Revisiting History: Donald Trump
and the Idea of America

By Daniel Joseph Polikoff

It is not merely the presidency that is at stake in the upcoming election but rather the future of the country and of the free world. While some might deem this hyperbole, the fateful times in which we live and the extraordinary character of the candidates involved legitimate the claim. It would therefore be wise to attempt to renew and clarify our vision of the principles upon which the American system of government was founded so as to have map and compass in hand as we the people choose a new helmsman or woman – one charged with the task of steering the ship of state across rising and perilous seas.

1. Monarchy

Monarchy has proved one of the most pervasive forms of government in the history of humankind. The founders of this country framed our constitution with the express aim of proscribing the evils of autocratic rulership; even so, the office of the presidency retains a remnant of the prestige and prominence of the monarch. Before examining the premises of our democracy, it may therefore be useful to review some historic ideas of the nature and function of the sovereign ruler. The nobler versions of the idea may provide clues as to the qualities and temperament we may best look for in our own head of state while the darker shades of its degraded forms serve to decorate the banners of alarm.

Several ancient cultures conceived the role of kingship to be one that fulfills a sacred as well as a practical function. The more enlightened Egyptian Pharaohs were no mere slave-drivers and – viewed as quasi-divine – stood as conduits between the world of the gods and that of the people, assuring just accord between above and below. The Pharaoh’s primary function consisted in the preservation of Maat, a cosmic principle personified as a goddess with an ostrich feather and representing Harmony, Truth, Honesty and Cosmic Order. If the Pharaoh failed in his or her duty, Maat could be overcome by her divine opposite, Isfet, and deceit, chaos and violence spread across the land.

Classical Chinese civilization formed a kindred model. The wise Emperor kept earth in balance with celestial realms and derived authority not from his own person but from the so-called Mandate of Heaven. If the country suffered serious disarray, the people presumed that the Emperor was not ruling wisely. Persistent disorder could be construed as proof of forfeiture of the Mandate and so just grounds for resistance and rebellion.

The European concept of the divine right of kings may be considered – in its later if not its earliest forms – a corrupt form of the same model. The doctrine functioned more as a means of consolidating temporal power than an authentic moral force holding royalty to high spiritual standards. The flip side of the concept of the wise and selfless ruler is the greedy despot who subjects people to tyranny. To Thomas Jefferson, King George exemplified just such an evil and his blatant disregard of the colonists’ natural rights justified American insurrection:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.


Thus did enlightened reason and moral sentiment repudiate British monarchy; thus was American democracy born.

2. Democracy

Yet American Democracy did not come out of nowhere and the essential ideas expressed in the Declaration reflected commonly (although by no means universally) held beliefs originally articulated by Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau. Locke, especially, exercised a direct influence upon the language of the Declaration. His first Treatise of Civil Government aggressively rejected the theory of the divine right of kings; his second taught the doctrine of Natural Law, asserting:


Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who would but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions. [1]


The gist of such Enlightenment ideas inverts the political theory informing monarchy inasmuch as democratic norms posit the individual as the true node of authentic sovereignty. In Locke or Rousseau, it is the individual who constitutes the essential unit of spiritual being and authority, and his status as such engenders the natural right of liberty. The sovereign freedom of the individual thus emerges as the fundamental principle of American democracy.

Locke and Rousseau naturally recognized that – while his most basic right devolves from his essential independence – the human being does not live alone. Society arises as a consequence of cohabitation, and inevitably brings with it limits to the right to liberty. I am not free to infringe arbitrarily upon another’s freedom insofar as she is – as is indeed dictated by natural law and reason – considered my moral equal, and her right to liberty equivalent to my own.

Thus does equality arise as a second principle of any democratic organization, and indeed the first devolving from the state of society per se. While the principle of liberty originates from a pre-social state of natural or spiritual being, equality emerges as a correlative principle ensuring – insofar as is possible – the fundamental liberty of each and every individual within the context of social life.

