On How the 2016 Election is Like a Dostoevsky Novel

No! Please, no! Not another piece about the election!

No, wait, give me a chance. A certain kind of despair has set in for many of us as we careen towards our inevitable doom: the election of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. For many of us who attach ourselves to the “pro-life party,” the primaries were a painful circus, with Trump as the buffoon who could not be bested by anyone. In reflecting upon that spring season of humiliation, I have thought often, oddly enough, of one of my favorite novels, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I simply want to put forth a couple of characters for your consideration, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and a minor character named Miusov. Early in the novel, Fyodor, patriarch of the Karamazov family, travels to the local monastery in order to have Father Zosima, an elder monk, mediate a dispute between Fyodor and his second son Dmitri. Fyodor is no fool, but he is a buffoon: crass, irreverent, fearless, and blatantly corrupt. Miusov, an acquaintance of Fyodor’s who had briefly taken up a co-guardianship with him to “raise” his second son, accompanies Fyodor to the monastery out of curiosity. An atheist and a cynic, Miusov prides himself on being in the right and considers himself superior to others, especially unenlightened religious people and buffoons such as Fyodor Karamazov.

Mrs. Miusov Clinton: An Old Woman

The monastery is a locus in the novel for enlightenment and hope, yet for Miusov, who earlier had moved into the neighborhood and bought an adjoining property, the monastery is an impediment and a symbol of what right-minded people know must be opposed. He is a man who must confirm his power and influence by putting those who are inferior to him in their place, and what better way to do it than by immediately starting up a frivolous, endless lawsuit against those clerics in the monastery as a matter of principle? Miusov is a modern, “enlightened” man, an atheist who may refer to reason but only to support his own prejudices. He fancies himself a right-minded person who can take up a cause on principle, but his motivations to take up such causes seem to rely upon their expediency in achieving his own aims of personal significance and power. Thus, for example, the co-guardianship over Fyodor’s son, Dmitri, petered out after he gained that position, and he promptly lost interest in the boy and forgot him as well (Dmitri ends up being passed along more than once to other caretakers). Additionally, Miusov opposes religious belief but is too proud of his own civility and self-control to discuss it among those who believe; thus, he heaps scorn upon the Church when in the presence of like-minded people, but when visiting the monastery, he wishes to be seen by those clerics as dignified, polite, and above the fray of Fyodor’s foolishness.

You need not ask, I am sure, which of these characters I intend to liken to the Donald. In picking Miusov for comparison with Mrs. Clinton, however, I am not suggesting that she is an atheist necessarily, but much of the seemingly progressive platform of the Democratic party operates with those kinds of assumptions—a malleable view of human nature (i.e. humans can be improved over time if they just have access to the right social programs), a cynical view of religion (i.e. religion is fabulous, and sincere dedication to its tenets is dangerous and foolish), and a condescending view towards those who have not received the enlightenment of modernity (i.e. autonomy of the self, viewed through the inexorable will of the self to choose what is always best for the self, irrespective of how those choices, such as abortion or gay marriage or trans-sexual rights, might negatively affect those around him or her).

Both Miusov and Clinton fancy themselves to be champions of the neglected and disenfranchised. For instance, Miusov takes pride in almost taking part in the 1848 rebellion. Clinton, who has called herself a “Goldwater girl” (associating herself with a politician that was not in favor of Martin Luther King’s protest marches in the South), prides herself on her enlightened switch to the Democratic party after meeting Rev. King, leader of the civil rights movement in which she almost participated, but settled instead for simply switching to the correct point of view on the subject.

