Trump is not an example of “the banality of evil.” In fact, he’s pretty much the exact opposite.
There are few turns of phrase more misunderstood than Hannah Arendt’s brief description of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. “The banality of evil” is an important concept that is nevertheless difficult to grasp fully, if the way people use it is any indication. First is that “the banality of evil” refers not to all evil, but only a specific kind of it. That is, not all evil is “banal.” Second is that Eichmann wasn’t a very good example of the idea. Per the New York Times:
This time, a new critical consensus is emerging, one that at first glimpse might seem to resolve the debates of a half century ago. This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. As Christopher R. Browning summed it uprecently in The New York Review of Books, “Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example.”
Arendt famously insisted that Eichmann “had no motives at all” and that he “never realized what he was doing.” But she did not mean that he wasn’t aware of the Holocaust or the Final Solution. She knew that once the Führer decided on physical liquidation, Eichmann embraced that decision. What she meant was that he acted thoughtlessly and dutifully, not as a robotic bureaucrat, but as part of a movement, as someone convinced that he was sacrificing an easy morality for a higher good.
“What stuck in the minds” of men like Eichmann, Arendt wrote, was not a rational or coherent ideology. It was “simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique.” Eichmann described how difficult it was for him to participate in the Final Solution, but took pride in having done so. He added: “if I had known then the horrors that would later happen to the Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man.” In a terrifying act of self-deception, Eichmann believed his inhuman acts were marks of virtue.
The stereotype of Eichmann as an unthinking functionary, an obedient follower just carrying out his orders, is how “the banality of evil” tends to be characterized. As the Times piece linked above points out, this is generally due to a conflation of Arendt’s views with those of Stanley Milgram, who carried out the infamous Milgram experiment. Milgram’s conclusion was that ordinary people could be compelled to evil behavior so long as they feel absolved of decisionmaking responsibility and the consequences of those decisions. Arendt’s point was rather different: that Eichmann was a true believer, an ideologue who felt he was doing terrible things for a greater good.
Do either of these interpretations of the “banality of evil” concept apply to Donald Trump? We can dismiss the misconstrued version out of hand: Trump is quite clearly not an unthinking bureaucrat just following orders. He is very much in charge of the image he presents and the platform he espouses. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of arguments articulating the false premise.
“Sociopathic” might describe Trump’s condition, but it doesn’t describe our condition as we routinely hear such Trump statements on the campaign trail.
The only thing that comes close is philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” She coined this phrase in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, in an Israeli courtroom. If someone carries out unspeakable crimes often enough, he or she comes to accept them as “normal.” That was Arendt’s view of Eichmann.
But the “banality of evil” also applies to an entire society. We can get used to outrageous things—slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, massive homelessness, widespread malnutrition, the frequent killing of Black men by police—until we are provoked to view them as unjust.
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.
Salon, on the other hand, gets it right:
Arendt didn’t have a high opinion of human nature or human group behavior, and given her life experience that’s understandable. She was a woman of extraordinary intellectual gifts at a time when there was essentially no such thing as a female philosopher, or even a female academic. As Ushpiz’s film lays out in detail, Arendt was a child of privilege in pre-war Germany and then a Jewish war refugee and then an increasingly controversial celebrity who became widely viewed as a traitor to her own people. She remains most widely known today for a phrase that was generally misunderstood and became a cliché — “the banality of evil,” part of the subtitle to“Eichmann in Jerusalem,” her most famous book — and is still viewed in some quarters as a Jewish anti-Semite or a borderline Nazi apologist.
In a passage quoted by Ushpiz, which I believe is from the 1951 “Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt proposes that regimes like Nazism or Stalinism thrive by creating narratives that confer imaginary order upon the chaos and randomness of history. Human beings long for coherent stories that explain why bad things happen, Arendt says, even when those stories are delusional and dangerous. When fueled by enduring political or psychological currents like nationalism and racism, such fictional narratives become the justification for war and genocide and other historical crimes. To cite the obvious example from Arendt’s lifetime, if the social chaos and struggling economy of Germany in the 1930s was caused by a predatory Jewish conspiracy that had drained the German people of their life force, then everything made sense and the nation could be united toward a common goal and against a common enemy.
Thoughtlessness is not what gives evil its banality. Rather, that evil deeds can go from unthinkable to eminently thinkable so long as you have the right motives. And once something is thinkable, it becomes doable, and once it is doable, and done and done and done, it becomes easy. Self-justifications pile atop one another until the original motives cease to matter. We will do what is to be done, no matter what it takes, because we have the right of the situation. That is the banality of evil: it is the frog in a pot of water slowly being brought to a boil; it is the ends justifying the means.
It can be thought of as related to desensitization–that is often the sense in which it is used with regard to Trump. Last summer, his statements were shocking. Now, they’re merely routine, par for the course. But to reduce the concept to this and this alone is to miss the point. Trump is no Eichmann. He doesn’t pursue the Presidency out of some sense of duty or ideological calling–his run at the office is spawned entirely of his own hubris, ego, and greed. He wants the title more than he wants anything else. It is about making the world respect him in a way he’s never felt. That his antics have gradually desensitized us to how abnormal and abhorrent they are is a separate point, and doesn’t make his evil banal.
Trump is also not an ordinary man radicalized and swept up by a movement greater than himself. He is the movement, and the movement lacks any ideology or articulable goals, apart from the intensified self-aggrandizement of Donald Trump.
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