Conflicts of interests inevitably arise in the interpretation of what constitutes your or my essential liberty. The living together of individuals in a state of society generates a need to order and oversee human relationships in such a manner as might best preserve both the sovereign freedom of all individuals and the natural moral equality due to each vis-a-vis every other. It is these joint aims that supply the impetus for the formation of government.

Governments, however, do not arise naturally. A government is originally established by virtue of a social compact (or contract) entered into by individuals who agree to form a government to achieve their common ends. A government thus possess no intrinsic authority, but derives legitimacy from the consent of the governed whose individual and collective welfare it is designed to serve.

Such constitutes, so to speak, the metaphysical foundation of democracy. The model conceives government as a practical extension of the will of the people, and the people themselves as the social extension of the individual. To the individual belongs the natural right of liberty and equality vis-a-vis her fellows. The dual principles of liberty and equality thus stand as cornerstones of American democracy.

Erode these, and the grand edifice of democratic government – and the civil society supported by that government – swaggers and falls.

The chief ideas upon which the country was founded bear a kind of superhuman burden. It is observance of these principles that ensures a viable relationship to the harmonious order of things at large (cosmos) and so fulfills a kind of sacred function. The concept of unalienable rights rests upon the doctrine of natural law, which for Locke implied “a universally obligatory moral law promulgated by the human reason as it reflects on God and His rights, on man’s relation to God and on the fundamental equality of all men as rational creatures.” [2] Instead of the beneficent wisdom of an Emperor or quasi-divine Pharaoh maintaining Maat, respect for these essential principles is all that stands between modern society and the violent chaos Isfet brings in her train.

On the individual level, conscience and the honest effort to live in accordance with principle defines character and integrity. The statue on Liberty Island notwithstanding, we no longer habitually dress our principles up in the personified forms of gods or goddesses (Maat with her ostrich feather); nonetheless, our principles comprise our ideals and function as our living connnection to a whole greater than our personal selves, whether this be labeled Society, Nature, God, or all of the above. Even if we do not go so far as Plato and posit the substance of such ideas as the eternal forms comprising the Divine Intelligence, respectable members of civil society tacitly acknowledge them as such, for if we compromise those principles by which we chart our course in life, we lose standing in our own eyes and slip in the estimation of our fellows. Only the most degenerate habitually subordinate principle to momentary self-interest and so become so anaestheticized to moral imperatives that any true Mandate seem to them but a paper tiger.

There is a third foundational principle that by rights stands in league with liberty and equality as a sister-in-arms. The historic revolution that followed upon our own, despite its violent and regrettable aftermath, eventually gave birth to the republic whose enduring motto echoes down the halls of history. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. I want, however, immediately to acknowledge the discomfort provoked by the masculine tenor of this new third term. If its historic resonance and underlying meaning could be conveyed by a more gender-neutral word, I would replace it, but a substitute is not easy to find. “Community” seems weak and “fellowship” likewise tinged by masculine bias. Consequently, I speak of fraternity with the understanding that I use the word to refer not only to the brotherhood of men, but to the underlying brother and sisterhood of all individuals.

If the principle of equality may be understood as a kind of formal limit on the sovereign liberty of the individual, the principle of fraternity expresses a still more fundamental modulation of that first principle, an ancillary natural law lodged in the constitution of the soul itself. Indeed, if we probe the spiritual origin of the idea of liberty we will ultimately discover – somewhat unexpectedly, perhaps – a hidden convergence with the essential idea of fraternity.

3. American Transcendentalism: Liberty & Fraternity

The idea of liberty does not confer a right to satisfy any selfish desire, but rather to seek my own destiny unhindered by undue constraint; the freedom to pursue the realization of my nature. This construction of liberty forfeits none of the essential prerogatives commonly attached to the term; at the same time, it protects fundamental prerogatives regrettably proscribed by narrow-minded social or religious or even legal codes that would place some parochial prejudice above the unalienable right of every human being (regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or any other partial characterization) to seek his or her true office in the world.

