Trump and the Wrong Side of Evil

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Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

From where I sit, the Trump Presidency seems to be fast receding into the rear-view mirror. In part because Trump is doing little besides complaining about the election and sulking. His lawsuits fail (before judges he appointed), networks call his claims of a “rigged election” false on a routine basis (no more both-sideser-ism), his Attorney General Bill Barr says he has found no problems with the election, and even Fox News can’t seem to find it within itself to propagate Trump’s lies.

Of course, I “sit” in the blue bubble of Seattle and mostly listen/watch NPR and PBS. So things may look different elsewhere. Still, Trump and his post-election machinations begin to look more like what they are — a dangerous farce — rather than a real attempt to overturn the results of the election.

That is not to say that Donald Trump will no longer be a presence or factor in American politics. Likely he will carry on from the sidelines, at least for a while, maybe into 2024. Should something terrible happen on Biden’s watch Trump will be all over it.

But, to take the more optimistic view, Trump is indeed receding into our national rear-view mirror. If so, how then are we to think about these last four years?

While there will certainly be many angles for evaluation, I was struck by a distinction made by the essayist Lance Morrow in his 2003 book on EvilThat distinction is between “wrong” and “evil.” Morrow says that he would have trouble calling the Nazi “Final Solution” or the torture-murder of a child “wrong.” They are something different. They are evil.

As I think about the Trump Presidency, Morrow’s distinction seems helpful. One can disagree with people and argue that they are “wrong,” even as they may conclude and say the same about us. This seems the normal life as well normal behavior in the realm of politics.

But Trump went beyond wrong to something I would call evil. One might, for example, believe his trade policies “wrong” or not. But his relentless, bold-faced lying was something else. His tactic was to repeat a lie so often that many came to accept it as truth — the election being a case in point. That’s a different order of magnitude than “wrong.”

Or again, one might disagree with his judicial appointments and call them “wrong” or not, but his going for the jugular of national division and hatred time and time again and his personal attacks and ridicule directed against anyone who questioned him was different. That seems to me “evil.” One might call efforts to reduce immigration wrong or not, but the separation of parents from their children was different. It was evil.

The difference between “wrong” and “evil” was what was at stake in this election. Morrow amplifies his distinction in the following remarkable passage:

“A crucial difference between wrong and evil is that people are implicitly in charge of the universe in which rights and wrongs are discussed; people have systems of laws to right wrongs. But evil implies a different universe, controlled by extra-human forces. Wrong is an offense that suggests [that] reparation is possible . . . Wrong is not mysterious. [But] Evil suggests a mysterious force that may be in business for itself and may exploit human agency as part of a larger cosmic conflict — between good and evil, God and Satan.”

That gets it for me. We have been up against something bigger here, a “mysterious force” of which Donald Trump is an agent. But that force is bigger and more threatening than he is.

There are dangers in making the political stakes too high, in framing them as a battle of good and evil. On that, we need to lower the temperature. ”Right and wrong,” or “better and worse” are preferable for the political realm, a world in which decent people can disagree and which compromise is needful and appropriate. So I use this distinction cautiously.

But Trump has represented something beyond “wrong,” and the proper name for it is, “evil.”

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Before you cast him into Hell for lies delivered to the public to sway voters and to protect his legacy, re-listen to the promises, actions and statements made by the political elite (echoed by media). Your gonna need a BIG bus. BTW The cages were provided by ?

  2. “Practically speaking, if not for the Clintons’ (sic) baggage, there would be no President Trump.” – Gabriel Sherman, Confessions of a Clintonworld Exile, Vanity Fair, December 2, 2020.

  3. Anthony,
    You had me until you brought the ‘other world’ into it. It is as though you are looking into a mirror and refusing to accept what you see. Is there an evil so pure that it cannot be of human origin? Do we create the Devil and Hell to excuse ourselves? Hatred can seem pure if one trains oneself in its arts, which is to say enlarge ones grievances and sense of victimhood into a work of art, a monstrous dissociative reality. And if one has the power to act out this dramatic Mysterium Horridum in the world, not to mention a stage, we get people like Trump, Mengele, Heydrich, Stalin, McConnel and Giuliani. You might want to throw in the physicists at Los Alamos who knowingly released appalling evil into the world. How did Trump become President? People voted for him and Republicans gamed the system.
    Hannah Arendt showed us that one does not require Satan to do evil, just thoughtlessness. If I were you I would look up photos of the staff at Auschwitz at Christmas time; they are easily found on the internet. You can see SS men and their families singing carols in church, at home with the dog, the children and the Christmas tree–law abiding Catholics, Lutherans and others doing the work of the state they served, anxious to get ahead in the world. Or, read some history about the slave trade and count the Quakers, Puritans and Presbyterians that got rich from it. At home I’m sure they were devoted to their families and communities. All this is a reason Arendt made use of the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’.
    You don’t need the Princes of Darkness to bring about pure evil, ordinary people will be happy to correct you in that regard. So what do we do about it? I would say work to fence it in with laws to right wrongs and encourage the personal and social sensitivity necessary to apprehend to the failure to do so. It seems so banal, but the banality of evil can only be sequestered by a banal effort to root out hatred, intolerance and cruelty. Allow those to breed and you get truly monstrous children. Trump is one. To see another, look into a mirror and ask yourself why so many ministers and priests supported the Nazis. How many in your congregations voted for Trump? Were they beguiled by Satan. No, just themselves. That’s all you need.

  4. I think, when selfish people ask the police to displace tent people, it is wicked. The result is death, having no shelter whatsoever. What does murder mean? Who are the murderers? A tent on public property is a last-ditch attempt to stay alive. What is YOUR responsibility? Please do not kill the poor, hungry, helpless.

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