Evil is a popular topic in Hollywood, from The Evil Dead franchise to Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies. But evil makes only the occasional cameo in the U.S. policy realm.
In the early 1990s, the topic of evil became buzz-worthy in the wake of the Cold War’s collapse as pundits and policymakers tried to understand the unfolding horrors in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.
In June 1991, Time magazine kicked off the trend by asking on its cover whether evil exists “or do bad things just happen.” As Lance Morrow wrote in the cover story, “Saddam Hussein raised atavistic questions about evil. But the West has grown preoccupied by newer forms — greed, terrorism, drugs, AIDS, crime, child abuse, global pollution, oil spills, acid rain.” These newer strains of evil would become considerably more virulent throughout the decade even as the atavistic varieties refused to stay dead.
In 2001, evil made another comeback after the attacks on 9/11 in New York and Washington. President George W. Bush called the attacks “evil” and sustained considerable criticism for resorting to such theological language at that time and frequently afterwards. But that didn’t stop others from diving into the topic with gusto. Philosophers, journalists, and writers published a number of books in 2002 on the subject of evil, from philosopher Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought to journalist Samantha Power’s book on genocide, A Problem from Hell.
And now the E word has renewed currency in the first year of the Trump administration.
After the largest mass shooting in U.S. history last October in Las Vegas, President Donald Trump called the act “pure evil” (echoing George W. Bush’s description of the 1999 Columbine shootings). Some Republican lawmakers eagerly embraced this kind of language as they dug in their heels on gun control. After all, they argued, evil can’t be legislated away.
Meanwhile, as he casts his eye overseas, Trump has usually reserved his use of “evil” for actors that just happen to be Muslim, from the Islamic State to Iran, which no doubt thrills his evangelical supporters.
Most of the reflections on evil in the United States center on people “out there.” Why were Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and the machete wielders in Rwanda evil? Why did the 9/11 hijackers do the evil things that they did? What motivates the evil acts of the Islamic State? Even when the lens is turned on American society, the focus tends to be on those on the pathological margins, like serial murderers and child abductors.
Oh, of course, figures on the far right have no problem throwing around the E word more liberally — when talking about Islam (Rev. Robert Jeffress), gay people (failed Alabama politician Roy Moore), abortion providers (the Life Education Council), and the like. Generally, though, evil is a topic for the pulpit, not politics.
But what happens when evil takes a very different form, not on the margins of society, but at its very center? What happens when evil takes a seat behind the desk of the Oval Office?
I know about Godwin’s law — that as discussion threads grow longer on the Internet, the likelihood of a comparison to Hitler increases. I’m not going to compare Donald Trump to Hitler. I am also well aware of the dangers of trivializing evil by using it “frivolously,” as the political scientist Alan Wolfe warned recently in The Atlantic. If everything is evil, then nothing is evil.
But I want to take seriously the proposition that we don’t just have an incompetent president. We don’t just have a rude president. We don’t just have a lying president. We don’t just have a racist, misogynist president. Such judgments have become commonplace, shared by columnists of the left and right — for instance in last week’s assessment of Trump’s first year in the Sunday Review of The New York Times — and embraced as well by some prominent conservative politicians like Arizona Republican Jeff Flake.
Let’s go one step further: What if we actually have an evil president?
In his first year in office, and particularly on foreign policy, Donald Trump has been a force for evil.
I’m not arguing that he is personally evil, only that he does evil things. Nor am I speaking theologically. I don’t believe that Trump sold his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth and worldly power.
I set the bar higher. For me, bringing the world to the edge of nuclear holocaust, destroying the planet for future generations, and engaging in ethnic cleansing in the here and now are evil. And Trump, his pinkie finger pressed to his lips, has decisively shifted U.S. policy in these directions.
But what’s truly astonishing about the last year of American history is that many of the folks who routinely throw around the E word, particularly in the conservative and evangelical communities, have been entirely silent about Trump’s sins. Indeed, with the exception of #NeverTrump conservatives and evangelicals of color, these two communities remain in Trump’s cheering section despite all their blather about right and wrong. It’s bad enough that they bent over backwards to rationalize Roy Moore’s predatory conduct toward girls and Trump’s serial adultery.
The bigger problem is Trump’s attitude to the world as a whole.
For the past 30 years or so, progressives have strategically focused on political and economic issues. It’s been the conservatives who’ve achieved electoral success by focusing on moral issues. Perhaps it’s time for progressives to recapture the energy of the civil rights movement — which at root addressed the moral crisis of post-war America — and start talking about right and wrong.
Let’s start at the top.
What is an evil foreign policy?
