For a very long time, it has seemed to me that the concept of a supernatural place of eternal punishment is quite unnecessary, given the endless ways human beings have invented to put it into practice right here on Earth. This often occurs in the course of earnest attempts to bring Heaven to Earth, an instance of the law of unintended consequences that stands as its own damning judgment upon humankind, along with the disturbing fact that we are much better at thinking up ingenious methods of eternal torment than we are at imagining eternal bliss.
The thirteenth century Italian poet Dante Alighieri had a variety of traditional Roman Catholic criteria that he used to assign various dead scoundrels to different depths of his Inferno. When it comes to present-day political evildoers, the overriding criterion of judgment must be the amount of harm they have done and might yet still do. By that standard, there is none to compare in today’s America to Donald Trump, who has brought our republic to the brink of destruction and may yet push it over the edge. His presidency ended in a violent putsch that nearly overthrew the government, after he had spent four years fomenting racial and religious hatred; kidnapping undocumented immigrant children from their parents, a crime against humanity; maliciously discouraging his supporters from taking self-protective public health measures during a pandemic; and undermining democracy and the rule of law at every turn. If he does succeed in returning to power, it is as certain as any contingent human event can be that the American system of government will not survive.
But if we ask subjectively who is the most evil, matters become a little more ambiguous. As a textbook psychopath, Trump can distinguish right from wrong, but does not care to guide his actions accordingly. Repulsive personalities such as Alex Jones, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz seem to be in this same category. Other MAGA supporters seem almost too stupid to tell the difference between right and wrong; for example, Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who may be suffering from brain damage due to his career as a professional football player and certainly talks as if he is.
Then we have people like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and Senate candidate J.D. Vance. Here the phrase that springs to mind is trahison des clercs, the title of a century-old book by the French Jewish intellectual Julien Benda. The phrase translates as “betrayal of the intellectuals,” which certainly applies to these Ivy League-educated men, the lawless products of elite law schools, who have adopted the demagogic habit, not just of railing at “elites,” but of cultivating virulent hatred for history, science, literature, or any other branch of knowledge or independence of mind that does not further their power grubbing. Cruz and Vance, of course, were outspoken opponents of Trump before they jumped on his bandwagon, but Vance is a special case because he didn’t start out as an officeholder or office seeker at all. He had made money in tech, but he first came to public notice with his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, a well written and thoughtful work that also seemed to hold an explanation of why the “White working class,” specifically in Appalachia, had dumped their Democratic allegiances that went back to the New Deal and twentieth-century miners’ unions and gone all in on Trump. Vance was eloquent outside the pages of his book on how Trump was exploiting and scamming such people, while in the memoir itself, he was harshly critical of his own folk and the social pathologies such as drug abuse and domestic violence that they had developed.
To my way of looking at the world, there was far too much victim blaming in Hillbilly Elegy and far too little criticism of the outside forces that really were working against Appalachia, such as the infamous Sackler family with their addictive opioid pills. Nevertheless, no one could doubt Vance’s love and affection for his formerly drug addicted mother and, by extension, the millions of others just like her. And even poor and disenfranchised people do have to take some responsibility for their own fates; otherwise, we deny them all human agency. It seemed to me that Vance had real empathy for others, and also a true understanding of the kind of us-against-them demagogy Trump was spouting, even if I might not agree with his politics otherwise.
Not only has Vance “done a 180” with regard to Trump and won the coveted blessing of the Orange Menace, he has outdone the master himself in his rants against the undocumented, sexual minorities, anyone to the left of Steve Bannon, and other designated scapegoats. Like Mitch McConnell, his wife is of Asian origin, so on top of everything else there is the inescapable suspicion that he has personal reason to know how dangerous White racism is, but is willing to play with fire to advance his political career. It is for his deliberate betrayal of humanity and human empathy, then, that I would consign J.D. Vance to the lowest pit of MAGA hell.