In Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy, the titular character is guided through the nine circles of hell. The darker your crimes, the lower the levels of hell you descend to until you meet up with Satan himself, trapped at the center of it all.
At the top are crimes such as heresy and failure to believe; at the bottom, closer to the devil himself, are the rings of treachery and violence. Reflecting on a campaign season during which Donald Trump literally called Hillary Clinton the devil and threatened to put her in chains, you have to wonder whether he wasn’t subconsciously projecting, given the hellish landscape he has turned his early administration into. However, it’s not the nether regions that should concern most Americans but those condemned to the outer rings for lesser crimes.
Trump has banished his personal political demons to the outskirts, and with them perhaps the only hope that his administration won’t drag this country to ruin.
In the weeks since being elected president by the Electoral College, Trump has set about filling, and nominating people for, his main administrative and Cabinet posts. Nazi sympathizer and white nationalist Steve Bannon as senior adviser, former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus as chief of staff, Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser—these are White House positions, as close to the big boss as you can get. As you move further away, both physically and logistically, from Trump, you get Gen. James Mattis, his potential secretary of defense; Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as Trump’s attorney general pick; and Dr. Ben Carson as a possible head of Housing and Urban Development.
So where does that leave people like Mitt Romney and Nikki Haley, leaders bandied about as the potential secretary of state and United Nations ambassador, respectively? On the outer fringes of hell, and as far away from leadership as possible.
If Trump is the devil, he is not a devil who’s into details. The president-elect will say anything to anyone at any time regardless of how contradictory it may be, on or off the record. This goes beyond policy flip-flops like Obamacare to more core issues of the future of democracy, like attacking the New York Times on Twitter and then breaking bread with the paper the next day.
Trump is overwhelmed and capricious, and it is fair to assume that his public pronouncements and decision-making will depend on the last person he spoke to, as opposed to some guiding principle or belief system. Which is why some of his most vocal and powerful critics, like Romney and Haley, are essentially being banished to the positions they are being suggested for. The president’s time is precious, and those closest to him—in the White House and on his staff—will be more powerful than most of his Cabinet selections when decisions get made.
After a bruising 2008 primary, President Barack Obama didn’t make Hillary Clinton secretary of state just to help her gain foreign policy experience for a 2016 run. He was getting his rival out of town. Clinton spent so much time out of the country, she couldn’t be in Washington, D.C., to privately undermine him or to second-guess every decision as Obama found his footing. She was gone, so she couldn’t be a sympathetic ear or martyr to the Clinton faction of the Democratic Party. Clinton was tethered to Obama policywise, but it was Ben Rhodes, Denis McDonough, Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett who actually influenced his decisions.
The same can be said for George W. Bush. It was well-known in Washington that Bush feared Colin Powell’s prestige, experience and influence, so he sent him off as secretary of state, while Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney and Powell’s own subordinate, John Bolton, were really pulling the strings.
Nikki Haley and Mitt Romney represent the two largest threats to Trump hegemony over the Republican Party. They were both “Never Trump” people who represent wings of the party that the new president will have trouble bringing under his sway. Haley is a Tea Party purist, she was endorsed by Sarah Palin and she is popular with the religious right, who sold out by supporting Trump but will be ready to strike at his next flip-flop.
Romney, whose profile and reputation have grown in the years since he lost the 2012 election, represents the establishment Republicans who fear the party being taken over by Jacksonian-era yahoos who know nothing of grace and decorum. Don’t be fooled by Kellyanne Conway and other Trump confidants who attack Romney over Twitter; the smartest thing in the world for Trump’s closest aides would be to make sure a calm, respected voice like Romney's has no chance of influencing Trump’s erratic decision-making.
Romney will never be able to get past Flynn to inform Trump on the state of world affairs. Haley’s text messages to Trump about growing discomfort at the United Nations will be intercepted by Bannon every time. This is not to suggest that Romney or Haley is necessarily great for America, but if one is assessing the influence of lesser demons versus absolute devils, most sane people would choose Mitt Romney over Steve Bannon.
Trump may not actually be the vision of Satan portrayed in Inferno, even if he staffs his new administration like the rings of hell. Inferno describes Satan as a ghastly creature trapped by his own vanity with three faces: one red, one yellow and one black. The fact that Trump is now in a position that he has lusted after for years but is equally overwhelmed and unprepared for is strangely apropos.
While Trump does not have leather wings, he is banishing those who dared not believe in him to limbo, and surrounding himself with white nationalists, terror sympathizers and warmongers. Anyone thinking that perhaps Trump’s own erratic tendencies would be balanced out by some sort of smart team of rivals should take note of the entryway to hell: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.