Many are surprised to learn that Mrs. Clinton once, after meeting St. Teresa of Calcutta, was persuaded to open up the now-defunct orphanage, the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children, in Washington D.C. She fancies herself compassionate, supporting such policies as amnesty for illegal aliens who were brought here as children, yet she scorns any kind of education that might enculturate those young people into a civic-minded patriotism that extols the true liberal virtues of our polity. Perhaps these shortcomings in her attempts to be the voice of the disenfranchised, the minority, the poor, the blue collar, are due to some kind of bureaucratic difficulties, but I suspect that, in many ways, these people are simply an abstraction for her. How else could one account for her recent assertion that at least half (half!) of those who support Trump could be labeled a “basket of deplorables”?

Mr. Fyodor Trump: The Old Adam

Now, in stark contrast to the abstractions of Miusov and Clinton, we have the earthy sensualism of Fyodor Karamazov. Fyodor is first described in the novel as a “landowner” who started with little but at his death is quite wealthy. He is “a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a trashy and depraved type and, in addition, senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else” (Dostoevsky 2). This distinction is important; he is not stupid, but rather, senseless. His depravity leads to dissipation and sensualism. He does not try to give even the appearance of fidelity to women he marries, but indulges himself freely in sexual exploits. He is crass. His depravity is “revolting,” and his real-estate ventures are primarily the opening of taverns to encourage depravity in others. His speech often sinks “into a sort of incoherence” where he “begin(s) one thing and go(es) on with another” (16). (Of course, it should be noted, in all fairness, that our character makes great use of those inebriating libations, whereas our Republican nominee is a teetotaler; his immoderation finds other outlets.) He brags about making the “acquaintance” of the Jews (that marginalized religious group so despised by the Russian culture, much like conservative Christians are despised by the popular American culture) and being “received” by them, clearly to his own advantage. Clearly, analogies with Donald Trump need not be drawn out here, as they are pretty self-evident. Let us move onward toward the scene in the monastery in which we may see these two (un)savory characters interact a bit.

A Scene Without Fig Leaves

After Fyodor and Miusov arrive and meet Father Zosima with an embarrassing degree of bravado (on the part of Fyodor) and irreverence (on the part of Miusov), Fyodor, in his endless banter with the monk, makes repeated references to himself as a buffoon—which would, perhaps, hearten us to see one who is so self-aware. But what exactly is a buffoon, and what kind of self-awareness does Fyodor’s confession reveal? To some degree, we can see the buffoon as a kind of entertainer, an actor who consciously plays the role of humiliating himself and those around him, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, by aping their worst qualities or drawing out their worst qualities. He may claim, as Fyodor does, to do it for the purpose of “amusing people” and “making himself agreeable,” but it is perhaps more fair to say that he is primarily amusing himself while at the same time making himself disagreeable. He acts like a fool, but in the process reveals the foolishness and hypocrisy of others, and drags the most dignified people down into his mire. The way Fyodor does that in this particular scene is by poking at Miusov and exposing his disbelief and cynicism. The story he relates to Father Zosima is of a saint who allegedly, after being martyred by having his head cut off, picked up his head and kissed it affectionately and walked off. This absurd story, told by Miusov at a dinner party in order to ridicule Christian veneration of the holy martyrs is, of course, patently false, and Father Zosima assures Fyodor, quite plainly and simply, that the story is not true. But the telling of the story absolutely infuriates and embarrasses Miusov (whom Fyodor has already pointed out as the originator of the silly tale), and as he seethes with anger toward Fyodor for telling it, the buffoon’s work is done: Miusov’s dignity and self-control have suffered, and the buffoon is filled with delight.

This kind of scene, a small illustration of the buffoon’s main tactic, fills the audience with a kind of bemusement. There is laughter, there is delight; the proud man, filled with his contempt for holy things, conservative principles, etc., has fallen, and this buffoon has spoken on our behalf, saying things we would never dare to say, but when we hear them, we suddenly imagine that these were the things we wish we could say, even though, in truth, we are better than that. It was not our weakness that prevented us from saying such things, but our civility and moderation. Nevertheless, we love how he “speaks his mind”—we chuckle with him when he pops off with some insulting remark that brings down the enemy. It is a tour de force, and we have a great seat in the ring. But consider, if you will, how Miusov’s distaste for the Church arises out of the same sinfulness and baseness as Fyodor’s drinking and debauchery. The buffoon’s visible baseness and debasement is the truth behind supposedly civilized and sophisticated people like Miusov.