As stated, the right of liberty comprises the marrow of our democracy insofar as it recognizes the free individual as the true sovereign power. Jefferson and his compatriots have given apt expression to this idea in the context of political theory, but America boasts too of orators who have given eloquent expression to the still more original spiritual core of the idea. Chief among these is that premier prophet of the American idea, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his essay Self-Reliance counts as one classic expression of the theme.

Understanding Emerson is no simple matter: to do so, one must strive to read by the same light by which the writer worked. By his own repeated witness, such was the light of the soul. A superficial reading of Self-Reliance might find in it justification for arbitrary and capricious behavior but such is surely inconsistent with Emerson’s intent. If I choose to write Whim on the lintels of my doorpost, it is not so much this fact itself as who I am when I do so that is most important. Emerson always saw the Self as no merely personal matter, but a force and power in the service of a higher master. Emerson called that master Soul, and the piquant sallies of Self-Reliance should be read in the light of passages such as this from the equally classic essay The Over-Soul:


The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all others; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. [3]


If Emerson’s transcendentalist rhetoric seems overblown, that is because the offices of the spirit have for too long been co-opted by creeds and cults and so alienated from its natural harbor in the hearts and minds of human beings. Does not every self-respecting citizen believe in the real difference between wisdom and folly; between virtue and greedy selfishness; between the intrinsic beauty of acts of compassion, and the ugliness of indifferent and callous behavior? If no such distinctions hold, human life is mean and worthless. Emerson, in his person and his words, stands for the high truth that they do so hold, and that ideas of truth, beauty, and justice are not hollow concepts bandied about as buzzwords but verities anchored in the marrow of our being, the nature of the human soul.

Emerson’s doctrine of soul hallows liberty as a fundamental principle, one that (like Egyptian cosmology, the Chinese Mandate or Locke’s Natural Law) grounds political theory in a realm antecedent to any and all forms of social organization. Yet the spiritual source of the idea reveals it to be twinned not only with equality but – still more originally – with fraternity. For Emerson’s essay heralds “. . . that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart . . .” And so the sage of Concord teaches – as a corollary and complement of self-reliance – that we are not in truth myriad separate selves spilled out across the face of the land like so many disparate atoms; that insofar as we touch the innermost core of our own individuality, we exit the narrow confines of what is proper exclusively to you or to me and enter the commonwealth of our kind, that spiritual estate in which we all are shareholders and secret communicants. For at root the very word Individual means – nothing set off or apart or against – but rather a unit that cannot be divided, even as our own pledge of allegiance would have these United States be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Emerson’s teaching embraces and reconciles liberty and fraternity. Still, he who declared that he preached “but one doctrine . . . the infinitude of the private man” remains preeminently a champion of the freedom of the individual soul. Yet Emerson hardly stands alone as literary spokesperson for the ideas upon which our country is founded, and if we wish to nourish ourselves with the words of an author who might serve as an apt standard-bearer for the fraternal idea, we need go no further than that great and magnanimous democrat whose literary career Emerson himself helped launch.

Walt Whitman reveals – and revels in — the intersection of the ideas of liberty and fraternity. The very title of his signature work appears to trumpet his own existential prerogatives, and yet the first lines of Song of Myself move to dissolve the borders between Self and Other:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Song of Myself in fact continually expands the notion of selfhood so that it becomes – not an exclusive – but an all-inclusive idea grounded in the principle of fraternity:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge

that pass all the art and argument of the earth;

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers . . . and the women

my sisters and lovers,

And that a kelson of the creation is love. [4]

Whitman’s long poetic lines tell us over and over that our vision of ourselves – our own democratic vistas – rest upon a foundation of the essential brother and sisterhood of humankind; that community of soul certifying that we are originally made who and what we are by virtue of the ties that bind, the power of love innate in all creation.

4. Equality & Justice

Now that we have resorted to American Transcendentalists (I provisionally include Whitman as such) to exemplify and embody the ideas underlying the spiritual and political constitution of this nation, we should complete the proud triumvirate and find a fit historical representative for the principle of equality. As a prelude to doing so, we should note that – like its sister principles – that of equality is anchored in the nature of the soul; the truth that, whatever a person may look like, wherever she may come from, her being partakes of and indeed originates in the spiritual essence of our kind and (no matter what state of development she has or has not attained) is thus by nature equal in intrinsic dignity to every other, and must be so treated – above all, before the law.

