Philosopher Susan Neiman: "The president of our country is evil"

Author of "Evil in Modern Thought" says progressives must not shun the concept, especially when it fits so well

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 19, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

   (Getty/Mandel Ngan)
(Getty/Mandel Ngan)

Political scientists often focus their research on institutions, behavior, public opinion and political culture. The study of political institutions helps us to understand the context and rules that influence how elected officials, other representatives and bureaucrats behave. Political behavior includes voting and social movements, which together impact the levers of power and decision-making in a democracy. The study of public opinion provides a barometer for the public's mood and how they feel about a given social or political issue. And political culture is one of the primary ways by which citizens and other members of a society are socialized into its values, norms, and rules.

Journalists and pundits spend their time trying to craft narratives about society. As has often been said, they are focused on the "new" in the "news" and the events that move the 24/7 news cycle forward.

At its best, in a democracy the Fourth Estate provides a check on power by holding elected officials and others accountable to the people. At its worst, the Fourth Estate is a vehicle for propaganda, succumbing and kowtowing to power -- and profit -- instead of speaking truth to it and serving the public.

The average American is relatively unsophisticated in terms of political knowledge and cares about politics only to the degree it impacts his or her immediate lives. Moreover, Americans' decisions about politics are based on a deep tribalism in which supporting "their team" -- and this is especially true of Republicans and conservatives -- is more important than civic virtue, the Common Good or rational decision-making. This is poisonous to a democracy.

In all these frameworks, how can we reckon with questions of morality, right and wrong, and the United States' collective national character as well as that of its leaders?

As repeatedly demonstrated by his words and actions, President Donald Trump is an authoritarian, a misogynist and a racist. (I have repeatedly argued that he is a fascist, although that term remains contentious.) But is Trump evil? How does his behavior fit within commonly understood definitions of good and evil? If Trump is indeed evil, does that mean his voters and supporters are evil as well?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Susan Neiman. She is director of the Einstein Forum and was a professor of philosophy at Yale University as well as Tel Aviv University. Neiman is the author of numerous books, including "Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy."

In light of the many examples of Donald Trump's cruel and heartless behavior, both as president and also during the 2016 campaign, do you think he is evil?

In one sense the answer is easy. Yes, I certainly think Donald Trump is evil.  The question is indeed how to describe the ways in which he is evil, for he seems to be one of those rare human beings who has no sense of morality whatsoever. That, you might say, is itself a measure of evil: the simple absence of a moral compass, the inability to value anything except power. In his entire life, Donald Trump has never revealed that he even understands any other values -- compassion, justice, love, curiosity about others and the world around him. He seems driven by the urge to dominate and lacks the ability to grasp that others might be moved by different goals.

One thing that chilled me about the inauguration which got very little press coverage -- the night before the inauguration Trump strode through the Lincoln Memorial to the tune of  the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone.” This felt sinister. What kind of a man would brag about breaking hearts while having a heart of stone himself? He was announcing to the world that he has no heart and is proud of it. Staggering.

Terms are important. How do you conceptualize evil?

I believe there are two ways to look at evil (or goodness, for that matter). One way concerns a person’s internal makeup, what drives him or her, what values they hold, what goals guide them. We all know people who may genuinely have decent values but are too afraid or lazy to do much about realizing them. But Donald Trump is not one of them. Like many others, I have spent considerable time wondering what goes on in this man’s soul -- I believe in principle that everyone has one. However, it is hard to find evidence of anything close to what we normally mean by the word "soul" relative to Donald Trump.

There is also the question of intentions versus outcomes. We see that distinction made so many times as a defense against claims that someone is racist.

In the end, what matters in determining evil is not the state of one’s soul, but the effects our actions have on the world we live in -- which is why having good intentions but not significantly acting on them is never enough. And here it is just unquestionable that what Donald Trump has done is evil. We all have our lists of least-favorite things he has done so far (though, mercifully, he hasn’t achieved as much as he would like). But what is absolutely clear is that Trump has made open and violent racism acceptable. Perhaps even worse, I fear, is that he has made it acceptable not to have values at all -- except grasping for power and money. I worry about the effect his example will have on young people who are already uncertain about whether or not any value but power and money is real. Unfortunately, so much in the culture tells us that we should be embarrassed to believe in ideals of goodness, justice and mercy.

