“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
– Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956
I am a resident physician in a small community hospital in Brooklyn. At the heart of the storm that hit New York in April, our hospital lost hundreds of patients. In the aftermath of that tragedy, I have not been able to weep. The horror and the loss have proven too heavy. When the surge came, we were inundated with dead and dying bodies, and our terror and disbelief soon gave way to a grim despair. Although it may be true that “grief is just praise for what has been lost,” I was so overcome with helpless rage that I could not access the grief. I was left feeling numb and disconnected.
In his 1942 novel The Plague, Camus states that the best way to become acquainted with a people is to learn how they live, how they love, and how they die. The response of the people in the town of Oran is an eerie echo of our own. They are bewildered, then perplexed, and finally panicked. Eventually, they just quietly hope that the plague will disappear.
Monsieur Cottard is the villain in The Plague. He is a lonely and miserable man. At first, he is driven by his unhappiness to the brink of suicide—crying out, in fact, for an earthquake. Any disaster, however violent, is kinder than suffering through more loneliness. He says at one point that he feels better at last because no matter how bad it is, at least we are in it together. His distasteful cheerfulness in the face of such overwhelming pain gives us the impression, much as we have of Trump, that his overwhelming desire is that people pay attention him.
As the election approaches and our hospital community is bracing itself for a second wave of deaths, I find myself contemplating our relationship with President Trump. What is he activating within me and what is he activating within those who support him? The impact of Trump echoes through our history, relentlessly revealing its discordant overtones and creating a deep moral chasm that we feel unable to bridge.
“The nineteenth-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass,” Oscar Wilde points out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. The savage, deformed beast that lives within us cannot bear the sight of itself. Our reflexive hatred of the monster within us keeps us locked into an intensely intimate relationship with Trump. It is difficult to watch the debates because he too perfectly reflects who we are. Our own dysphoria is the clearest indicator that Trump is the quintessential American president.
Where do we go from here? Conventional wisdom suggests that we can only transform ourselves. This is why I propose that we attempt to recognize the Trump that lies within each of us and to heal him. We are plagued not just by the pandemic but by the human condition—and no part of us should be left behind. We often persuade ourselves we have outsmarted the Leviathan by traveling to a far-off land, only to find that the beast followed by sea, swimming clumsily but steadily along in our wake.
Cottard’s only real crime, Camus says, is that of having in his heart approved of something that killed off men, women, and children. He is the expression of what Jung called the shadow, feeding off the suffering of others and profiting from their deaths. Yet somehow Camus’ protagonist, Dr. Rieux, finds within himself the capacity to treat Cottard with a kind of tenderness. One might even say he loves him.
As a physician, it is clear to me that we are all part of one global entity. The concept of an “other” is a fiction we must not allow ourselves to accept. If we wish to move forward, we must lay claim to our own small part of the rot—our own inner Cottard—forgive it and reintegrate it. If we can love even the part that inspires our hatred, perhaps we could open our hearts, cradle his unctuous form in our arms, and cover his sallow face with kisses. His revolting features will blur through our tears, and when we turn our faces down to his, we may find that he bears our own countenance. The most revolutionary thing we can do right now is to come together and dissolve this monstrous apparition with our love.
Trump, I love you. There is a place for you at my table.
Beck Ballentine is an internal medicine physician.
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