It sounds like a partisan question: Is Donald Trump evil? Maybe it has to be a partisan question; can anyone truly be unbiased towards him, and who in his camp would pose the question? So, bias admitted, it’s still a necessary question: Is Donald Trump evil and what does it matter? He’s already been labeled with so many negative adjectives; does posing another descriptive even have relevance?
What is it anyway, and how is it recognized? The dictionary definition of evil is clear: morally reprehensible, causing repulsion, causing harm, but that clarity can still be subjectively applied. It’s less subjective in retrospect, with the ramifications played out and the aftermath laid bare. Even then, with fallout on full display, interpretation is easily skewed. There are some examples though, that come close to common acceptance. Hitler certainly provides one: a reprehensible and repulsive portrait of one willing to cause harm. He, more clearly than anyone in modern history, is seen as a manifestation of evil. As benchmark for measure, what gives him near universal recognition as the epitome of evil?
There’s the sheer magnitude: eleven million death camp murders (including nearly six million Jews) along with nearly fifty million war related deaths. Germany lost WWII and subsequent control of the historical record, much of which was recorded with 20th century technology. The record contains photographs, film footage and even audio. It’s all there to read, see, and hear; so accessibility is an essential factor for recognition. Beyond the expected violence of war, what’s also revealed is a sociopathic methodology: industrialized death camps reminiscent of slaughter houses. In a coolly detached, grotesquely civilized manner, eleven million murders were committed. With Hitler in mind, it all comes together: magnitude, visibility, and methodology; the combination bestows upon him an easily recognized face of evil.
Hollywood and headline depictions of evil are often direct and visceral: a sadistic or vengeful killer taking pleasure or gratification in an overt act of violence. Less direct is the kind of evil expressed by proxy: violence condoned or encouraged in others for one’s own purpose. It’s this kind of evil that’s most often expressed in statecraft and easily associated with Hitler. He had ambition and resentments, but in their cause, had no need to kill directly. With “unsoiled” hands, Hitler managed the murder of eleven million human beings. His evil was a bitter and unmitigated ambition advanced through the manipulation of others. He enabled, encouraged, and nurtured the direct expression of violence in those around him.
Hitler had a ready population. Germany was a nation resentful of World War I loss and sanctions imposed by the victors. It was an overwhelmingly Christian culture already averse to its non-Christian Jewish minority. Hitler didn’t create it; he simply provided nurture and focus to the prevalent ill will. Still, the fostered intolerance was incremental; death camps didn’t suddenly appear, embraced with eager anticipation by the German majority. It took time and graduated exposure. The harangues came and action followed, rising through higher levels of accepted violence: hateful speeches, expulsions, imprisonments, riots, and murders. Dachau, the first concentration camp, began operations in 1933, holding mostly political prisoners. Death camps, solely designed for mass exterminations, first appeared in 1941. It wasn’t all foreseen in Hitler’s first oration; it took about twenty years of cultivation to go from the first incendiary speech in 1919 to the initial mass extermination center (Chelmno). Hitler was young when it began, and in his early 50’s when the Nazi Party reached its zenith in 1943.
The results of Hitler’s evil are unparalleled, but the evil itself is not; it’s rather common and seen throughout our histories. Ambition cloaked in the name of tribalism, nationalism, religion, etc. is often manipulative and not averse to violence. It’s seen all around the world; our own country is replete with example: genocide, slavery, interments, offensive wars, etc. Unless one is victim to it, such evil is so common as to be excused and forgotten. It takes an extreme and blatant example like Hitler to jump out and command attention. Its recorded trajectory should warn against complacency. Recognition, when it arrives, is often late. Are there red lights now flashing? At this juncture is it too outrageous for reasonable consideration? Is Donald Trump evil, and what does it matter?
It all seems so different with Trump, yet it’s the same. Hitler was young and unknown when making his first political appearance; Trump was already old and famous, even as a candidate. Hitler’s early life was financially humble; Trump’s was privileged. Hitler’s audience was homogeneous; Trump’s is diverse. Hitler gathered all reins of power; Trump struggles to keep just one. Their examples contrast in so many ways, yet share a most important trait: the willingness to condone brutality for personal gain. That willingness to nurture hate and harvest violence, so clear in Hitler’s wake, is the same willingness now revealing itself in the era of Trump. The appeal to intolerance began even before his campaign, with attempts to invalidate the Obama presidency. It continued with harangues against Muslims, Mexicans, Hillary, the liberal elite, and the “fake” news media. It crept towards violence with campaign urges to beat protesters. There’s no subtlety; in the brazen manner of Hitler, Trump is cultivating intolerance to become its flag waving champion.
