“For evil to happen, all that is necessary is for good [people] to do nothing.”—Edmund Burke
It’s a question that must be asked.
Aristotle defined evil simply as untruth. By this yardstick, Trump—who revels in fake news, alternative facts, birtherism, and Breitbart conspiracies—qualifies as evil.
But it’s far more complicated than that.
Twenty-six years ago, in an attempt to “lighten up,” I attended a humor conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. In addition to side-splitting plenary sessions--one of which featured comic pianist Victor Borge--there were numerous break-out sessions. I chose one on the psychological value of humor, led by a dynamic Jewish psychotherapist from New York, whom I’ll call Heidi (not her real name). During the lively ninety-minute session, Heidi’s story emerged in bits and pieces, ultimately shocking the attendees, who, like me, were seeking lightheartedness. Heidi’s mother was a Holocaust survivor.
As Art Spiegelman’s haunting graphic novel Maus underscores, extreme trauma often leaves intergenerational scars. Although Spiegelman’s parents “survived” the Holocaust, both were psychologically damaged beyond repair. His mother’s suicide and his father’s neurosis left Spiegelman with deep-seated angst.
In contrast, and against all odds, Heidi’s mother retained remarkable equanimity and perspective despite her dehumanizing internment in a concentration camp. “There are no evil people in the world”; Heidi’s mother believed, “there are only wounded people.” And so Heidi dedicated her life to healing psychic wounds.
Evil results from woundedness. Truth is, we’re all wounded to some degree; all are therefore capable of evil. Fortunately, humanity has developed guardrails to mitigate evil. One suspects that the Greek aphorism “know thyself” originated at least partly because self-aware persons are less likely to inflict suffering on others.
Religion too, at its best, provides guidance to restrain and redirect our worst impulses. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
What troubles me most about Donald Trump is that he is simultaneously deeply wounded and seemingly devoid of self-awareness, humane guiding principles, or principled advisors (save perhaps for his daughter Ivanka).
In a recent article titled “The Elephant in the Room,” Psychology Today describes the ethical dilemma of the nation’s psychotherapists, many of whom agonize that Trump’s “narcissistic personality type” is extraordinarily dangerous in a president. The affliction--which he fits to a ‘T’--is characterized by “condescension, gross exaggerration (lying), bullying, jealously, fragile self-esteem, lack of compassion, and viewing the world as Us-vs.-Them.” In other words, Trump’s woundedness, given free rein, could inflict genuine evil on multitudes.
To date, 26,000 mental health professionals have signed a petition declaring that Trump has “a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.” They’ve done so despite the profession’s ethical standard not to diagnose by indirect observation. To these professionals the potential risks to America and the world of not speaking out far outweigh ethical considerations.
But what is evil?
In Paul Levy’s eye-opening book Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil (2013), we find this definition:
. . . [E]vil . . . can be considered that tendency which—whether in ourselves or others—inhibits personal growth, destroys or limits innate potentialities, curtails freedom, fragments or disintegrates the personality, diminishes the quality of personal relationships, and creates divisiveness in the whole human family. It limits our ability to love, to grow, to evolve. . . . Evil is anti-life; it is life turning against itself. Evil diminishes the fullness of life. . . . It is the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others . . . .
An ominous cloud looms over the Trump presidency and darkens daily. It bodes chaos: immigrant parents torn from their children; religions pitted against one another; a rise in white supremacism; scapegoating; a proposed build-up of the military-industrial complex at the expense of the social fabric including such basics as school lunches; nuclear saber-rattling; a disregard for the vital roles in a democracy played by the judiciary and journalists; a denial of climate change and the damage it has already inflicted on the planet and its peoples; and a nightly barrage of reality-denying tweets.
But, is Donald Trump himself evil?
It serve’s no good purpose to label another human being as evil, as Heidi’s mother understood. Calling another “evil” is often a projection of our own inner darkness.
It does serve a purpose, however, to recognize when another is so wounded that by their unconscious actions they may loose evil upon the world.
More to the point, the election of Donald Trump to arguably the most powerful position on earth is in reality a symptom of a nation and world gone mad, a world where greed, ego, and ruthless competition have been allowed to predominate. “Our species and its civilization are currently in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown,” says Levy. “If what we, as a species, are doing to ourselves isn’t collective madness, that what in the world is?”
In Donald Trump, we are reaping the whirlwind we have sown. A great evil is unfolding before our eyes. If we don’t stop it decisively, we’re all accomplices.
(The author is grateful to Doug Hendren: sometimes muse or conscience; always friend.)