The principle of equality, applied in the context of social life, inevitably brings practical considerations of justice in its train, for the cry for justice is nothing other than the call to redress historic and current imbalances in equality. In this sense, all justice is restorative, and the constant need to administer justice indicates that the integrity of the whole body politic suffers constant impairment and requires perpetual mending. In practice, major breaches of the principle of equality – the perpetration of injustice – coincides with infringement of one or more person’s freedom so that the principles of liberty and equality are intimately intertwined.

Choosing a representative champion of the principles of equality and justice in the United States confronts one with an embarrassment of riches. It may seem most fit to choose one from among those who have – by virtue of the color of their skin, or the character of their sex – suffered the most gross legal and social injustices; for instance, a Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or Susan B. Anthony. Yet any given choice would exclude a host of other worthy candidates and causes. Consequently, following the delimited historic and aesthetic thread of this essay, I will only briefly mention in this connection two further American Transcendentalists.

Margaret Fuller, friend and confidante of Emerson, championed women’s rights, but hers was no merely political feminism. Her Woman in the Nineteenth Century eloquently argued not the identity but the spiritual equality of Man and Woman. Fuller writes:


That now the time has come when a clearer vision and better action are possible—when Man and Woman may regard one another as brother and sister, the pillars of one porch, the priests of one worship. I have believed and intimated that this hope would receive an ampler fruition, than ever before, in our own land. And it will do so if this land carry out the principles from which sprang our national life. [5]


This passage, knitting together the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity/sorority, is certainly worth note on the eve of an election that may give us our first woman president.

Another friend of Emerson’s, Henry David Thoreau, is a second champion of individual liberty hardly inferior in substance and style to his Concord neighbor. Certainly no great friend of government, Thoreau writes:


The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual . . . . There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men. [6]


Thoreau sometimes applied his principles with still more practical force than Emerson; intervened more directly and actively in order to redress those instances of inequality and injustice glaringly evident in his day – most notably, slavery. In his famous sally of conscience, Civil Disobedience, Thoreau propounds the doctrine that the individual has a right and indeed an obligation to disobey the laws of the State when those violate his considered sense of what is truly moral and just. The essay proved an engine of history, helping to equip and inspire Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. The link between these warriors of justice and Thoreau vindicates the latter’s famous pronouncement:


Action from principle, – the perception and the performance of right, – changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine. [7]

5. Failure & Progress

We have now reviewed several principles fundamental to the character and constitution of this country. The ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality are anything but the window-dressing of our American republic; words tossed casually about or antiquated universals fated for benign obsolescence in today’s Attention Deficit Disorder society. These founding principles comprise the secret, sacred, still beating heart of this American nation, the spiritual and material life of which depends upon their continued efficacy – the degree to which we, as citizens, acknowledge and nurse them in our heart of hearts; strive to realize them as best we may in our lives and works; and hold our elected representatives responsible to them. Careless betrayal of these ideals risks the demise of the nation we have known and the abortion of dreams of a still more perfect union.

It is all-too evident that America has always struggled to live up to the high ideals formulated by its political and literary founders. It is challenging enough for any individual to obey the dictates of the soul in his or her personal affairs; how much more difficult, how much more improbable that a vast nation embracing an almost illimitable diversity of self-interested individuals could achieve even a semblance of fidelity to those high principles for which our nation stands?

And indeed we have failed, and continue to fail miserably, tragically, on many fronts.

From the original sins of the genocide of native peoples, the importation and enslavement of Africans and the disenfranchisement of women to the present day versions of the same and other wrongs (endemic and occasionally lethal racial discrimination as well as a culture of runaway incarceration; persistent gender inequality, gross and growing economic injustice; etc.) our innate promise and national pledge (“with liberty and justice for all”) has been broken and betrayed. Indeed, the very ideals so sanguinely trumpeted as the honor badge of our national character have too often propped up a facade of righteousness masking gross transgression. The shining city on the hill has always cast a long black shadow, one that today increasingly threatens to engulf us in darkness and transmute the mythic American dream into a waking nightmare.

