Stephen D’Evelyn: Beauty and Mr. Trump

Recently, a caller on a radio chat show simulcast in the UK and in the US asked didn’t Hilary Clinton supporters have better things to worry about than how Donald Trump talked about his exploits with women?

It seems to me that this is worth worrying about. The now-infamous ‘Inside Hollywood’ interview with Trump is significant not only because of its moral implications. It’s about how he sees power.

It fits a much wider trend. We — I included — have probably forgotten how Trump last November mocked a New York Times reporter’s disability:

Trump does not just objectify difference. He sees encounters with difference as occasions for mastery. His understanding of power–including presidential authority–depends on mastery and the binary of power and powerlessness.

For me, at least, the way of encountering the unique transcendent power that cuts through this binary is through the act of liturgy–the original meaning of the word suggests public offerings–and the relations of public, private, transcendent, and positive finite that delineate the Church as community. In this mystical community a fuller kind of wellbeing and relationality –a fuller kind of personhood and otherness– should be able to emerge, one that I continue to explore as a disabled person from a foreign land.

At its best, beauty can make us more aware of our own identity, others’ distinctness, and the ways we long both for more and for some sense of satisfaction and balance. I find this in the beauty of liturgy and elsewhere. Yet beauty can easily be misappropriated. In the now-infamous ‘Inside Hollywood’ interview, Trump speaks of being irresistably attracted to beautiful women. That attraction seems all too often to be what matters and not the persons themselves in their particularity. Trump seems unable to accept others as being other.

That otherness of others as other creatres a distance and relationality. Trump instinctively seeks to reduce this tension which we experience in recognizing otherness and yet feeling kinship with the person seeming to embody beauty’s otherness. Trump wants to replace tension with his mastery, reducing a person who confronts him with the otherness of beauty to an object to be possessed, fondled, used.

Trump’s vision is one of power and ability, of making America great again and making a big noise. This action-adventure approach has the effect of foregrounding human action. We lose a broader view that includes human action and what is other to it–I might call it divine otherness. What becomes important is the clarity of single zoomed-in images. We may think of commentators’ observations on pornography, the isolated image. Trump admits he cannot control himself around beautiful women. As we lose a broader view including human action and divine otherness, in turn we lose the perspective of distance. Trump seems consistently to try to avoid distance and eliminate it.

Yet when Trump encounters his ideal of feminine beauty, he seems to experience distance, a kind of lack deep inside. The connection of beauty, desire, and lack is a topic as old as Plato not to mention Homer’s Helen of Troy. We experience beauty and we long for more, finding that we feel an emptiness inside. When Trump encounters his ideal of feminine beauty, his vision of greatness may be undermined by emptiness. He seems to feel threatened. This threat also would be appear to be a kind of self-affirmation. The feeling of threat confirms the existence of Trump’s self in an otherwise empty world. (We remember this world is walled off from ways of being other.)

I think Trump may even need to feel threatened by encounters with his definition of feminine beauty; in those moments of threat his agonistic self is engaged. Trump’s lack seems to send him back to himself as a doer rather than to peace beyond individual experiences of lack. So he may never be open to the sense of being other which we find as we are perplexed and reflect. Trump thus seems never moved beyond those individual experiences of lack.

Trump appears to be caught between his self-image of action and ability and lack. His plight reveals that action’s opposite is not inaction but peace. Instead, he needs always again to encounter lack. This helps explain why there are so many instances of women whom Trump has abused. It also helps us understand why his image of action keeps recurring. Any hint of action defeated must be a conspiracy. It seems logical that evangelical Christians remain some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. Jesus is victorious. He is active. The Cross is empty. There is no troubling paradox of victory in defeat, love transforming hate, divine open wholeness in human brokenness – bread, wine, body. These supporters want a strong man. Trump cannot bear what he thinks of as weakness. That might just keep him out of power.


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