I am not the devil, though I have performed some convincing impersonations. I mention this to save time because, in our highly distilled political environment, this is one of the categories to which we are easily assigned.
One of our presidential candidates, for example, is the devil. You may have received clues as to that person’s identity, arising from (ahem) years of disinterested research and even-handed reporting. For my purposes, it doesn’t matter which candidate that is, or if both have an equal claim to the title. I simply want to consider the process of devil-making.
Devils themselves are sometimes confused by their role in our society. On the one hand, their time-tested formulas, so frequently disparaged throughout history, are generating renewed interest here. On the other hand, devilry itself retains unpleasant associations. On the whole, I believe they suspect us of cultural appropriation.
Be that as it may, presenting your adversary as the devil simply works.
It is less effective to accuse a man of being good. The charge seems improbable and is hard to prove. Stories of goodness are more complex than stories of badness because goodness itself is a strange thing and requires explanation. Curiously, the explanation always points away from the man himself and toward something higher. He may love a child or a nation or a God – even a dog might do – but he must (unlike the devil) believe there is something higher and sacrifice himself for it.
But stories of goodness are easily smashed. Accusations, especially when false, are like bricks hurled through the brittle glass of reputation. And you can wear a mask while you smash, merrily shattering the subject’s identity while concealing your own. As political transactions go, this one is a bargain.
And that’s only the beginning. Demonizing your adversary is emotionally satisfying, even addictive. It’s cheap and concise: a party platform that can fit on a bumper sticker. It’s distracting, removing the need to offer competing ideas. It’s fast, allowing a lifetime of achievement to be canceled in about the time it takes to pull down a statue. Most of all, it’s flexible and comprehensive: Love may cover a multitude of sins, but hate can spray paint anything.
Still, at the end of the day, there is one story of goodness we choose not to smash – a story each one of us has narrated, if not written down, and that is the story of our own life. In this story, though we have access to the most lurid details, the protagonist comes out – if not a hero – a very decent fellow at least, given the circumstances.
We don’t need to be convinced that humans fail in miserable ways, because we have done it. We find it easy to believe that _____ is the devil because we have been the devil. We are practiced in the art of remembering others’ failures while forgetting our own. We are – if we are not very careful – well qualified to take on a mission of hate.
And it seems that many of us have done that. We spend little time asking what our candidates have sacrificed or what they believe to be higher than themselves, and too much time posterizing their failures, as if we had never failed. We ask too much who the devil may be, and not who does the devil’s work.