FeatureLettersLiberal Democracy in Question

Trumpism: The Banality of Evil Personalized

With Donald Trump, we have lived to witness a fundamental transformation in election campaigning. Some of the elements of his unprecedented campaign for the White House are reflective of trends that have been developing for some time. Candidates who have used their experience as television performers or even film actors have increased in number since the success of Ronald Reagan (our 40th President). Candidates who run as outsiders against the establishment in their own party also have precedent in a number of candidacies, including most especially Sarah Palin (half-term Governor of Alaska, and Republican candidate for Vice-President). Relying on rumors and gossip to smear your opponent is actually a longstanding staple, especially of desperate candidates who begin to see they are at high risk of losing. Fact-free campaigns disseminating lies and making arguments that contravene all facts are increasing it seems, especially from the right most especially with the rise of the Tea Party. But a campaign centered on the wildest conspiracy theories based on made-up facts and run by the executive of the major source for spreading these conspiracy theories simply has never been done before until Trump named Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart News Network, to assume leadership of his campaign.

Trump’s supporters have joined in spreading the craziest ideas that Breitbart has championed: President Obama was not born in the U.S., he is a Muslim, he sympathizes with ISIS, he is anti-American, Hillary has Parkinson disease, she lacks the mental and physical energy to serve as President, she assisted in arranging the murder of Bill Clinton’s White House advisor Vince Foster, the list goes on.

Trump himself believes most of these wild ideas. He joins others in suggesting that China has propagated the Global Warming myth as a hoax to dupe Americans. He has suggested the elections are rigged against him, that his doctor has offered the clinical opinion that his health is “astoundingly excellent.” Trump is an old hat at this with lies big and small about how great he is, who he knows in the world of celebrities and global politics (Carla and Vladimir both) who he has had sex with to what effect (Carla but not Vladimir), all of which get spread for years now almost randomly (by him though mostly) without forethought but supposedly to help promote his electability (so goes his thinking or lack thereof).

Today, when we look back at the arc of his candidacy, as much as he seems to be aligned with the birthers and other conspiracy theorists, the thing about Trump is he seems to have had no real ideological commitment to the philosophies of the right and is only in recent years indulging these conspiracy theories as a way to curry favor with the disenchanted Americans who have fallen prey to believing them. It is more than apparent that he is feeding on and off of the resentment of the alienation of ordinary Americans for his own electoral gain. He started working on this type of parasitical behavior before his current run for the Presidency with his harping on the issue of Obama’s birth certificate. In retrospect, it seems he was laying the groundwork for a campaign where he could build on the following he developed as a leader of the birther movement and a friend of the larger alt-Right community of people who indulge in all the outlandish conspiracy theories spreading by Breitbart and others such as Alex Jones of Infowars.

It is shameless if nothing else. But it is more. Trump is willing to carelessly play with the fire of promoting the most irresponsible ideas just to gain the backing of people who have come to be extremely alienated from the mainstream that they believe just about anything negative that is said about those in power (facts aside). But it is more than shameless or careless. It is the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt called it when characterizing Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was put to death by the Israelis for his crimes as a willing participant in dutifully implementing the Nazi’s Final Solution. For Arendt, it was Eichmann’s thoughtlessness that was what made his evil banal. It was not that his evil was boring or without passion; it was that he did not give it a second thought; genocide was something he was willing to execute without forethought. It did not afflict him enough to prompt even a moment’s reflection. It never involved second-guessing. You don’t think about it. If his banality was a Geico insurance television advertisement it would have said: Genocide — It’s what you do when you are a Nazi.

Trump is his own banality of evil. He is different than Eichmann in that he is not as much a true believer. He was not a rabid Tea Party or alt-Right activist until his birtherism days of the past few years. He was previously a liberal Democrat, especially on social issues. More importantly, his commitment is to himself; that’s where he is banal, in his thoughtless commitment to promote himself at all cost. It is Trump, über alles, Germany and America notwithstanding. In this sense, Trump personalizes the banality of evil.

Trump brought Bannon in to head his failing campaign because he felt, as he told reporters (the very same people he hates, but cannot resist talking to) that he had to be true to who he is — someone who loves publicity over anything else including public service. Trump’s true core is that he wants to be seen as great, to always win, to be the all-time great winner and to be loved for his great winning (as he would put it). If that means shamelessly and carelessly spreading the worst lies about other people and promoting the worst ideas about how to treat them just so he can get crowds of people to adore him, so be it.

Trump enacts the banality of evil in a radically personal way and, we can hope, minimizes its effects as he trivializes it. As his candidacy sinks in the polls, it seems likely that this instance of banality will remain forever the highly personalized and trivial example of how evil can be enacted without reflection.

Also for you:

Sanford Schram

Previous post

Bodies, Gender, and Domination

Next post

The Tragic, Enduring Relevance of Arendt's Work on Statelessness