How Nations Turn Evil

Photograph Source: Eric – CC BY 2.0

This commentary analyzes the triggers that cause nation-states to embrace evil. No country is inherently good or evil. From time to time, however, nations turn evil. Just as every human is potentially criminal, every nation is potentially wicked. Triggers alter action-potential into action. Frequently, governments accuse each other of being evil. For example, the U.S. indicts North Korea and Iran as evil nations. National polls also pick out morally depraved nations. Americans have identified various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and China, as evil nations. Unfortunately, state rhetoric and national prejudice rarely furnish reliable evidence for determining whether a nation has become wicked.

Evil has no absolute definition. St. Augustine (354-430) viewed evil as the absence of good (privatio boni). However, evil is not an abstract moral failure but an activity that inflicts severe injury on others. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, are evil. Human disasters, such as war, genocide, enslavement, occupation, apartheid, persecution, and intense discrimination, are manifestations of evil. In short, whatever exposes populations to intense suffering is evil. Perhaps, human evil is preventable.

Three traits of a nation-state are the combined triggers to carry out evil. First, the ruler and the people build a robust synergy to act as a synthetic duo — a phenomenon I call syntheticity. Second, the synthetic duo locates an enemy from within, primarily vulnerable domestic communities, to energize national solidarity. Third, suppose the nation is militarily powerful. In that case, the synthetic duo harvests a foreign enemy, perpetrating synthetic aggression for revenge, brutality, theft of land, cheap labor, natural resource exploitation, and hegemony, disrupting the international legal order.

No one trait is sufficient to trigger a nation into a wicked nation, even though the emergence of any trigger must summon global vigilance. As the three traits manifest themselves in intensity and consequence, the nation’s journey toward evil takes strides. A nation is thoroughly evil when the three traits are co-present and operational. In some cases, an evil nation may only engage in synthetic persecution at home without foreign predation; in other cases, it may commence synthetic aggression abroad without any internal persecution. However, a nation cannot become evil in all cases unless the people become one with the ruler.

The analysis below spells out each trait through historical examples drawn from diverse nations. As a more specific and current example, the study also examines the Trump presidency to determine whether the U.S. came close to being an evil nation under his tenure.


A robust bond between the ruler (elected or unelected) and the people is not necessarily a worrisome development. On the contrary, if the people adore the ruler and the ruler is competent, the resulting syntheticity is beneficial. In a democracy, the people-ruler syntheticity is rarely perfect as part of the electorate that votes against the winner acts as a restrain on the ruler. On the other hand, in dictatorial forms of government, such as kingship or military rule, the people may have little choice but to obey the ruler even without an authentic syntheticity between them.

If the ruler (elected or unelected) is ruthless or incompetent and the people resent the ruler, no syntheticity takes root. Furthermore, the people might be unable to remove the ruler because of a lack of recall procedures. In such cases, the ruler may be evil, but not the nation.

Thus, a cruel ruler does not automatically turn a country into a wicked nation if there is no people-ruler syntheticity. For example, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was not an evil nation. Even though Saddam was cruel and irremovable, the Iraqi people, mainly the Kurds and the Iraqi Shia, had little syntheticity with Saddam. Even the Iraqi Sunnis feared Saddam more than they liked him.

When the people-ruler duo perpetrates persecution at home or aggression abroad or both, the syntheticity leads the country toward evil. In such cases, the ruler enthuses the people to support malicious policies, and the people empower the ruler to enforce them with a vengeance. This type of syntheticity can occur in any form of government. By no means is democracy immune from such toxic syntheticity. Indeed, democracy may empower the ruler in much more robust ways than a dictatorship since the power of the vote intoxicates the ruler. For example, Nazi Germany and an elected Hitler developed a lethal syntheticity.

The ruler of an evil nation need not be an acclaimed hero in every case. The syntheticity conducive to evil may come into being even when the people-ruler duo involves ordinary leaders or a succession of regular governments, sometimes democratically elected. The critical test is whether the people-ruler duo cultivates the evil traits of synthetic persecution and synthetic aggression.

The Trump presidency raises exciting questions in the realm of syntheticity. The people who admired and loved Trump were in the millions when he won the 2016 presidential election and even when he lost the 2020 election. Despite the millions of voters who rejected Trump, the syntheticity between Trump and his supporters was more energetic than the bond between President Biden and his supporters. The confidence with which Trump declared that “he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes” is an example of syntheticity.

