The Banality of Evil
Congress has just finished the second impeachment trial of an evil man, who, to the misfortune of our nation, happened to be elected President thanks to a quirk in our Electoral College system five years ago.
He encouraged mobs to forward his goals, stomped on the honest, belittled his enablers, and mostly ruined a long-honorable political party. He also did enormous damage to the United States and the world.
Undoubtedly, he would have done much more had he not lost last November’s election. But his potential to do harm is by no means over. John Steinbeck put it best in a letter written just months before Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins -- it never will -- but that it doesn’t die.”
We’ve seen this all before. Hannah Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1938. A quarter-century later, Arendt established herself as a formidable thinker in a book on totalitarianism that was an incisive inquiry into how tyrants take hold of a people, noting:
“The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them”
In his last days in office, Donald Trump excused the corrupt (see, for example, Lessenberry, Toledo Blade, February 12, 2021, “Kwame Kilpatrick Loves Trump.”). Trump’s policies, or lack thereof, needlessly killed perhaps hundreds or thousands as the worst pandemic in modern history ravaged the world.
And immediately after a legitimate election that was probably the most honest in American history, Trump and far too many of his 74,000,000 voters continued to act like poor losers at a pickup stickball game in the Bronx.
We should be asking them “What about the more than 84,000,000 voters that voted against the real loser --– 81 million for President Joe Biden and nearly three million for other candidates?”
I suggest we should quote Shakespeare to these pliant fools who seek to enable a man decisively rejected by this nation. To quote MacBeth’s last words: “Hold! Enough is enough.”
I’m a scientist. But I spent years in the company of constitutional and international criminal lawyers as chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center, dedicated to the memory of the U.S. Supreme Court justice who was the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial of the top Nazis. That duty continues to involve me with the doctoral dissertations and writings of those that still try to understand the Holocaust, genocide, and the perpetrators of evil – for example, the Einsatzgruppen. Those were the SS mobile killing squads that followed the German armies through Poland on into the Soviet Union executing thousands of the innocent.
There as Benjamin Ference so ably showed as lead prosecutor in the Nuremberg trial of the Einsatzgruppen, lawyers who became leaders slaughtered men, women and even children mostly because of their ethnicity and religion. When machine-gunning people into pits and vans filling with carbon monoxide weren’t fast enough, the Nazis found their functionaries and mere cogs in a small factory in Dessau where sugar beets were processed. The beet residue containing amygdalin could be further processed into hydrogen cyanide captured under pressure. The result -- Zyklon-B, a gas first designed as an insecticide. Zyklon-B, delivered by a private firm in Hamburg for the equivalent of one 1940-era dollar a can, enabled the Nazis to become the western world’s worst agents of death. Millions were delivered to the gas chambers by other mere pliant cogs.
When the war ended, the survivors of those murdered wanted revenge. Some of the culprits were already dead; a few others were hanged. Eventually one of the last surviving of the highest cogs, Adolf Eichmann, was captured by Israeli operatives in Argentina, kidnapped, drugged, packed in a bag, and taken on a series of long, harrowing flights to Israel where he was tried found guilty of crimes against humanity, and hung.
I knew this story, of course, but it was brought to my attention again, by a Ph. D. dissertation that crossed my desk a few days ago by Itamar Mann, a professor of international law at Tel Aviv University: Eichmann’s Mistake: The Problem of Thoughtlessness in International Criminal Law.
Hannah Arendt, who had written many years earlier about totalitarianism and the fascists, returned with a book Eichmann in Jerusalem - the Banality of Evil in 1963. In it she discusses his trial, focusing on Eichmann -- a small man who had the capability of perpetrating enormous evil – and acted on it. According to her he was a thoughtless mere cog in the machine that was the Third Reich’s world, the Holocaust.
Mann, resurrecting this, says “It is through this lens of bureaucracy (which she calls “the rule of nobody”) as a weapon of totalitarianism that Arendt arrives at her notion of “the banality of evil”-- a banality reflected in Eichmann himself, who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.”
In a passage that applies to Donald Trump with astonishing accuracy, she describes Eichmann:
“What Eichmann said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” He was stupid, but functional as another’s agent.
There is one difference, of course: Trump, unlike Eichmann, was a master at lying.
Hannah Arendt maintains Eichmann was so morally flawed, so much a mere cog (or, to use the Russian term ‘apparatchik’) that he couldn’t understand evil; he was merely insipid and insignificant.
Yet he was hung for doing evil even though Arendt might maintain, he had no idea he was doing evil.
What America is seeing in Donald Trump is worse.
Trump isn’t banal, insipid or unable to think. He’s worse than Eichmann was. He can think, or at least he can think in words fed him by others, Fox News, or his sycophants -- Steven Miller, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Mark Meadows, or his own children, Eric, Ivanka and Donald, Jr.
Eichmann’s enablers were Heinrich Himmler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and, at the top of the heap. Adolf Hitler. He could easily blame them because by the time Eichmann was captured and on trial they were all dead.
They were all Eichmann’s superiors. Trump was the top man. His enablers and flatterers were both senators with brains – Texas’s Ted Cruz, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham -- and those without, Indiana’s Mike Braun, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and the infamous Tommy Tuberville of Mississippi, the former football coach. They enable him for what they cynically see as their own gain.
Not that they have any right to expect loyalty. Consider “poor, noble” Vice President Mike Pence. Did Trump’s other enablers notice that Trump loosed a mob that might easily have killed him on January 6, 2021?
Would Himmler have done something like that to Eichmann? We have no way of knowing. We do know what St. Peter said when he lost his nerve, and Jesus of Nazareth was being led to Golgatha’s cross:
“I know him not.”
So to all the mere cogs and apparatchiks in the Trump retinue, I say be forewarned. You will get precisely as much loyalty as did Mike Pence if Trump again has any power in any future.
And to the rest of us, I say, be vigilant. For even if Trump is gone, his underlings remain, malevolent and fully capable of doing more evil.
Photo: House impeachment manager Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., speaks during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Feb. 9, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)(Uncredited)