The Trump Administration is forcing countless Americans to reckon, consciously or not, with the nature of evil.
Can a human being – the soul of human being (if you believe in such things as souls) – actually be evil? When one says, “he is evil,” they’re answering that question implicitly in the affirmative. Phrases like, “bad hombres,” too, obviously imply evil can come in human form. Most commonly, we slap this label on dictators, with of course Hitler being the most infamous in world history. It may be unpopular to simplify human beings into “good, evil, or somewhere in between”
categories, but I promise you it’s far less popular to say anything about Hitler’s character other than, “he was evil.” There is a certain simplicity in the notion that a person can be good or bad inherently. But this take on good and evil is also theologically lazy, and it can lead to egregious dehumanization. We see how, most viscerally today, within our Criminal Justice system, which treats prisoners as de facto slaves— and has constitutional standing to do so, according to the 13th Amendment– as Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th hauntingly demonstrates.
Alternately is the notion that evil is some kind of force, a lurking, destructive energy, that a master key to every room and can influence anyone at anytime. This force of evil, what Star Wars calls, “the dark side” becomes realized in choices and actions. The Talmud has much to say about this. The Sages posited the notion that there is a “yetzer hatov- an impulse toward the good” and “yetzer ha-rah” – an impulse toward the bad. To be human is to have both— to live in that tension. The Sages argued about what these impulses actually meant– whether the good impulse always resulted in righteousness or the bad impulse in wickedness. This troubled them, as they considered more “raw,” perhaps what Freud regarded as id-oriented emotions and desires. Take lust, for instance (and enjoy)— some put this in the “yetzer harah- the bad impulse” camp. But they credited this impulse of sexual desire with the fulfillment of the first commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” Without the “yetzer” of sexual desire, humanity has no future; it’s a biological imperative, and – in the Jewish tradition- a mitzvah! They also said that were it not for the impulse toward the “rah (bad),” people would lack the opportunity to practice overcoming it. And overcoming it is a praiseworthy deed. Overcoming greed or other sordid desires makes for a holier life. The bad impulse therefore is quite functional and necessary.
So how do we make sense of Trump in light of these competing ways of viewing evil? Where does Bannon fall? Based on all the evidence thus far, the facts— and by facts I mean, demonstrable, evident, confirmable, actual “real stuff” (since I now need to clarify that)— allow me to share my own opinion, hoping it will prompt you to share yours.
Trump has been conditioned his entire life toward the bad more than the good— we see this from his earliest law suits, his refusal to pay those who work for him, his disregard for the dignity of minorities and women. It’s foolish to pretend to think that he has never done acts in his life that are good, particularly- or perhaps exclusively- for those closest to him. Now, at this point in our history, he is surrounded by a “yetzer-harah (impulse toward bad)” of cataclysmic proportion, which seems only to be growing. The Rabbis taught, one righteous deed leads to another, but one sin [also] leads to another. Indeed, evil has a magnetic force, it draws in more evil, reinforcing itself, arming itself.
This understanding of evil and good may also be evidenced by the incentive structures that surround us. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, in his book, Republic Lost, focuses on what I would call the evil within the political campaign financing system. He coined the term “dependency corruption” to describe the phenomenon of how well-intentioned people can advance spurious, systematically corrupt agendas. Lessig’s concept is broader, however, than just campaign financing. I believe it reflects how cultures themselves squelch goodness and propagate evil. If corruption of this sort goes unchecked, wars ensues; evil spreads.
Louie CK got slammed for calling Trump, “Hitler.” He apologized afterwards. But those who think there is no connection between what is happening in society now and the human propensity to plant, fertilize, and spread evil in and across its polity are, in fact, allowing the force of evil to invade their own minds.
Ultimately, I don’t know whether the soul is good, bad, or neutral. I don’t know whether evil is a type of person, an ever-threatening force that slithers in and around our lives, or an impulse that all human beings have and contend with. But one thing is clear: the White House is rapidly transforming into an epicenter of Evil. The only anecdote for this kind of powerful manifestation of evil is the steadfast, courageous leadership of organized people, with organized money, committed to a polity that welds power and love. As Cornell West so aptly put it: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”