As a Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to shake up American foreign policy. According to an assessment of Trump’s first year by the perceptive academics Andrew Bacevich and John Mearsheimer in an interview at LobeLog, Trump has largely failed to fulfill his promises, from ripping up the nuclear treaty with Iran to building a wall on the border at Mexico’s expense.
Simply put, they say, Trump has collided with the same roadblock that Barack Obama did — the foreign policy establishment in Washington. Having failed to transform, Trump is now pursuing the same old tired foreign policy of his predecessors, but with much greater incompetence.
There is much truth to this argument. The Trump administration is pursuing many of the failed policies of the past — surging in Afghanistan, regime change in Syria, containment of Iran, greater military spending, burden-sharing with allies in Europe and Asia, alternately wooing and threatening China, and so on. Trump’s attempt to impose his vision of economic nationalism has largely gone nowhere because of push back within his own administration (though he did recently slap a 30 percent tariff on solar panel imports). His decision to repair fences with Russia encountered resistance from the “Washington playbook.”
These failures contribute to the portrait of Trump as a frustrated revolutionary.
The conventional policies that Trump has fallen back upon may be violent, stupid, and self-defeating. But they rarely approach the level of evil.
Still, Trump has departed in several important ways from the foreign policy mainstream. And these exceptions go beyond commonplace malevolence. In focusing on just three issues — nuclear weapons, climate change, and immigration — I want to highlight not the everyday evil of the Charlie Manson or Abu Ghraib variety but existential evil. Such evil threatens the existence of the world or a large subset thereof.
The most urgent of these threats involves nuclear weapons.
Even as a candidate, Donald Trump showed a fondness for nuclear weapons. Although he spoke of nuclear proliferation as the greatest threat facing the world, he entertained the idea of allies Japan and South Korea going nuclear. When asked at a town meeting in April 2016 about whether he would ever consider using nuclear weapons, he said, “Possibly, possibly.” He followed up by asking why else would people continue to make them.
As president, Trump has doubled down on his nuclear fixation by advocating a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Indeed, it was after the meeting where Trump made this surprise proposal that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called the president a “fucking moron.”
But it’s been Trump’s willingness to bring the United States to the brink of nuclear war that truly qualifies as evil. At one point, during an escalating battle on Twitter, he threatened to rain down “fire and fury” upon North Korea. Lest you think this is just rhetorical overload, the administration continues to consider seriously a preemptive strike against North Korea — the so-called “bloody nose” attack — which could precipitate conventional retaliation that would put a million people at risk in the greater Seoul metropolitan area or escalate to a nuclear exchange that would exterminate a much larger portion of the world’s population.
This is no mere contingency plan, which the Pentagon routinely draws up to address potential problems. Trump has spoken of attacking North Korea so often that last month his confidant Lindsey Graham (R-SC) put the probability of a preemptive strike at 30 percent.
Congress is so concerned about Trump’s itchy trigger finger that several members have introduced legislation to prevent the president from launching a preemptive war against North Korea without congressional approval. And The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which advanced its Doomsday Clock to a sobering two-and-a-half minutes to midnight in 2017, will this week move the minute hand even closer to apocalypse.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and assume charitably that Trump is just bluffing to put the fear of god into North Korea (or China). Perhaps. After all, the Pentagon is well aware of the risks of such a strategy. But in pursuing this game of chicken with North Korea, Trump greatly increases the risk of accidental war. With both sides on high alert, the dangers of miscalculation become palpable.
Whether through bravado or miscalculation, Trump threatens to do something that only evil characters in comic books talk about: destroy the world.
Trashing the future
With his policy on climate change, meanwhile, Trump aspires to destroy the future as well (just in case the world manages to avoid apocalypse in the present).
Before he even became a presidential candidate, Trump made no bones about his climate change denial. He famously tweeted in 2012 that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He has repeatedly referred to climate change as a “hoax.” So, it’s no surprise that, as president, he withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement.
Of course, even if all countries adhered to the agreement’s non-obligatory pledges, the world would still fail to hold the surge in global temperatures to below the 2 percent increase over pre-industrial levels that the Paris signatories aspired to reach. So, Donald Trump cannot be held solely responsible for sending Miami underwater.
But this four-year period may prove critical in terms of a tipping point. Concerted U.S. leadership — indeed, more concerted than what Obama provided — might have made a big difference. Trump doesn’t just represent an opportunity cost. He’s pushing U.S. leadership in the opposite direction.
And it’s not just climate change. Unlike other parts of his agenda, writes PRI’s Carolyn Beeler, “when it comes to environment and energy policy, the president largely seems to be living up to campaign promises he first laid out in a speech in May 2016.”
