfect time to unleash her zombie-victim dance. Which brings us back to Donald Trump. For me, the defining trait of the Trump era — and something worth building a sermon around — is deflecting responsibility onto someone else by embracing victimhood. Recall how many times, both as a candidate and as president, that Donald Trump claimed he was being “treated unfairly.” First by the press and debate moderators and judges and fellow candidates and the Republican establishment and the “rigged” electoral system. And now by congress and the FBI and the witch-hunting special prosecutor and China and Europe and the rest of the world. There’s so much confusing bluster to Donald Trump, but an essential, consistent attribute is his claim to victimhood, his complaint of unfairness, his deflection of responsibility, his “look what you made me do.” Who knew the world could be so unfair to a multi-billionaire who became president? One wonders how rich and powerful he’d be if it weren’t for so much unfairness.
We sometimes forget that this was also Trump’s persona before he ran for president. The TV character we all enjoyed or despised wasn’t just a brilliant billionaire businessman with the all the answers. He was also a victim – of gossip columnists, or shady competitors, or Rosie O’Donnell or NBC or Barack Obama. The attacks on him were always relentless and always unfair. Even in his first bestseller “The Art of the Deal,” he was complaining about a rigged system, and the old boy network that was constantly stabbing him in the back. As a celebrity personality, Trump’s genius was as much about evading responsibility as making money.
All of which is to say that Trump doesn’t just embody the “look what you made us do” era; he helped create it. In the last ten years or so, we’ve become an angry, victimized culture, looking for scapegoats who’ve stolen our jobs, blasting a rigged system that keeps us down, and idolizing the TV character who articulates all our resentments.
This isn’t the first time America’s elected a Hollywood character as president. In 1980 we elected a former movie actor who embodied a certain American spirit that seemed to define the era. But Ronald Reagan played the good guy, the calm, rugged individualist, stern, but generous, firm, but ultimately warm-hearted and optimistic. This time, we elected as our president the villain, the wounded victim — The Joker, Two-Face, Lex Luthor, the guy who turns his resentment into mayhem and blames everyone else. That’s Donald Trump’s legacy as well as his accomplishment. Look what he made us do.