OpEd: TRUMP AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
THIS PIECE IS AUTHORED BY ANNIS PRATT. ANNIS IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL NOVELIST AND ACTIVIST. SHE HOLDS A PHD IN COMPARATIVE LITERATURE AND HAS TAUGHT AT EMORY UNIVERSITY, SPELMAN COLLEGE, AND THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON.
I am a progressive Democrat. The first month of the Trump presidency shocked me profoundly. As day after day brought worse and worse news, I wrote an article about tyranny and resistance for this magazine, applying reason and analysis to steady my flayed nerves …
It didn’t work.
Did anyone else wince at the spectacle of a whole range of intellectuals trying to “analyze” (apply reason to) our new president’s behavior during his first weeks in office?
There was something going on that reason couldn’t plumb—a whiff of sulfur, intimations of a terrifying malevolence.
Evil was abroad in the land; I felt it in my very bones.
Related article: “Trump Tyranny and the Politics of Resistance“
As it happens, I was reading a collection of sermons and essays by Reinhold Niebuhr (The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr ed. Robert McAfee Brown. Yale University Press New Haven 1986), whose experiences of Detroit racism in the 1920s and the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s gave him a unique take on political evil. When I first attended his sermons and read his essays in my early twenties, I couldn’t fathom his paradoxes and complexities; in the weeks after Trump’s inauguration, however, his ideas about the necessity for moral and political pessimism suddenly made a lot of sense.
This essay is not about theology, though it is a query into where those whiffs of sulfur are coming from. How does Niebuhr clarify political evil? Is malevolence embedded in our present situation?
Is there a counterforce to moral evil we can call on?
REINHOLD NIEBUHR ON THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
In my understanding; good and evil are not supernatural forces in eternal opposition but the results of human choice.
It is our capacity for free will, when we choose to deviate from common human values, that creates catastrophe. Good is the more powerful and enduring force; evil is the absence of good, or the shadow cast when good is blocked by malevolence. Evil is not shadowy in the sense of insubstantiality, however, but a potent reality, especially when taken up by whole groups of people.
While in Christian theology the human self is redeemed by Grace, Niebuhr insists that only human beings can conquer political evil, and only on a worldly level. To fight back against Hitler and his fascist doctrine of the “Master Race,” for example, people were compelled to utilize secular power:
“Life is power. Power is not evil of itself, but evil incarnates itself in power and cannot finally be deflected without the use of power.” (p.26)
Evil, he notes, starts with the individual human self: “It is this powerful self-love or, in the modern term, ‘egocentricity,’ this tendency of the self to make itself its own end or even make itself the false center of whatever community it inhabits, which sows confusion into every human community.” (p. 125)
Is it the egocentricity of our new President, then, that is giving off those whiffs of sulfur? It is too facile to attribute our political climate to the personal quirks of one human individual; broader social forces are necessary to transform an individual’s self-centeredness to a social or political malevolence.
We are not in Hitler Germany but in the twenty-first century United States.
How on earth did we get to the place where American democracy is threatened by a demagogic president backed by oligarchs with fascist proclivities? In 1944, from within what he called “the present tragic era of world catastrophe,” Niebuhr foresaw our situation as a conflict between “the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.” Modern civilization, he concludes, has been altogether too optimistic (“sentimental”) about our potential for human depravity.
Niebuhr defines “good” as thinking in terms of the whole community and identifies the Children of Light as those who serve the good of the whole, even at personal cost. The problem with we liberal progressive Children of Light is that we are entirely unprepared for the narrower self-interests of the Children of Darkness, “moral cynics who know no law beyond their will and interest.” In Niebuhr’s words:
“‘The children of light’ may thus be defined as those who seek to bring self-interest under the disciple of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good. The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self- interest.” (166).
Is that where the shock and horror of January 2017 came from: our liberal over-valuation of reason, our trust in logical positivism, our naïve certainty that truths based on the scientific method will automatically lead other Americans to accept our reasoned solutions? Can we learn from Niebuhr’s concern that; “modern secular idealism’s too optimistic view of human nature,” our “persistent blindness to the obvious tragic facts of human nature,” have left us helpless when we are confronted by the “guile and malice of the Children of Darkness?”
THE NEW ADMINISTRATION
I do not think that Trump’s personality is in and of itself the source of the evil abroad in our land. Swayed this way and that by egotism, amorality, bigotry (and insecurity), he is not sufficiently systematic to consolidate or execute a policy.
IN THIS PHOTO: Trump signing executive orders, shortly after his swearing in PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr/Olivia Becker
Michael Moore was probably right to define him as a “human Molotov cocktail” igniting economically disenfranchised and politically disaffected voters who were so anxious for him to fix things that they didn’t mind his antics. He promised them jobs, didn’t he, and he heard their pain. Unlike Hillary Clinton, he didn’t consider them “deplorable.”
