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Electoral 'Inferno'

Undoubtedly Dante believed that hell and purgatory, as well as paradise, are spiritual states in which humans dwell after death. But the reason so many of us continue to treasure the poem is because it convinces us that hell and purgatory are the spiritual states in which all of us dwell — some in one, some in the other, at times in one, at times in the other — here and now. When we awake to the ways the multiple dramas of Dante-the-pilgrim’s journey mirror and explicate our individual and collective situations, journeying with him is a continuous self-revelation.

In Canto 30 of “Inferno,” two figures who lie in one of the pits reserved for the fraudulent begin lashing out at each other. The pilgrim watches in fascination until his guide, Virgil (the pilgrim’s moral intelligence), rebukes him: “Do not forget that I am always at your side,/ Should fortune bring you again to where you hear/ People who are arguing as those two did./ Wanting to hear them is a low desire (bassa voglia).”

From the start, the fascination with Donald Trump’s performances has been a bassa voglia. Now that he has set the tone for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as well, the Republican primary debates mostly have been displays of indecency. They are of a piece with the numerous commercial television programs on which people behave in exactly this way. Trump starred in one of those programs, so he knows how marketable shameless behavior can be. And so do the media that have fed his campaign and fed on it.

People concerned about civility in government need no longer strive to appear “fair and balanced” by ascribing its erosion to Democrats and Republicans alike. The contrast in civility between the parties’ primary debates is too stark. But underlying that contrast is the contrast between the behavior of the parties’ core constituencies. Those to whom most of the Republican contenders, and Trump especially, appeal are people who engage in the most appalling invective.

Frequently their targets are groups like Mexicans and Muslims, but for eight years they’ve trained their most vitriolic attacks on Barack Obama. For this, from the start they’ve been given full license by the GOP  leadership. Thanks to that imprimatur, a discourse both ugly and untruthful, which before was confined to certain websites and AM talk shows, has become the dominant discourse in Republican forums. So now its rival leaders don’t hesitate to besmirch each other.

This is hell — a spiritual state in which nothing matters but serving one’s own ego out of fear, despair, ambition, greed and pride. People who dwell in this state are frozen in perpetual antagonism, because it’s always others, not themselves, who’ve made them feel betrayed and empty.

Purgatory is a state of spirit characterized by hope, generosity and gratitude. Its prerequisite is humility. Its intention is growth. Its end is love. That’s about the best we can ask of life, and of ourselves, on this bank and shoal of time. Paradise can be a vision, but it isn’t an option.

When the pilgrim sees the multitudes crowding toward the entrance to hell, propelled not by divine decree but by their own unremitting devotion to the ego-self, he says to his guide, “I would not have thought/ Death had undone so many.”

It has. The question this election poses is whether we shall let the living dead undo us all.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.