It may have seemed inadvertent: not so much planned, but somehow just allowed. It’s here though, happening now, and is not just rally harangue. The use and acceptance of violence has been actualized in immigration policy. Historically, the brutality may seem minor, but it’s real and at least three-fold: ripping apart established family structures to enforce deportation (Dreamers), forcefully separating children from the parents of those seeking asylum, and then adding new roadblocks to reaching that asylum. In refused recognition of gang and domestic violence as evidence of persecution, many seeking shelter will be returned to broken or non-existent homes where abuse and death readily await. It might not be seen as murder, but in callously turning one’s back, through another’s hand, violence arrives to that end. Ostensibly it may seem unintended, but it’s both foreseen and accepted.
Hitler seemed to personally share the hate he nurtured in others. In that manner it was real, while still being manipulative. That visceral component is not so apparent in Trump’s manipulations. There’s little evidence of personal gut level hatred towards Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, etc. (“I’m the least racist person you have ever interviewed”), but he’s willing to enable and nurture its presence in others. More accurately, Trump provides validation to bigotry in exchange for political strength. In a sense, there was honesty in Hitler’s hate; with Trump it resembles self-serving opportunism. Intolerance is given an approving nod without full embracement (Charlottesville, Breitbart, David Duke, etc.). It’s less focused and intense than deep hate, but has broad range. On any given occasion it can be turned towards Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, the FBI, the media, the elite this or that, or upon anything perceived as less than supportive. In the scattered quest for validity, everyone and everything is either useful or expendable, and treated accordingly.
Hitler and Trump: it’s absurd to compare what’s measurable; there’s nothing close to equivalency in either mode or magnitude of violence. Under Hitler, millions upon millions were murdered without pretext. With Trump, it’s been just a few thousand immigrants whose lives for the most part were not taken at all; they were merely shattered. As to lives actually lost in repatriation: they will appear inadvertent and far afield; nothing more egregious than collateral damage. Perceived violence is comparably mild and unstructured – hardly newsworthy (and wouldn’t be noticed at all were it not for the maligned media). Even should he complete a first term and embark on a second, there’ll be no Trump inspired death camps. That type of bitterness and focus seems not to be present, nor is the necessary time frame and the enabling reins of power. Nevertheless, it’s happening. The same evil that inspired Hitler is the same evil that resides in Trump: the demonstrated willingness to cultivate brutality for personal gain. The visible presence should trip an alarm. It may hardly be more than smoke at this early moment, but it’s real, and there’s an ill wind blowing.
Here’s why it’s more than just another pile-on adjective and why it matters: it’s not a static descriptive; the evil that nurtures resentment is transformative. Its intent is to degrade and manipulate the minds of others: the innocent to become deplorable; the deplorable to become despicable; the despicable to do evil. It’s an infectious and degenerative assault on both young and old; upon individuals and groups; the longer the exposure, the greater its impact. We saw in Germany how intolerance advances incrementally and is potentially limitless in expression. It’s not known where or how far it will go under Trump, but it’s known to be present. The evil that would harm one is the same as the evil that will harm another (and another and another). There’s something more: the threat has an exponential danger. Trump is a clumsy and polarizing politician; in many ways inept. He may even have bumbled himself into an early departure. Despite the obvious flaws, he’s mined a strong base of support. It’s an open pit mine, easily accessible to subsequent opportunism. What comes next may be more sophisticated, more charismatic, and have the added benefit of extracting from a vein previously exposed.
It has its own clear and worldly definition; the recognition of evil isn’t predicated on religious or supernatural leanings. There is that association though, and in Biblical parlance, evil is a characteristic of Satan. The evil ascribed to Satan is very similar to the evil displayed by political demagogues: the seduction of human will and manipulation towards despicable behavior. Despite the familiar satanic parallels, Hitler was able to move an educated Christian majority into at first condoning, and then participating in ever increasing levels of human brutality. It should have been the most unlikely group to fall in with one so resemblent of Satanic evil, but it happened in Germany nearly a century ago, and now it’s happening here. Despite the same satanic parallels, Trump has manipulated a large Christian community into early and continuing support. To be sure, it wasn’t given unconditionally. Something was offered in return; affirmation of Christian political activism and its Pro-Life agenda. It’s an ominous arrangement. The resulting agreement lies on a two-way street, a street on which only the Christian side is defined. Across the way is now an evil that was given carte blanche. It’s a Devil’s bargain if there ever was one.
There’s possibly two or six more years in the Trump presidency. The evil on display today will exist throughout and will likely find further expression. No one yet knows the mode or full magnitude of that expression. There may be a little violence, a few deaths, or there may be much more than that. In Germany, action and acceptance were incremental. However far it goes, it will be the same here. Intolerance and violence will likely grow until stopped.
We’re not in the Dead Zone. It’s visible to all; we needn’t be clairvoyant to see the evil. We needn’t be assassins to end it. Nothing so violent or dramatic is required. Just step away and call it out; step away and vote. It’s essential they be cast while still meaningful. It might not always be that way; where intolerance is cultivated, authoritarianism often follows. Upon that happening it may be too late, even for the Dead Zone.