But who is throwing the Trump firebomb?
Is there a political will served by the strategy of chaos and its tactics of tweet storms, rages, personal attacks, conspiracy theories, and outright mendacity?
Does Trump’s unpredictable behavior serve to divert attention from an actual policy? If so, what is it? Trump’s policies seem to derive from “The Bannon Doctrine” promulgated by his principal advisor, Stephen Bannon. As editor of Breitbart News, he provided an Alt-Right outlet for White Nationalists, as well as for Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semites, and Militant Anti-Muslim and Anti-Immigrant writers. White Supremacy, which rose originally to keep slaves from rebellion and was reinforced by the fear of Black progress after the Civil War, has its contemporary iteration in “the 2040 complex,” white people’s fear of losing their American normativity as the white population moves closer and closer to becoming a minority, an event predicted for that year.
Or, as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) puts it; “[Bannon’s] editorial vision demonstrably mobilized a different grassroots, one that is fighting for a white ethno state and, in many cases, another Holocaust. Their hate is real and thriving.” The result of this “bigotry in the White House,” the SPLC reports, is that “a burst of over 1,000 hate crimes and incidents have occurred since Election day.”
Although these manifest evils spring from Bannon’s doctrine of Aryan superiority, his bigotry is also a means to elect Republicans. The SPLC notes that; “Bannon, who took an indefinite leave of absence on August 17, 2016, to become the CEO of the Trump presidential campaign, told a Breitbart news editor in 2014 to “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty,” referring to Republican leaders.
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
Why did Bannon want Republican leaders to win?
“Donald Trump isn’t the only villain—the Republican Party Shares the Blame,” writes Jonathan Freedland in the UK Guardian (3 March):
IN THIS PHOTO: March against Muslim Ban, Feb 2017, Washington DC PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr/ Ted Eytan
“It’s natural to direct our fury at Trump and to want to see him gone. But it was the wider American right that, over more than two decades, feasted on bigotry, ignorance, and contempt for science, facts and the compromises required by democratic governance—it was that right that incubated Trump and Trumpism.”
There were three basic reasons why Bannon threw in his lot with the Republican Party: its latent White Supremacy, an elitist leadership style, and its recent absorption of an extreme form of Libertarianism.
Bannon by no means introduced White Supremacy to the Republican Party. William F. Buckley Jr held to a Republican Conservatism that endowed “‘the advanced race’ with a claim to civilization” (p. 157-8 in Carl T. Bogus, William F. Buckley Jr and the Rise of American Conservatism). Ronald Reagan, whose administration cut back severely on civil rights, admired Buckley deeply.
Bannon’s leadership style had an important precursor in Dick Cheney and Leo Strauss’s Austrian School of Economics, prominent at the University of Chicago and an influence on several members of George W. Bush’s advisors.
Strauss believed in leadership by an elite that served its own power base rather than the American people as a whole. For him, there was no such thing as equality of opportunity: social inequalities reflect natural inequalities. Endowed with a natural superiority, leaders are not responsible for the have-nots but should manipulate society for their own ends. They decide what is good for society but are under no obligation to share their plans with the rest of the nation. Promoting religion is a good way to keep the lower orders incurious and happy.
To the Straussian school, stunningly, it is perfectly acceptable to fabricate lies suitable for an unsophisticated public. Mendacity can also be useful in manipulating the media to create a reality that the public will accept. As Professor Shadia Drury explains this propensity for mendacity: “No one who undertakes the special obligation of caring for the community can afford the luxury of perfect honesty.” (Shadia Drury, in an article on the Wall Street Journal, Aug 28, 2010, and in her book “Leo Strauss and the American Right”).
PHOTO CREDIT: U of Chicago Strauss Centre
The Austrian School taught that the wealth of the leading elite was their own, the inevitable reward of their superiority. It should not be subject to governmental controls. Central planning of an economy, including by a central bank like the Federal Reserve, would damage the market which, like the natural evolution of superior leaders, should be left to prosper on its own. Libertarian policy in the present Republican Party is similarly based on the desire to protect individual wealth from government intervention.
Bannon came into the White House intent upon destroying the power of the federal government, a process which sounds like untrammeled anarchism but is actually an extreme form of the Libertarianism espoused by the Tea Party and its Congressional Freedom Caucus. Reinhold Niebuhr describes Libertarians as; “the classes which already have a high measure of security through their social and political skills, and who do not like to have their economic power subjected to political power,” (p. 215). Of “primary importance to Trump’s business supporters,” writes Elizabeth Drew, “was that he’d made it clear that he’d take a sledgehammer to the web of federal regulations, particularly those that in the name of protecting the environment restrict how businesses run their plants and extract raw materials from the earth.”