Trump has moved full speed ahead in offering up as much U.S. real estate as he can to those who want to monetize the land, the sea, and what lies beneath. In one year, he approved the Keystone pipeline, ended restrictions on oil and gas drilling (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), started to roll back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and allowed his minion at EPA, Scott Pruitt, to gut environmental regulations.
It’s an extraordinary policy of pillage that perhaps only the Vikings could properly appreciate.
You might object that Miami isn’t currently under water any more than nuclear war is currently under way. Can a policy be evil if merely makes an evil result more likely?
There is no disagreement that a nuclear holocaust or a drowned world would be catastrophic. To make the first more likely and the second more irreversible, because of the sheer number of lives at stake, qualifies as evil. In a searing essay in Commonweal in 1962, the theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “The actual destruction of the human race is an enormous evil, but it is still, in itself, only a physical evil. Yet the free choice of global suicide, made in desperation by the world’s leaders and ratified by the consent and cooperation of all their citizens, would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion.” Climate change falls into this second category.
Finally, with his immigration policy, Donald Trump is out to destroy the past as well. What has made America great has been its immigrants (excepting, of course, the original immigrants from Europe who massacred the indigenous population). Now Donald Trump would like to remake the United States in Norway’s image — white as the Scandinavian snow.
By deporting large numbers of undocumented workers and restricting the flow of immigrants from largely non-white countries, Trump is engaged in a form of ethnic cleansing. He is “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area” — according to the UN definition — in an attempt to reverse the demographic trends that, unchecked, will make the United States majority non-white in about 25 years.
After Trump told FBI graduates last month that countries were sending America “the worst of the worst,” journalist Chauncey DeVega wrote in Salon:
[Trump’s] most recent claims that immigrants are trash who will despoil (white) America is just the latest chapter in a hate-filled epic from a man who has suggested a national registry for Muslims, wants to bar people from entire regions and countries from the United States, has proposed publicly posting the names and pictures of “illegal immigrants” who commit crimes (as the Nazis did with alleged Jewish criminals in Germany), and believes that an entire ethnic group comes to America in order to rape and kill (white) women.
Racism raised to the level of Trump’s rants and raves is, yes, evil.
He is not rounding up Salvadorans and Nicaraguans and Hondurans and killing them. But beginning with the 200,000 Salvadorans who will soon lose their Temporary Protective Status (TPS), the Trump administration is preparing to send people back to countries that are extraordinarily unsafe, where many of the deportees would face threats to their lives on return.
“Women and girls, though, are in the most danger,” write Xanthe Scharff and Danae Vilchez in Newsweek. “Stripped of TPS, they now face not only the fear of family separation, but also the prospect of returning to a country which has one of the highest rates of violent homicide of women in the world. Deportation could be a death sentence.”
Past, present, and future: Donald Trump’s evil is truly multidimensional. It’s one thing for someone jerked around by the global economy and the U.S. political elite to vote for Donald Trump as a protest against an unfair status quo. It’s quite another for politicians to side with Trump knowing full well the extent of his malevolence.
The former is misguided. The latter is evil.
Conservatives have developed a whole discourse around the notion that the left refuses to acknowledge evil, that a poisonous “moral relativism” has rendered liberals incapable of identifying the devil’s work when they see it. As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) put it in an interview back in 2011: “If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics — I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism.”
With this label of moral relativism, conservatives have accused the left of making excuses for any or all of the following evils: the Soviet Union, communism, abortion, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, reverse discrimination, Cuba, socialism, taxes, fluoridation, and the crash of the Hindenburg (okay, maybe not this last one).
I don’t really want to wade into this particular debate other than to point out that Trump supporters have engaged in their own amazing bouts of moral relativism. They have looked the other way not just from the human rights abuses of some right-wing crackpot in a distant country or the ethnic cleansing carried out by some dubious U.S. ally. They are averting their eyes from what the president of the United States is doing.
It’s not just the routine idiocies of U.S. foreign policy. It’s not just the personality defects of the president himself (like, for instance, a libido gone wild). When it comes to nuclear weapons, climate change, and immigration policy, Donald Trump is actually doing evil. And his party, with a few naysayers, is behind him 100 percent.
Washington insiders will no doubt point out that, by declaring Trump’s actions evil, I’m thereby cutting off all possibility of engaging constructively with the administration. To which I have a succinct reply: Exactly. That’s the point.
To quote former Vice President Dick Cheney, someone who has had more than a passing acquaintance with the Dark Side, you don’t negotiate with evil.
You defeat evil.