This piece appeared as an op/ed in my very red congressional district (VA-06). Early June, 2017.
On the phone the other day, my brother said to me, “Well, Liberal America can finally see evil, they can see it in Trump.” My brother knows how I’ve spent the past twelve years – without great success — trying to get American liberals to recognize the nature of the destructive force that has taken over the right in our times, and to respond accordingly.
My brother’s comment therefore pointed to the great “sin” of Liberal America.
The famous American Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, defined “sin” as being about “separation” — from oneself and from the Ground of Being. Or, as I would put it in this instance, separation from the deep reality in which one is living: in our times, that’s the reality of a force of brokenness rising before our eyes in the American power system.
It is easier to see that brokenness when it is embodied in a single person—a lying bully who picks fights and takes pleasure In trampling on the norms and rules governing his society. And when that person is as flamboyant in such tendencies as Donald Trump, it’s hard for anyone not in the thrall of the false world created by right-wing propagandists to see it for what it is.
But the deep reality of “evil” is that it transcends that concrete individual level, operating as a coherent force spreading a pattern of brokenness to the people and organizations it touches.
In this era, however, Liberal America lacks the habit of putting the pieces together to see things whole. So something diffused into the body politic — in the hypocrisies of the once-respectable Republican Party, in the deceptive messaging of the right-wing media, in the degradation of the consciousness of the Republican electorate – can escape notice.
But now, as my brother said, liberals at last see it in Trump. And at last are mobilized by what they see.
Better for America that this recognition had come sooner. For Trump is but a culminating expression of what has been gaining power in America for a generation.
The Republican electorate of, say, the Reagan years, would never have gone for the likes of Trump. Only after the decades of systematic work – by the likes of Limbaugh and Gingrich, Fox News and Karl Rove – to train people to follow lying bullies (who choose conflict over cooperation, and who pander to people’s prejudices and inflame their resentments) could millions of basically decent people look at someone like Trump and imagine it would be right to entrust him with the powers of the presidency.
The fact that Trump could jump in and hijack that toxic set of thoughts and feelings and ride it into the Oval Office reveals how deep is the kinship between Trump and the rest of that right-wing force.
No one in political life has lied as wantonly as Trump. But the Republican messaging has been fundamentally dishonest since Gingrich employed well-known propaganda techniques more than a quarter century ago, since Fox began indoctrinating its viewers with falsehoods, since W lied us into a war in Iraq, and since the Republicans tried to delegitimize a Democratic president with the racist birther lie.
No one in political life has bullied and belittled opponents as Trump has. But Karl Rove had W bully the Democrats for being “soft on terror,” and later the Republicans in Congress demeaned Obama with a scorn with which no American president had ever been assaulted.
No president has so blatantly acted from personal greed as Trump. But for years the Republican Party has been a channel for limitless greed. At a time when the gulf between the richest 1/10,000th of Americans and the lower 90% is wider than we’ve ever seen, the one constant in Republican policy remains the drive to transfer more money to the richest – even if it leaves 23 million Americans without health-care coverage, and even if it means cutting programs to help raise up downtrodden communities in rural areas.
No president has violated American political norms as wantonly as Trump. But the Republicans before him have left a long trail of norm-busting and damaging practices – from instituting torture from the very top, to making it their top priority to prevent the American people’s choice to serve as president from accomplishing anything, to ultimately stonewalling the confirmation process in order to steal a Supreme Court seat.
The pattern of brokenness has been there for years, transmitted from Party to citizens to the Oval Office. But Liberal America, failing to see the threatening darkness, failed to rise to protect the nation.
In 1940, the survival of Great Britain was gravely threatened. For years, the British Conservative Party had totally misjudged the threat rising in Germany. Now, the real nature of that threat had been made blatant, with German forces overrunning Europe to the east and to the west.
Britain at last turned to Winston Churchill, who had seen the threat clearly from the beginning, but had been consigned to the political wilderness. As Churchill took the helm, he confided to someone who congratulated him, “I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is.”