Yet while reciting the roll call of error and terror that has marred our nation’s history, we should not ignore the real and substantial progress we as a nation have made. Acknowledging the brutal intransigence of racial discrimination in America should not lead us to forget or disparage what freedom fighters from Douglass to King and beyond have accomplished. Nor should it go without mention that recent days have seen the climax of a stunning social transformation as the High Court, responsive to spreading public opinion, has given new sanction to the preeminence of the principle of love and inscribed in the laws of the land that those pledged to each other in their hearts should possess the legal right to marry.

Each and every instance of social progress has been inspired by the vision enabled by the light of a guiding principle. All our confident or faltering forward steps are lifted by the force of those Ideas that frame our private and our public conscience and empower us to act in the name of a cause greater than our personal selves. As George Bancroft, another of Emerson’s contemporaries, expressed the matter: “It is alone by infusing great principles into the common mind, that revolutions in human society are effected.” [8]

6. Trump

If we now turn our gaze towards the immediate future and view the forthcoming presidential election in light of the prior reflections, urgent conclusions quickly emerge. One candidate, already steeped in decades of public service, can make a fair claim that she will honor the principles and values that are this country’s springs of life; the other can only cause convulsions of incredulous dismay.

I will not belabor Donald Trump’s evident inability to reason or speak coherently or with due regard for the facts of the matter at hand; nor dwell upon the jaw-dropping ignorance of recent history and general intemperance that make the prospect of his becoming commander-in-chief a nightmarish scenario. What concerns me most here is the signal truth that Trump has made flagrant disregard of this country’s founding principles the hallmark of his brief political career. Trump has discarded America’s most cherished ideals as if doing so meant little more than tossing a cheap souvenir of the Statue of Liberty into a dirty trash can. Whether the subject be immigration and his proposed ban on Muslims (or persons coming from “terrorist territories”) or his notion of building a wall to keep out supposedly criminal elements south of the border; the professional competence of an Indiana-born judge of Mexican ancestry; the freedom of the press to criticize him without fear of retribution; his sanction of torture and admiration for dictatorial leaders like Putin (or even Saddam Hussein); his repeated disparagement of women or countless other topics, Trump speaks and acts as if he has never heard of the principles of liberty, equality, and justice enshrined in the American Constitution – or, having perchance heard of them, could care less.

Yet it is not only the principles of liberty and equality Trump so cavalierly betrays, but – perhaps most ominously – that third, often unspoken principle that touches our common heart: the premise of brotherly and sisterly love. The French motto puts fraternity last, but I believe by rights it should stand second as the central idea that tangibly relates the other two. Liberty and justice, for all their grandeur, can be cold and unfeeling when not warmed by the fires of love, the underlying sense of connection that binds us to our fellow citizens and responds to our shared humanity. Thus does the principle of fraternity give rise to common decency, compassion and mercy; moral sentiments that make us abide the dictates of others’ sovereign rights not because any extrinsic code tells us we must but because the heart common to all ensures that – moved by the power of empathy – we will.

It is with respect to this paramount principle that Donald Trump is most grievously lacking. His campaign has been little more than a barrage of insults leveled at any and all who cross his path. Perhaps most mercilessly telling in this respect has been his egregious treatment of a Muslim Gold Star family. Nor does his loose tongue always stop at the border of words that could be heard as sanctioning violence against others. The man, it seems, has lost his very soul, and where we expect to find a heart, we discover instead – a black spot.

The triad of founding ideas hang ineluctably together, conditioning and informing one another. Trump’s glaring deficiency with respect to an underlying sense of fellowship cripples his vision of the verity and practical force of the principles of liberty and equality. He evidently has no viable relation to the spiritual ground of any of those treasured ideas that comprise the nucleus of our country’s identity and that hold the key to its history and destiny; the glories and debacles of its past as well as the promise – or dark prospect – of its future.

