Transformation: Opinion

Donald Trump and the banality of evil

Emptiness, lack of character and a fundamental unwillingness to take responsibility lurk at evil’s core.

Scott Remer
27 October 2020
Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Despite our best intentions, Trump’s name is on everyone’s lips, yet I have no interest in the sordid details of his psyche. His pathologies are a matter of indifference. It’s clear to me that he’s a violent, dangerous lunatic. His desperate attempts to win attention and adulation likely stem from abuse he suffered as a youth.

Whatever action Trump takes is almost guaranteed to be idiotic - not just run-of-the-mill idiotic but epically, spectacularly so. Commenting on his actions reduces you to his level. Regardless of how many words you use, the verdict is clear: “Trump…bad.” But this gets us nowhere. Without action to shift the balance of political forces towards a society that eradicates the roots of Trumpism, decrying the symptoms of the underlying disease is an exercise in righteous futility.

However, thinking about Trump does teach us something useful: profound evil can coexist with deep mediocrity. Trump is responsible for an incredible amount of suffering and death, but when I watch him on television, I feel a surprising lack of affect. No outrage, no fury. Occasionally, a Trump meme makes me laugh. How can that possibly be? Where does my cognitive dissonance come from?

We could chalk it up to my privilege, my insulation from the direct consequences of Trump’s actions. Or to psychological burnout, psychic defense mechanisms, or a pervasive cynicism verging on nihilism. All those factors may play a role in mediating my response to Trump’s televisual assault on our senses, but I think there is something more fundamental at work.

Beneath the bullying, blustering, and casual cruelty; beneath the mangled syntax and rhetorical excess; beneath the torrent of lies, the shocking vapidity and astonishing stupidity, one senses a radical vacuum. Trump perfectly mirrors an age of spectacle, presenting us with deconstructed fascism. His incessant harangues, evacuated of all substance, are a stream-of-consciousness scream of rage and discontent. He says something. He contradicts it. He performs as a demagogue yet lacks the true air of command. He is a postmodern wannabe dictator.

His attention span is minimal, yet he has none of the traditional gifts of the leader, like extraordinary stamina, a herculean work ethic, strategic vision, and the keen selection of capable advisors. He is a bloviating buffoon, careening from one absurdity to the next, anticipating what nonsense Fox churns out about him next.

There is a peculiar disconnect between the evils his administration has directly wrought - internment camps on the southern border, incitement of racist and anti semitic violence, hundreds of thousands of senseless coronavirus deaths, instances of corruption too numerous to list - and the hollowness of the man and his sycophants. Trump and his officials are violent, but their violence is slippery and elusive.

Evil has at least two aspects. There is the evil of individuals: hideous, painfully personal acts of violence committed by specific people. And then there is systematic evil: the enormity of cruel systems which deprive people of their liberty, their human rights, and their very reason for being. These systems’ refusal to entertain any appeal to humanity is perhaps what distinguishes them most of all. But the particular terror of evil is the way the evildoer’s humanity - their frailty, foibles, and bodily existence - is eradicated.

We think of evil as something profound. We’re raised on movies that portray villains as titans, masters of planning and human will, perverted supermen. We may find them horrific or despicable, but we don’t usually view them as ignorant or laughable, at least not until the climax when villains get their comeuppance and are revealed to be secretly weak: blundering, blubbering babies cloaked by braggadocio and bravado.

The monstrous paradox of modern evil is twofold. Systems are far more diffuse than a single super-villain, and harder to defeat. It’s not a question of a single bad apple who can be removed. Individual agency has been drastically minimized by far-flung bureaucratic and economic systems. When the Pentagon, ICE, and the Department of Homeland Security are tasked with committing atrocities against people in the global South, undocumented immigrants or protesters, there is little room for maneuver for objectors within those bureaucracies who wish to resist.

Individuals who are forced to participate in the economy may object when global capitalism kills millions of people by depriving them of human rights such as quality healthcare, clean air and water, safe and plentiful food, and a guaranteed basic income, but they are relatively powerless as individuals to change the conditions under which the system operates. Considering evil as something that’s executed by individuals against other individuals doesn’t equip us to address systemic, structural violence.

What’s more, treating evil as if it consists only or chiefly of acts of commission rather than in acts of omission means that we are poorly positioned to recognize the evil of the Trump administration’s coronavirus negligence. Neglect has never been treated with the same seriousness as affirmative action. Of course, given the imbalances in power that exist within political, economic, and social hierarchies, individuals do still matter. But we’re not ready to recognize that evil individuals often don’t match the simplistic, psychopathic, and cartoonishly maleficent profile that we’ve been trained to recognize.

Hannah Arendt, the theorist, philosopher, author, and originator of the phrase “the banality of evil,” teaches us that before Adolf Hitler attained frightening amounts of power, his physical tics were widely derided, and even regarded as comical. Writing about the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Arendt remarked on “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” Later, in 1965, she observed that:

“the greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons...wrongdoers who refuse to think by themselves what they are doing and who also refuse in retrospect to think about it, that is, go back and remember what they did (e.g., repentance), have actually failed to constitute themselves into somebodies.”

Trump’s clownish antics and the abnegation of responsibility so characteristic of his administration are perfectly consonant with this vision of the evildoer. Emptiness, a lack of character, and a fundamental unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself lurk at evil’s core.

Systematic evil may subsume individual evildoers in a chain of command and obedience, but the individuals involved have usually forfeited their personhood from the start. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt - reflecting what we know of the Trump administration’s lackeys - writes of “new mass leaders whose careers reproduce the features of earlier mob leaders: failure in professional and social life, perversion and disaster in private life.” Although Trump doesn’t seem to be a completely totalitarian leader, Arendt describes his need for publicity and his reliance on his followers’ affections to ratify his existence to a tee when she describes such leaders as:

“nothing more nor less than the functionary of the masses he leads; he is not a power-hungry individual imposing a tyrannical and arbitrary will upon his subjects...he depends as much on the ‘will’ of the masses he embodies as the masses depend on him. Without him they would lack external representation and remain an amorphous horde; without the masses the leader is a nonentity. Hitler, who was fully aware of this interdependence, expressed it once in a speech addressed to the SA [the Nazis’ paramilitary gang]: 'All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.'”

In the same way, Trump is inextricable from the mob he has spawned. He lives for their applause. Without it, he is lost, but he doesn’t know why he seeks their plaudits. He enriches himself and his cronies, but his riches far exceed the sum that anyone can spend in a lifetime. Trump and his friends seek power, but to what end? Corporations’ profits are already sky-high, and they are destroying the planet that produces their profits and gives wealth its meaning. Even if neo-fascists achieved complete dominion over the United States they have no grand plan for what they would do after that. This is what Arendt meant when she wrote of evil that:

“It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying…because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality.’”

Nothing meaningful justifies the Trumpian incarnation of evil, just as nothing meaningful underlay its predecessors. One hopes that his desperate existential quest won’t drag us all even further into the depths. Mocking Trump is a predictable response - he is a tempting target for derision. But ridicule can’t mean inaction. We have been warned: evil can come in masquerade.

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