As each year of this twenty-first century lapses into memory, so too has lapsed our conception as Americans of what is, or is not, “evil.” The term implies making a moral judgment, one that requires a distancing or remove by the observer from what is being judged. When that evil is reduced to a constant low hum, on the other hand, the ability to distance oneself from it blurs and it becomes easier to normalize it as background noise.
In the not-too distant past there was little debate about the nature of evil. On a broad, geopolitical scale, and as famously described by Hannah Arendt, the Nazi regime with its death camps was “evil.” Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the forced starvation of 45 million Chinese citizens that resulted was “evil.” The genocide by Hutus against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda was “evil.”
But evil does not require mass slaughter to manifest itself:
- 1.profoundly immoral and malevolent.“his evil deeds”
synonyms: wicked, bad, wrong, immoral, sinful, foul, vile, dishonorable, corrupt, iniquitous, depraved, reprobate, villainous, nefarious, vicious, malicious;
For a country that publicly prides itself on being a beacon of hope and a bulwark against evil, one which praises the virtues of “gallantry,“ “bravery” and the broadness and brightness of its flag’s stripes and stars, and one that extols a morally-charged promise of “freedom” and “liberty,” there seems to be a disturbing inability here, more than any time in recent memory, to recognize the face of an evil that reveals itself every day.
Donald Trump, and the Administration that carries out his policies, are “evil” by any objective, textbook sense of the word. Their actions are almost always motivated by a singular strain of arbitrary cruelty and malice to a degree that has not been sufficiently captured by a media that simply jumps from scandal to scandal.
If an official policy of snatching infants from the arms of parents caught trying to breach the U.S. border to find some low-paying job is not “evil,” then the term itself probably has no meaning for those who support that policy. A government that supposedly abhors “evil” would know intuitively how horribly depraved this is. It would not matter, as some on the right have rushed to point out, that some law was being broken. That argument is an attempt to reduce and justify the abhorrent in terms of policy, but questions of morality are not so reducible. “Policy” is not an excuse to justify this type of cruel, senseless action. It’s simply immoral, malevolent and wicked. In other words, it’s evil.
But the Trump Administration’s latest policy of separating migrant families is only the most recent of many examples of its penchant for calculated malice in its policies. Trump’s embrace of race-baiting –and the eagerness of many Americans to accept it—was apparent from the early stages of his Presidential campaign. The dehumanizing tactics Trump used a(nd continues to use) against his political enemies –whether in the form of rallying his supporters to “build the wall,” or suggesting that violence may be an appropriate means of dealing with journalists who reported negative stories about him—are not simply political tactics. They show a willingness to ignore an established moral divide that Americans have considered, at least historically, to separate themselves from the types of dictatorial, totalitarian regimes whom we consider as “evil.”
The distinguishing feature of evil is that it causes unnecessary, arbitrary harm to others. It is often motivated by bias or hatred but it can also be motivated by deliberate, malign neglect. That is why supposedly “normal” people are reflexively repelled by it. That is why examples of the Holocaust are so often trotted out when people grasp with conveying the extent of evil. The Holocaust is the most vivid and well-known manifestation of evil in the past hundred years, the only time frame of reference for everyone alive in this world.
But despite their smaller scale, petty acts of wickedness and malevolence that are calculated to harm others are no less “evil” simply because they harm fewer people. When a deliberate attempt is made by an Administration to take away the health care of millions of people, for no good reason except to spite one’s predecessor, that is evil, because it results in arbitrary and unnecessary harm. When the Environmental Protection Agency is transformed into an entity whose sole purpose is to protect the profits of corporations that poison or pollute our land and streams, that is evil, because it results in unnecessary and serious harm, for the benefit of a select few. When child labor laws are challenged, or Payday lenders are coddled, or public lands are despoiled, or toxic chemicals are de-regulated in our drinking water, for no reason other than to line the pockets of political donors, that is evil because people are harmed as a result.
Equivocating or deflecting about the presence of “evil” is one of the surest signs of its existence. Expressing tacit toleration for Neo-Nazi marchers, declining to condemn violence against minorities and overtly stoking religious and racial resentments are all “wicked, bad, immoral and dishonorable,” or at least they were prior to 2016, when they became commonplace behavior sanctioned by this Administration.
Corruption presents a peculiar type of evil, one whose effects are less dramatic but no less corrosive to the society. This Administration has already established itself as the most corrupt in modern American history. As pointed out in Adam Serwer’s excellent essay last week in The Atlantic, the litany of corrupt dealings by this Administration in the last month alone is staggering:
There’s the president’s attempt to aid the Chinese telecom company ZTE, mere hours after the Chinese government approved funding for a project in the vicinity of a Trump property in Indonesia. There’s the millions of dollars corporations paid to Cohen after the election in an attempt to influence administration policy in their favor. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, also the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, urged banks to pay off politicians in an effort to weaken the CFPB’s powers legislatively—since taking the helm of CFPB, Mulvaney has dropped a number of cases against payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates, after taking thousands from the industry as a congressman. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s own mini-universe of scandals stems from his improper relationships with industry figures, his misuse of taxpayer funds, and his attempts to obscure the truth about both. Trump attempted to pressure the Postmaster General to increase fees on Amazon in order to punish The Washington Post, which has published many stories detailing wrongdoing and misbehavior on the part of the Trump administration, and the Trump campaign before that. Not long after The New York Times reported that Trump officials may have solicited campaign help not just from Russia, but also from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the president “demanded” that the Justice Department launch an inquiry into whether the FBI improperly investigated a campaign that was eagerly soliciting international aid to swing the election in its favor.
Republicans, particularly those of the Evangelical so-called “Christian” variety, would counter that all of the myriad malevolent actions by this Administration are counterbalanced by one thing—the support of most Democrats for a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. That is the single justification trotted out in the minds of many, if not most Republicans for ignoring the blatant parade of malice and spiteful Executive Orders pushed in their faces every day by Trump. As a consequence of this, we are now faced with widespread tolerance by a very large segment of the population of just about any act of evil this Administration stoops to. That should give anyone pause who cares about the precedent this Administration is setting.
Neither Donald Trump nor anyone his Administration have shown any interest in doing much at all aside from enriching themselves at the expense of the American people. The daily scandals that emanate from Trump tend to dilute the fact that the one common characteristic displayed by nearly all of Trump’s actions is their sheer spite and malevolence, particularly towards groups that do not support him. These are the actions of someone who views policy not as a set of principles, but as a means of administering punishment for perceived slights, or bestowing rewards for support. The harm that his actions cause to ordinary Americans is never, ever a consideration.
In dictatorships, that may be “business as usual.” But in this country, we can and should call it what it is—“evil.”