There’s a common idea that the God of the Old Testament is a whimsical tyrant, the sort of deity who’d smite you for sacrificing the wrong sheep, or coveting your neighbour’s wife. This isn’t exactly the case, argues the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson in one of the fiery Biblical lectures that have been quietly racking up millions of YouTube views among committed atheists these past few months. Abraham, Jacob and friends screw up the whole time – and God is usually pretty merciful with them.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, maybe you make a mistake, maybe you don’t,” Dr Peterson contends. “But when you know what you’re doing is wrong and you go ahead and do it anyway…” Well, that’s when you find yourself in a Hieronymus Bosch torture scene of your own devising. “Then you feel precisely like you deserve to feel.”
It’s a useful political lesson, too. What would the Old Testament God have made of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s obituary for the Trump administration? Wolff himself invites the question. He could have called it Trumped!!! or American Carnage or The Pussy Grabber. But he decided on something with a whiff of Deuteronomy to it.
And sure, it’s full of delectable tittle-tattle: Trump’s inability to use Just for Men hair-dye, Melania’s tears, Donald Jr’s stupidity and so on. But the shattering truth at its centre – shattering because it makes comprehensible what until now has seemed incomprehensible – is that Donald Trump neither wanted nor expected to be President, and neither did his team.
The unspoken agreement was that “not only would Donald Trump not be President, he should not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant they never had to deal with the latter issue”. In Wolff’s reading, the election played out like Mel Brooks’s The Producers, in which the crooked impresarios of the title (now played by Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon) create the worst musical imaginable as part of a financial scam, only to see it become an enormous hit. Trump lost by winning.
Remember, the cosmically bad stuff happens “when you know what you’re doing is wrong and you go ahead and do it anyway...” And this explains why the current political psychodrama feels not merely Shakespearean, but properly Biblical. I suspect the Old Testament God mightn’t be too harsh on Trump himself, moral dung-heap though he is. But as for those individuals who placed the crown upon the dung heap and then made out like it was totally normal… well, lawks a-mercy.
It’s why Jared Kushner grins like he’s swallowed a McDonald’s cup’s worth of excrement, why Paul Ryan’s shadow has detached itself from his body and slithered into the sewer and why everyone who normalises the Trump presidency seems diminished – our own Prime Minister included.
For the cosmic boo-boo at the centre of Fire and Fury inadvertently illuminates what’s happened in our country post-Brexit too. Theresa May is 100 per cent committed to making a mistake that she knows is a mistake, that everyone around her knows is a mistake but which must never be admitted to because that would cause strange things to happen to the fabric of being.
At least May is taking responsibility: a hopeful reshuffle here, a dead-eyed interview on the Andrew Marr show there. It would surely be Boris Johnson due the most fiery torments, were this the Holy Land, fifth-century BCE, and not Britain, 2018. Immovable he may be as Foreign Secretary, he has looked weirdly haunted ever since the EU referendum, a contest he too lost by winning.
Another, lower-grade psychological truth: it is never the mistake that gets you, but the way you handle it. Middle-aged men in particular find it almost impossible to admit that they have made a mistake. Politics – a system devised by and for middle-aged men, funnily enough – is a system all but designed to avoid admitting mistakes. Anything but that. And yet all it takes is for someone to scream the truth.
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