Cruz or Trump: Who Is the Real Lucifer?

I reread ‘Paradise Lost,’ reviewed the Old Testament, and consulted fallen angels. Only one candidate wants to turn the Rio Grande into an impassable river of fire.

Masks representing US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are pictured in a factory of costumes and masks, on October 16, 2015, in Jiutepec, Morelos State. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT        (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Masks representing US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are pictured in a factory of costumes and masks, on October 16, 2015, in Jiutepec, Morelos State. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

In a candid conversation with Stanford students last week, former Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked his opinion of Ted Cruz. “Lucifer in the flesh,” was his answer. “I have Democrat friends and Republican friends. I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” The comment earned the headlines it subsequently solicited, both as a barbed contribution to the fray of this presidential campaign, and a delayed form of personal payback.

But was it good literary criticism or good theology? Was Lucifer — fallen angel, ruler of hell — really a “miserable son of a bitch?” If so, is Ted Cruz a reasonable choice of avatar? Or do other candidates perhaps better deserve the title of satanic majesty? And finally, whether or not any of the current candidates actually resemble Satan, would they do as good a job as Satan at directing American foreign and domestic policy?

To answer that question requires a brief inquiry into who the devil Satan or Lucifer really is. The word “Satan” derives from the Hebrew word for “adversary,” and when he first appears in the Book of Job it is as the adversary of mankind: Satan walks the Earth looking for evidence of sin and brings the evidence of human weakness and failure to divine attention. But when a character named Lucifer first appears, in Isaiah (as an epithet for the ruler of Babylon), he is God’s adversary, the personification of the arrogant assertion of self against all restraint.

These two sides of this figure’s personality are united in the greatest literary conception of his dark majesty: in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan sees himself as God’s adversary — he believes himself to be self-created and has the titanic ambition to defeat and overthrow God himself, an ambition he pursues even after he knows it is absurd because he was just almost casually cast out of heaven and has no way to return. Nonetheless, out of sheer spite he sets out to frustrate God’s plans by corrupting his terrestrial creation. Thus he becomes humanity’s adversary as well.

So what about Ted Cruz? How does he measure up to Milton’s conception of the Prince of Darkness?

Well, Milton’s Lucifer is indeed a rather miserable son of a bitch. Much of what makes him so compelling a figure is how effectively he converts his own misery — his terrible fall from grace and his painful knowledge that for God this act of banishment was almost an afterthought — into purpose, and power.

And that sounds a lot like Cruz. For essentially his entire life, he’s been actively disliked by most people, and yet he has turned virtually every setback into a launching pad for further advancement. Consider the way he has conducted himself as a senator, eagerly tearing down both his party and the Senate itself for the sake of private ambitions that seemed comically implausible. There’s clearly something of Lucifer’s spirit to that. And the spectacle of Cruz choosing his running mate immediately after it became apparent that he had almost no chance of becoming the nominee recalled Lucifer’s petulant declaration that he would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven (even though reigning in hell is as worthless a title as being Ted Cruz’s vice presidential pick).

The target of Cruz’s rebellion, though, simply doesn’t measure up to the majesty or consequence of Lucifer’s. John Boehner isn’t God. Neither is Mitch McConnell, nor Reince Priebus, nor Paul Ryan, nor the so-easily-overthrown Jeb Bush, nor any other luminary of the GOP. The comedy of Cruz’s rebellion is all too human.

On the other hand, if we want to find the personification of arrogant assertion without any restraint in this contest, we surely need look no further than presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Perhaps the root of the dread that sincerely Christian commentators like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat have about a likely Trump nomination is that Trump entirely lacks even the modicum of humility that graces even the most ambitious and vainglorious of American politicians. And what should give us pause is that it appears that what those Americans who admire Trump admire most about him is precisely that lack.

It is the common currency of demagogues to assert that they will yoke themselves to the people such that their unrestrained ambition serves the people’s interest. Or, as Trump puts it, “I’ve always been greedy. … But you know what? I want to be greedy for our country.” Even if we assume that Trump means this sincerely (which is by no means certain), there’s little reason to believe it will work out in practice. Trump’s history reveals little evident concern for the interests of others, and demagogues in general are exceptionally good at convincing themselves that what is good for them personally must be good for the people, and that whatever course they have decided on must by definition be the right one for everyone.

That’s why what demagogues typically deliver is catastrophic, practical results wrapped in the rhetoric of assertion and defiance, and then expect their people to subsist on a bellyful of the rhetoric. That’s much of what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime delivered to the Iranian people, and Vladimir Putin’s regime to Russia.

Trump appears to be offering a very similar temptation — and to the extent it works, it does so because, like Milton’s Satan, the demagogue achieves his seduction by appealing not to vice but to virtue. Satan tells Eve that she is beautiful and wise, and that God is hoping that she’ll show a bit of independence and maturity and decide for herself what is good. Adam, meanwhile, follows Eve out of love and loyalty; he doesn’t want to live without her, nor to let her suffer the fall from grace alone. Those are virtues: Love and loyalty are to be lauded, not belittled, and God does prize mature moral reflection over mere obedience.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with Trump’s central claim that the government exists to promote the general welfare of its citizens, and to pursue the national interest, with its mind unclouded by any cockeyed ideology. The assertion is appealing because it is entirely correct – certainly more so than the dead conservative shibboleths his competitors have haplessly demanded obedience to. But assertion as such is not a virtue. Treating it as if it were one is precisely how demagogues like Trump tempt people into handing them the reins of power.

It’s tempting to believe that Lucifer — diabolical, ruthless, exceptionally intelligent — would make just the sort of leader you want when your country is in a tough spot. He could crush the Islamic State, outfox the Chinese, and turn the Rio Grande into an impassable river of fire. But it’s a temptation to be resisted. Even if he doesn’t seem like a miserable son of a bitch, but someone you’d enjoy golfing with (as Boehner has with Trump), Lucifer is an adversary, never an advocate.

Photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Noah Millman is a senior editor and featured blogger at The American Conservative.

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