On January 6, 2021, while the official count was underway in a joint session of Congress to elect the president, the Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to protest the “stolen election,” causing death and injury. Trump had tweeted a day earlier: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6. Be there, will be wild.” Even though the mob attack did not change the election outcome, the world noticed how a well-established democracy turns fragile when the toxic syntheticity braves the system to defend the ruler.

The U.S. journalists played a critical role in exposing the toxic syntheticity between Trump and his supporters. When the press yields out of fear or favor or love for the ruler, as Fox News did for Trump, the syntheticity acquires a more treacherous toxicity. Trump did his best with the help of his supporters across the country to discredit the mainstream press as “fake news.” Had he successfully discredited the press more than he did, he could have won another term. He came close. The credit for his election defeat goes partly to the media that refused to join the syntheticity bandwagon.

Synthetic Persecution

An evil nation engages in the synthetic persecution of one or more vulnerable communities living in the country. The chief purpose of the synthetic persecution is to galvanize further the bond between the dominant group and the ruler. The people-ruler duo works together to single out specific racial, religious, ethnic, or linguistic communities for hatred, ill-treatment, intensifying their lack of belonging to the country.

No nation-state is homogeneous or free of vulnerable communities. While each nation-state has a dominant people, diverse populations live in all parts of the world under the same flag. Furthermore, humans are inclined to identify themselves in groups and subgroups, disregarding the attributes they share. Thus, a religious society fractures into denominations, and a racial group splinters into ethnic communities.

The mere prejudice against specific communities, though deplorable, is insufficient to turn a country into an evil nation. Inter-group bias is natural, and some amount of communal tension is inevitable. Moreover, for many complicated reasons, some groups and subgroups do better in every nation-state commanding economic resources and political power. Thus, all nations will end up being evil nations if the differential prosperity of communities is the defining standard. Yet, vulnerable communities remain at the bottom of the pecking order. Might be, the nation-state, by its very conceptual structure, is inherently unsuitable for catering diversity and should be replaced by a better sociopolitical organization.

As a trait, synthetic persecution is unique as it gathers momentum and intensity in evil nations. The synthetic duo heightens the sensitivity of a dominant group that identifies with the state and the ruler by targeting vulnerable groups. For example, Nazi Germany singled out Jews as the enemy of the state to reinforce the German bonds. In some cases, the community singled out for subjugation might be a large population or most people. South Africa, under apartheid, for example, oppressed the African majority to bolster the white minority that ruled the country.

African Americans constitute the most vulnerable community, suffering through slavery, apartheid, exclusion, and intense discrimination. Other racial minorities, and more recently American Muslims, face ill-treatment. In the past few decades, the federal government has taken legal and other measures to alleviate the socioeconomic condition of vulnerable communities, even though the concrete benefits have been slow and sporadic.

Trump targeted several minorities to build solidarity with white communities. To strengthen his synthetic bond with American Jews and Christians, Trump came down hard on American Muslims, Islam, and the Muslim world, banning the entry of Muslims from what he called terrorist states. He went out of his way to support Israel’s unlawful settlements in Palestine and imposed inhumane sanctions to punish Iran. Trump also singled out Mexicans and others to sharpen the cleavage between “Americans” and immigrants. He reinforced the racial bigotry by bolstering the police known for brutality against African Americans. It is no mere coincidence that the police killed a disparate number of African Americans during his tenure, including George Floyd. Twisting the numbers on police brutality, Trump dismissed Floyd’s death by saying, “the police kill more white people.”

What Trump did during his tenure passes the test of synthetic persecution, recognizable for its dual purpose: persecution strengthens the bond between the ruler and the dominant group, and the dominant group defends the persecution that the ruler perpetrates. “An average of 86% of Republicans approved of Trump’s handling of the job over the course of his tenure,” says Pew Research. Fortunately, Trump failed in unifying “most whites” behind his leadership, a development that blocked the road to pure evil.