Adam Smith, the Founding Fathers and several American Presidents, have understood the necessity of regulating the market for the good of the community. Contemporary “Market Fundamentalism,” however, takes the market as a self-perpetuating good in and of itself, as long as it is unhampered by government regulation. The ultimate good of Libertarianism is the financial well-being of the individual citizen. Its moral failing would seem to be excessive monetary self-interest. This has to be understood in Niebuhr’s sense of indifference to community well-being.
We are left with the question of whether Libertarianism is introducing that whiff of sulfur into the administration or whether it is a strategic means for a still more nefarious end?
The vast donations expended on the 2016 election by extremely rich Americans and by lobbies promoting whole industries like the fossil fuel and gun interests, were less intent upon preserving individual than corporate wealth, a situation in which Libertarianism can be understood as a strategy.
American patriots since Thomas Jefferson have recognized that the financial self-interest of powerful corporations poses a threat to American democracy:
Thomas Jefferson: “We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Abraham Lincoln: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high policies will follow…”
Money and the power it accrues corrupts individuals significantly, but it corrupts corporations that are motivated by the profit motive absolutely.
The Trump cabinet is full of billionaires and Wall Street magnates with no interest whatsoever in the public good, whose ties to huge corporations make them determined to roll back regulations on private industry. Thus, they proposed a health care act that eliminated 23,000,000 Americans from receiving health insurance, and full of tax cuts to benefit the wealthy.
PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr/Diana Beato
It was defeated by the Freedom Caucus only because it didn’t completely repeal the Affordable Health Care Act and throw millions more Americans into misery. Or, as Joseph Kennedy III describes this draconian policy to benefit the rich while making millions of Americans poorer, unhealthier:
“I was struck last night by a comment that I heard made by Speaker Ryan, where he called this repeal bill ‘an act of mercy.’ With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture…The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill. This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.” (March 7, 2017)
GOING HIGH, GOING LOW
Surely our enlightened liberal understanding of government for the public good is in such clear contrast to the greed and malice of the present administration that the country will quite naturally get behind us in the next election?
This is not likely to happen if our liberal/humanitarian resistance is shot through with the evils we deplore in our opponents. As Niebuhr reminds us:
“The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but must remain free from their malice.” (p.181)
“With malice toward none,” declared Lincoln in his second inaugural address, “with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” Lincoln’s overriding goal was a national unity he understood as existentially endangered by a malice so powerful that (along with corporate chicanery) it was capable of undermining the union he cherished.
No matter our numbers and the effectiveness of our “Resistance” movement in filling town halls with our righteous indignation; excesses of mockery and derision can turn our Members of Congress from compromise of any kind. Now, of all times, we need to work with Republicans; though our numbers have sent an important message, our rhetoric may be counterproductive. I knew we were in trouble when a Facebook post depicted a Chihuahua defecating on a photograph of Trump, soon followed by extremely distasteful statues of Trump in the nude set up in city squares.
With our social media filled with malicious posts, tweets, and emails, are we behaving any better than Trump with his intemperate tweets and diatribes against his enemies?
In an article querying; “Is Trumpism an Existential Threat?” Matt Bai remarked that:
“It’s not the agenda that worries me especially; policies come and go, good and bad, and that’s why we debate them. It’s the cultural virus Trump seems willing to unleash, the meanness seeping across a land where ‘go back to your own country’ is becoming a common mantra. It’s the uncomplicated, unconsidered assault on ideals that really do make America exceptional.”
Have we caught that virus ourselves? Does our oppositional meanness undermine our values? If so, our cause is sorely compromised.
In a sermon on the Biblical parable of “The Wheat and the Tares,” Niebuhr reminds us that we shouldn’t uproot and destroy the weeds among our crops because we are all inextricably entangled. If the American Democracy is to prevail, we must act as one country; if the human species is going to survive global warming, everyone must join the effort.
“The children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves. The democratic world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury that it avowed. Civilization refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities.” (p. 166)
Lincoln’s “with malice toward none” means condescension to none and empathy for all. We should have learned by now that it is not only morally but politically dangerous to declare any human beings “deplorable.”
Not only must we must root out dehumanizing images of Trump from feeds and tweets, we must also open-heartedly listen to his voters. We must set aside our ill-placed feelings of superiority and find out where they are coming from: what are their fears and needs? What commonalities can we find? What policies would benefit all of our economic futures?
Only then will we be ready to carry out the mission Niebuhr proposed for the Children of Light.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So, do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” J.R.R. Tolkien (in The Ring of Power)
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