Likewise, if Donald Trump mocks Hillary Clinton, you want to cheer for him because she is so powerful and controlled that you want to see her humbled, to be forced to talk about her bodily health or her (and her husband’s) great variety of indiscretions. This victory is a false victory, like cheering for the barrator who manages to escape Malabranche and his band of devils in the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, plunging back into the muck that is his punishment and making a fool of the devils. Hillary Clinton is not made worse by her self-control and generally civilized behavior. Stripping that away is not an angelic action. It is possible to reveal truth in the form of our sins without, as we so tritely say it now, “shining the light on them.” Christ’s light reveals all and purifies all with His saving blood, but the buffoon’s truth is always and only sin, foulness, corruption, which brings us nothing but permission to indulge in our own sins and despair as the inevitable result. Trump essentially gives people permission to revel in seeing a sinful old woman shamed and confounded.

But, you might ask, don’t we want, as Christians, to be rid of false appearances and hypocrisy? Yes, of course! But not in this particular way, because the lie the buffoon ends up telling is the inverse of Father Zosima’s wisdom, that “all are responsible for all,” which is part and parcel of what we say in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” The buffoon is also aware of the world’s sin and his own baseness and sinfulness, and he draws that out, but he declares to the world that we are all drenched in sin; all goodness, therefore, is hypocrisy. (Incidentally, reality TV shows, including Mr. Trump’s show, function similarly, presenting all people as essentially banal, false, and hypocritical, allowing us to feel better about ourselves by way of comparison.) However, it is actually good when an evil man acts in a civilized manner. He would be even more evil if he behaved in an uncivilized manner. The buffoon makes that civilized behavior into mere hypocrisy, and then he tars all truly meaningful goodness with the same brush, for if all men are sinners as we are and as he reveals, then what goodness in us can be anything but hypocrisy?

 Father Zosima does not deny that we are not all sinners; indeed, he emphasizes it. But within us, he asserts, is also the potential to be Christ-like, to take upon our conscience the sin of all and, therefore, be simultaneously humble and glorious. His wisdom, that “all are responsible for all,” is the antidote to buffoonery, which is ultimately based in shame, and his wisdom is also the antidote to atheism, cynicism, and self-righteousness. This is why he says to Fyodor when he meets him in his cell,

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill--he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. (36)

Trump is perhaps not a dishonest man; he perhaps believes everything he says, but he is lying to himself. And, of course, he takes offense easily as well; witness the recent 3 a.m. tweets after being baited during the first debate concerning some irrelevant comments made about the weight issues of a Miss Universe winner whose whole job was to look like, um, Miss Universe.

The New Adam

Zosima’s relationship with Alyosha enables the young man, as the story progresses, to enact his own, small works of love upon a bruised and cynical world. This is our task, too. Whoever wins this turbulent election in November, barring some sort of grand epiphany, will be ill-equipped to govern the nation rightly. The choice between a buffoon and a cynical, corrupt pedant is never a real choice at all. One of them will be president, but our hope is not in this world. There are three choices: to put our hope in an old sinful woman, to put our hope in an old sinful man, or to put our hope in the new Adam and His sinless mother. It is a false dilemma that we must ever support and lend our name to any evil, whether in the guise of the buffoon or the thoughtless atheist. The truly rational atheist, Ivan, and the truly passionate atheist, Smerdyakov, carry along with them the terrible cure to their own disease: both of them despair, though with reason and love, Ivan has hope. But Miusov does not think deeply enough to encounter his own sin, and Fyodor Karamazov has so fully embraced his own sin as to be incurable.

All quotes are taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1976.)

Mignon Thurow