Synthetic Aggression

The third trait of an evil nation is synthetic aggression against foreign populations. The people-ruler duo braces each other in foreign adventures to procure natural resources, including strategic lands for military bases. The rhetoric to engage in military undertakings may invoke common slogans of national security, liberty, the democratization of foreign countries, and the mitigation of terrorism. In some cases, as in Nazi Germany, synthetic aggression aims at settling prior scores of national humiliation and unfair treatment. In other instances, the attack comes in the disguise of self-defense, a ploy most nations deploy in the use of force.

It is important not to confuse any aggression with synthetic aggression. Rulers invade other countries even when their people oppose wars. Not every attack on a foreign population commands the people’s backing. In such cases, the ruler is evil but not the nation. However, synthetic aggression is the correct label to invoke when the ruler engages in aggressive wars with the people’s consent and overwhelming support.

In modern warfare, aggression has changed its forms. Debilitating cyberwar and genocidal economic sanctions can hurt a country much more than an armed attack. Synthetic aggression may target an enemy country through cyber warfare and sanctions to ravage its economy, medical supplies, international travel, banking, and international trade.

Trump displayed the qualities of a ruler who engages in a predatory foreign policy. For example, as a presidential candidate, Trump proposed to seize Iraqi oil as war reparations. “We go in . . . we lose lives . . .we get nothing . . . it used to be to the victor belong the spoils.” Likewise, Trump sought Mexico to pay billions of dollars for building the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. His supporters called it “a brilliant idea.”

Iran was Trump’s punching bag. First, Trump scrapped the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama-Biden administration had signed with several other countries. Second, Trump imposed crushing economic sanctions to wreck Iran’s economy. Third, Trump permitted Israel to assassinate Iranian physicists and nuclear experts in blatant violation of international law. Finally, in 2020, Trump ordered a drone strike that killed a prominent Iranian commander.

Following his aggressive foreign policy that boosted his voter base, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) days after assuming the presidency. Months later, Trump left the 195-country Paris Climate Accord, claiming it to be prejudicial to national sovereignty. In 2018, Trump withdrew from the Human Rights Council, arguing that the human rights body is hard on Israel but soft on China. In 2020, Trump ditched the World Health Organization, accusing it of complicity with China over the Covid-19 virus. The same year, Trump exits from the Treaty on Open Skies, allowing member states to surveil each other’s military installations as an arms control measure.

A significant U.S. population supported how Trump was undoing the world. Democrats in Congress protested the Trump foreign policy but were unable to stop him. Almost all nations and the world’s peoples were stunned by the fast pace at which Trump was dismantling a fragile international system it was supposed to protect, if not make stronger.

The people in Mexico abhorred the way Trump treated them. Polls were devasting for the U.S. global reputation. In 2019, just 8% of Mexicans showed confidence in Trump’s leadership. In 2020, only 20% of Canadians approved Trump. 75% of the world’s people thought Trump was arrogant, 65% held him intolerant, and 62% believed Trump was dangerous.

Trump is not yet out of the system. He might try another presidential bid in 2024. His supporters have not abandoned him. If Biden does not perform well, Trump might win in 2024. Trump will be no less wicked in his second term. He would further expand the synthetic bond with more Americans to a level that could propel the U.S. into becoming an evil nation at home or abroad, or both.


Evil nations perpetrate intense suffering on others. Like Nazi Germany, evil nations periodically erupt in the world, commit their evil, and depart from the global scene, leaving behind horrors. No country is inherently good or evil, and most nations carry the seeds of becoming evil. When the people and the ruler cultivate a toxic synthetic bond to inflict misery on others, a wicked nation is born. In some cases, an evil nation persecutes vulnerable communities at home, galvanizing the solidarity between the ruler and the dominant group at the ruler’s beck and call. In other cases, an evil nation may be united at home but engages in aggression against foreign countries for complex predatory reasons, including revenge, theft of resources, and gratuitous killings, or to establish hegemony. The U.S., under Trump, came close to being an evil nation as he triggered all three traits. Fortunately, fearless journalists, domestic and foreign, exposed the wrongdoings of Trump, determined to inflict suffering on domestic and foreign communities and disrupt the international legal order. Still, Trump received over 73 million votes in the 2020 election, showing the syntheticity he had built with a sizable population. It is unclear what the world can do to prevent Trump from regaining power in 2024.

L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He welcomes comments at