Now, as my brother said, Liberal America sees the evil. I hope that it is not too late.
Let me start by saying — regarding your saying that “we need to be more positive” — that the solution to the world’s brokenness will involve many different people making different kinds of constructive contributions.
So I’m all for your seeing what you can accomplish by being “positive” in the ways that you find me insufficiently so.
But that being said, I also want to make sure that when you take issue with what I’m saying, you’ve understood me correctly.
For example, you take issue with my “calling someone evil.”
I never do that, and have never done that in the most than 12 years I’ve been talking about “evil.”
Invariably, I discuss evil as a (coherent) force, not something that should be understood as residing in people. Frequently, as you’ll see if you re-read WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, I explcitly declare that I do not speak of evil people.
Someone like Trump — and others like Limbaugh and Rove etc. — may be channels through which the destructive force is working. But my big contribution here is to take the word “evil” out of the lexicon of personal condemnation and put it into the field of an analytic understanding how the dense interconnected nexus of cause and effects works in the human world.
You object to the word “evil.” I also, as you may recall, offer — to those who do not like the word — alternative names for it: I’m talking about “a destructive force,” or “a force that spreads a pattern of brokenness on everything it touches.”
The important thing is that one SEES the force, and responds to it appropriately.
Now, if I understand you correctly, you don’t like the word “evil” because you think it will lead us to respond inappropriately. “Isn’t this how war is fueled?” you ask, in your challenge to my use of the word.
Yes, it certainly can be. But it is an undesirable limitation for one to have a one-response fits all-situations kind of a tool-box.
Sometimes, the problem is not that people are driven to an unnecessary war by the over-application of the concept of evil, but rather that THEY FAIL TO WAGE A NECESSARY WAR BECAUSE OF A FAILURE TO SEE EVIL.
The world would have been spared an enormous nightmare had the Western world perceived the “evil” — or whatever you want to call it — that had arisen in Nazi Germany, and had blocked its aggressions at the time of the Rhineland, or the Sudenland, in the mid-1930s.
Churchill called out that evil, but the leaders of Britain failed to perceive it. (Chamberlain: “I bring you peace in our time.”) Eventually, under must less advantageous circumstances, the war came.
Likewise in Liberal America. The problem in America has not been that Liberal America has been inflamed inappropriately to do political combat against a force inappropriately seen as “evil.” Just the opposite. America is in a terrible situation now because Liberal America failed to see WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, and failed to rally to defend the nation against it.
So I will continue to talk about evil, because as I say repeatedly, although this “Coherent force” does not have ALL the attributes of what has traditionally been understood as “evil” in the Western religious tradition, it has most of the essential ones. And that word may not please everyone, but I think it might well help to mobilize people for a necessary political battle.
Andy, I understand that you have tried very hard not to call anyone evil. But the thing is, in my mind, the very WORD evil sparks a vision of hell. It is hateful and mean-spirited. Most people in the western world understand what is traditionally meant by it. I can only say, be careful what you wish for. You want to “help mobilize people for a necessary political battle”, but all it takes is one spark, one shot, one seething provocation, one assassination to start a world war. Instead, how about finding words that help pave the way to peace? Calling out evil is a show-stopper. It makes my blood run cold. Calling out evil can make some feel like you are insinuating that, by their choices or behavior, or even their associations, that they are contributing to evil, when they may simply have a difference of opinion. And your idea that evil is actually a self-propelled, destructive force outside of ourselves sounds delusional—like trying to get people to believe in a satanic underworld of sorts. I say, leave evil to the evil-doers like ISIS or Boco Haram, that slaughter innocents. They would love for you to call them out, give them free press, make them center-stage. I am all for bringing evil-doers to justice. But provocative confrontation like you are suggesting is, I feel, just plain dangerous.
I’m looking forward to hearing more about the sacred space of lovers!