Almost by accident, in 1997 I became a crime reporter, specializing in church-related financial frauds. My first major investigative report, called “Fleecing the Faithful,” is still online.
Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” brings back those years.
The crime schemes I covered were obscure, and often complicated to explain. Although they ruined many lives, they did so quietly. Cases typically lacked physical violence, dead bodies or sex. Hence few except the biggest ever got much media attention.
Yet religious based frauds were (& are) plentiful & destructive. And they didn’t have to directly involve “church” to be religious, at least for me. That’s because these crimes, like others, involve one of the central religious issues, namely the reality of evil. In fact, these cases’ lack of lurid melodrama made it easier for me to focus, at least In reflecting on them, on the underlying question:
how and why did once seemingly respectable and even pious people become ruthless predators. In the cases I covered, all the perpetrators were, or had once been, “good Christians,” even Quakers.
Michael Cohen was a fixer, not a philosopher. But if he does not ponder the nature of evil, he writes vividly of it’s taking human form. And he speaks plainly not only about Donald Trump. He also tells how it happened to him:
Ever since I signed on with the Trump Organization in 2007, I had wanted the Boss to run for president, and I told him so again and again. I thought Trump was a visionary, with a no-nonsense attitude and the charisma to attract all kinds of voters. I saw many times that he had a natural ease with working-class folks, especially his fans—like those who watched The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice and WWE—provided they were kept at a distance.
In the years since, I have asked myself why I wanted so badly for Trump to become president. I developed a slew of answers and justifications over time: I thought he would rise to the office and it would bring out the best in him. I thought his brand of straight talk and no-bullshit honesty would rid the country of the scourge of political correctness. I thought his business acumen and way of seeing the world would offer a bracing change for the country and help fix our failing infrastructure.
I thought his America First political stance would make the country stronger, and I thought his original and unique approaches to trade and taxes would transform society, for the good. I thought his aversion to the nonstop, unending wars in the Middle East would restore sanity to foreign policy.
Those were the things I told myself as I nagged and wheedled and tried to convince him to take the idea of running for the White House seriously. I knew he was a liar and a master manipulator, along with the myriad less-than-sterling characteristics I had witnessed over the years, but I believed his positive qualities outweighed the downsides and perfection shouldn’t be the enemy of good.
But here’s the ugly truth—a motive I share with deep and abiding regret and shame, and one only unearthed after much soul searching and reflection as I painted the walls in prison and stared at the ceiling from my bunk. The real real truth about why I wanted Trump to be president was because I wanted the power that he would bring to me. I wanted to be able to crush my enemies and rule the world.
I know it sounds crazy, but look at what Trump is doing now: running the world, into the ground, but still, he literally rules. Underneath all the layers of delusion and wishful thinking and willful ignorance and stupidity, I was like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, lusting after the power that would come from possessing the White House—“my precious”—and I was more than willing to lie, cheat, and bully to win.
Trump was the only person I had ever encountered who I believed could actually pull off that feat, and I recognized early the raw talent and charisma and pure ruthless ambition to succeed he possessed.
I saw what others didn’t, what others thought was a joke, at their own peril, and that was my true motive. I knew Trump would do whatever was necessary to win. I just lacked the imagination and moral purpose to actually think about what that would mean for America, the world, for me, and for my family.
Because here’s the thing: When you sell your soul, you do exactly that: sell your soul.
With this book, with his jail term and disgrace, has Cohen bought back his soul? I don’t know yet what I think about that. During the three years when I was reporting on church frauds, I struggled with it then. I’m only sure that the price is high. Because Cohen didn’t sell only his soul. He was a key to selling America’s soul too.
Previous posts on “Disloyal”:
Thursday: Beginning Portrait of the Greatest Con Artist
Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review