We live in fateful times. Clouds gather forbiddingly on the horizon of humanity. Terrorists – foreign and domestic – increasingly exact a terrible toll on human life; civil war engulfs Syria, sending waves of refugees across uncertain seas; those seas, warmed by insatiable human appetite, rise and threaten to flood; disaffected English tear the fabric of the European Union while in these United States – itself riven by economic and racial inequality – officers of the law are caught shooting citizens and in turn are gunned down on the streets.

In such a time of trial, turning over the ship of state to Donald Trump – a man devoid of map and moral compass, and entirely incapable of seeing letting alone navigating by the stars – would be to risk unmitigated disaster. Shipwreck would be all-too likely, unless mutiny averted such catastrophe. And yet these outcomes, dark as they may be, do not represent the most awful possible denouement.

7. Moby Dick & the Shadow of American Idealism

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – one more mid-nineteenth century American masterpiece – symbolizes the fate of humankind in a world in which the principle of the Good has been invested in a God grown so distant and abstract and divorced from the natural life of the human soul that the whole power of the divine has been sucked out of the starry sky and the good earth and redeposited – in diabolical form – in the Leviathan that roams the fathomless depths of the ocean, mercilessly annihilating the frail bark of humanity that now and again crosses its path. Just as the devilish Moby Dick looms as the dark underside of an omnipotent deity, so do our founding ideals of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality and Justice possess gigantic black shadows that rise from the depths when the light of those divine ideas is luciferically stolen and inverted. The shadow of individual liberty is the cold isolation that gives rise to arrogance, megalomania and dictatorial tyranny; that of equality, the demand for sameness or indiscriminate identity that fuels the flip side of fraternity, the mobbishness that sets me and mine against you and yours and thus breeds division, bigotry and hatred. The shadow of restorative justice is vengeance and retribution.

Proud Ahab, captain of the Pequod, comes to embody all these shadows in his obsession with that symbol of the illimitable power of negation – that chaos that is the primordial voiding of all principle – the diabolical Leviathan, Moby Dick. Ahab himself is supremely intelligent and indeed a once noble figure tragically dehumanized and finally devoured by these shadows. Donald Trump displays none of Ahab’s native nobility and is more a charlatan than a tragic hero. Yet Trump is kin to Ahab insofar as he too defies the light of our divine humanity and is wholly given over to the power of its ravenous shadows.

Yet while Trump himself may be poor material for tragedy, we the people of the United States of America are made of superior cloth.

It is clear that today many feel – with ample justification – ill-served by the government supposed to represent them. The remedy, however, cannot be to place trust in a leader hell-bent on betrayal of our founding ideals and the norms of common decency that naturally derive from them. As Thoreau teaches, real change (even political revolution) flows from the better realization – not abandonment – of principle and it is “action from principle – the perception and performance of the right” that distinguishes the diabolical in us from the divine.

Let us then remember ourselves; let us rally together in heart and mind and choose not to put command of our ship of state into the hands of a hollow man intent upon driving it relentlessly on into the white jaws of death and destruction. If we do so, we may not live to hear some future Ishmael tell the tale of our folly.

8. Coda: A Christian Candidate?

I would claim that Donald Trump is no true American except insofar as he embodies the evil that has always shadowed our high ideals. Trump, however, represents himself as not only a patriot but, as well, a Christian. In this brief coda, I would like to urge that – to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear – it is all too clear the latter claim is just as flagrantly false as the former.

To declare oneself a follower of the Christ carries certain obligations. To simply say that one is a believer, or verbally profess to consent to some creed, hardly suffices. Any truly Christian soul earns the right to that name by honestly seeking to understand what Jesus taught and lived and striving to conform his or her life to that instruction and that example. In keeping with the context of this essay, I would suggest that Jesus himself may be viewed as an individual who acted in supreme accord with those very principles we have been addressing; that he could be regarded as one who palpably and powerfully embodied the principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality in his passionately moral life.

