Amid last week’s pearl-clutching in the wake of the release of the recording of Trump’s so-called “lewd” (why not “violent”?) banter with Billy Bush, Trump issued a rare apology—of sorts.
The candidate’s statement, which devolved quickly from apology to attack, was enough for Rudy Giuliani and other Trump surrogates, who were quick put forward the idea that Trump is contrite and changed. He is a good man, they argue, who, in the long-distant past, said terrible things.
In a bizarre turn, Giuliani attempted to shut down the uproar over the recording by mentioning St. Augustine’s Confessions, a narrative account of the fifth-century Church Father’s character and conversion.
In the Confessions, considered one of the earliest works of western autobiography, Augustine tells a complicated story of a man driven by lust, vanity and pride. At the book’s end, Augustine has repented his misdeeds, recanted his heresies, and dedicated his life to the love of God.
Looking closely at Confessions, it becomes difficult to see where the parallel is.
Trump starts off with what looks like a confession (“I said it”), and a bit of contrition (“I was wrong, and I apologize”). But is it genuine? We can’t know what’s in his heart, but he was quick to downplay the severity of his transgression (for lack of a better word), and could barely complete his apology before changing the subject. Predictably, some found this approach uncompelling, and wondered if he could truly show remorse in the time leading up to the debate.
Trump’s pre-debate press-conference-theater, in which he invited journalists to hear statements from Bill Clinton accusers, might have been the first real surprise for me since the debates have started. It shouldn’t have been—it was a diversionary tactic that highlighted conflict and required no real substance from Trump. And it was, for the most part, an irrelevant confrontation: Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct is not directly relevant to Trump’s, or to Hillary’s presidential campaign. And while there is a potential critique of Hillary to be made in light of the accusations that are actually against her, Trump and his team haven’t made that case in any cogent way.
Why should they bother? That sort of public conversation—based on actual evidence and appealing to reason alongside emotion—is not what’s fueling Trump’s campaign. It never has been.
At the debate itself, Trump did not fall back entirely on yelling, as he did in the first, but he was often incoherent, largely fact- and policy-free, and spent much of his time repeating exactly the same aggressive, racist, Islamophobic rhetoric that has made his campaign so successful.
Clinton was not in peak form, though she actually spoke to the audience like they were people, speaking to questioners rather than at them. She also gave better answers, most of which were grounded predominantly in verifiable facts. But these sorts of standards don’t really seem to be the ones that will decide debate results or, I have to believe, the results of the election itself. That seems unlikely to change, even as Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders rush to what might be the last lifeboat off of a sinking ship.
Trump, for his part, says he doesn’t need Ryan’s support.
Writing about “Trump, Saint Augustine and True Conversion,” Adam Ployd points out the emphasis the Confessions place on humility, “the necessary virtue for true repentance.” Rudy Giuliani wants to remind us that people can change. I believe that he’s right, but Trump has done nothing to suggest the kind of conversion that Giuliani is talking about.
The story Trump is telling at his rallies and on social media is: I am not sorry. I will not change.
And more than that:
This is not a conversion narrative—it is a call to war.