As far as the first of these principles is concerned, who could be said to exemplify the sovereign freedom of the individual more perfectly than Christ? Beholden to no earthly authority and positively disdainful of the dead letter of religious law that hemmed his spirit in on all sides, Christ lived and spoke the truth he recognized as the essence of his own being – so much so, that he himself became virtually identified with logos – the Word or divine Reason.

Nor did Jesus credit distinctions made on the basis of caste, class, sect, sex, race, ethnic heritage, or the like. A champion of equality, he asked water from a woman of Samaria, and gave the water of life to all that were thirsty and would drink from the deep well of spirit.

And everywhere in the gospels it is manifest that Jesus was, above all, a prophet of the kinship that binds all human beings to each other and to the soul of humankind. His first commandment was to love the spiritual source of All; his second: Love thy neighbor as thyself. These imperatives, he declared, represent the greatest of all laws.

Respect for and deference to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity (love) resonate with core teaching inherent in the character of the Christ. Anyone trafficking in words and actions that consistently and blatantly betray these principles betrays, too, both the letter and spirit of the gospels, and cannot well be acknowledged as one upholding Christian ethics. On the contrary, such a one can be nothing other than a false pretender.

Jesus himself, as the account of his sojourn in the desert after his baptism in the Jordan reveals, was no stranger to satanic lures. He resisted the temptation to imagine that material things could satisfy spiritual hunger – but has not Donald Trump, with his shady business practices, luxury hotels, golf courses, and fraudulent university made “turning stones into bread” a way of life? Similarly, Jesus refused to test his God; but does not Donald Trump repeatedly throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple – or one or another of his ostentatious self-aggrandizing towers? One savvy commentator has remarked that Trump “commits political suicide every day” – that is, recklessly violates the accepted laws of civil behavior and discourse – but has nonetheless miraculously avoided political death. If this indeed be so, it is most certainly not angels that are ministering to him, but we the people that are breaking his fall.

So I would beseech all citizens – and here, especially those who call themselves Christian – to look again at who and what it is they may be supporting. Jesus, promised the power to rule the globe if he would bow to Satan, rejected worldly power and obeisance to the forces of darkness. But as the specters of deceit, division, fear, hate, and violence attend Donald Trump as he slouches around the country in his bid for the huge power of the presidency, I do not think that he is representing the moral teaching of the Christ, but rather (consciously or not) the opposite.

© Copyright 2016, by Daniel Joseph Polikoff


[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government: A Critical Edition with Introduction by Peter Laslett (London: Cambridge University Press, 1960) 289.

[2] Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1964), Vol. 5, Part 1, 139.

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 385.

[4] Walt Whitman, Song of Myself in Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1982), 30.

[5] Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century excerpted in Perry Miller, ed., The American Transcendentalists (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1957), 333.

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience in Owen Thomas, ed., Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), 243.

[7] Ibid., 230-31.

[8] George Bancroft, On the Progress of Civilization in Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Harvard University Press, 1950), 428.

About The Author

Daniel Joseph Polikoff
Poet, translator, and internationally recognized Rilke scholar Daniel Joseph Polikoff received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Cornell University and his Diploma in Waldorf Education from Rudolf Steiner College. In addition to work in numerous literary journals, he has published six books of poetry, translation, criticism, and creative non-fiction. His latest, Rue Rilke (Chiron, 2016), revolves around the twin poles of the cultural heritage of the Old World and death penalty politics in Texas. Dr. Polikoff has taught literature in Waldorf high schools as well as courses in literature and depth psychology at Sonoma State University and the California Institute of Integral Studies. His webinars on Rilke: Poetry and Alchemy and Rilke and the Hermetic Tradition are available through the Asheville Jung Center. He resides with his wife Monika and family in the San Francisco Bay area. You can find more about Daniel and his work at


Re-Imagining Education

Empowering educators to take a deeper look at the stories told in our schools and to re-imagine them in transformative and
nurturing learning spaces.

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Learning Opportunities

Classes, workshops, and lectures that help to empower people to re-imagine who they are and their place in the world.

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The Chicago Wisdom Project offers a alternative to the industrial and corporate models of education that have become increasingly prevalent in the American educational landscape.

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