It is important to remember, again, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It turns out that Adolf Eichmann was a man with evil intentions, though the historical record was not available when Hannah Arendt wrote "Eichmann in Jerusalem," but Arendt was right in principle: It doesn’t matter if your intentions are banal; what counts is the effect you have on the world.  Even if, as I pray, he is restrained from starting a war, Donald Trump has made the world worse already. The very fact that a man without a visible conscience, education or sense of decency could become the most powerful man in the world has opened up possibilities that should have been kept in Pandora’s box.

Why do you think there has been such reluctance among most American journalists and pundits to explore the question of Trump and evil?

"Evil" is one of the most powerful words in the English language and should be used sparingly, since it’s easy to abuse. For example, George W. Bush certainly did a lot of damage with it, along with his use of the term "moral clarity" to describe actions that were neither moral nor clear. Unfortunately, because it can be so easily abused, many progressives tend to avoid the concept altogether. This is a terrible mistake, because it leaves the most powerful concepts we have in the hands of those who are least equipped to use them thoughtfully. Instead of avoiding strong moral language, it’s imperative to use it reflectively and well.

I don’t think definitions of evil are of much use, but I think it is possible to do careful analyses of people’s words and actions to decide when words like "evil" are appropriate. That’s a general answer to why people are reluctant to use it. It’s also possible that there’s an element of fear at the moment; it really is hard, and frightening, to face the fact that the president of our country is evil, so perhaps pundits, even good ones, are reluctant to acknowledge how awful the state of affairs really is.

How do questions of evil intersect with American exceptionalism?

The main problem with American exceptionalism, I think, is that we confuse the idea of America with the realization of it. America was founded on exceptional ideals; most other countries developed because some collection of tribes found themselves in one place and worked out some political structures for better and worse. It was exceptional to found a country on a set of ideals, and people all over the world saw hope in that uniqueness. Now, I trust most people are aware, in the meantime, that the genocide of Native Americans -- which, by the way, was a conscious model for Nazi policy in Eastern Europe -- and the centrality of slavery to the American economy both provided a terrible contradiction to those ideals from the time the nation was founded.

Ultimately, most Americans are woefully ignorant about fascism; they know very little about how it began and developed. Those who said “It can’t happen here” rely on a cartoon version of fascism in which "Nazi" means little more than "bogeyman" or "monster."

Since Trump's election, I have been thinking a great deal about the banality of evil and Primo Levi's observations about the utter normality of the death camp guards and how they were not "monsters" per se but rather examples of how evil is done by "normal people." I have suggested in my essays and other work that Trump's voters wanted to hurt those Americans they see as the Other. Consequently, they are complicit with his deeds and the harm he is causing to people. Am I being unfair?

Levi, Arendt and others were absolutely right. It is fair to say that some of the architects of fascism had straightforwardly evil intentions. But they would never have been able to realize them without millions of ordinary people, many of whom were quite decent in other ways, who went along for one reason or another and thus enabled fascism to take hold. At this historical moment it is crucial to remember that Hitler was democratically elected and then went on to destroy German democratic institutions. It was banal. I do not think your historical allusion is the least bit unfair. We are in dire straits, and those who do not realize it are indeed complicit.

If we agree that Trump is evil, then what are the obligations of citizens in this moment, specifically, and civil society more generally?

First and most importantly, to keep insisting that Trump's behavior in the White House is not normal. America is in a state of emergency. Resistance is crucial. The good news is that citizens’ resistance stopped the Muslim ban and the repeal of Obamacare. We need to remember that the opposition has, so far, prevented Donald Trump from doing as much damage as he wants, and we need to intensify it.

Nonviolent resistance to fascism could even have worked in Germany if more people had dared it earlier -- there was some -- and it is certainly needed in America now. We also need to remember that resistance is taking place all over the country; I was happily surprised to find it in Mississippi, where I just spent five months. This spring, people there were already going out and registering voters to get ready for 2018. I know electoral politics seems boring (except in 2008), but we need to understand that sometimes the best way to resist evil is boring.

Everyone should be focused on the midterm elections, which will be crucial. We could get rid of this particular evil if the Democrats could take back Congress. At this moment in time, preserving the rule of law (and the Supreme Court, and a few other institutions) is more important than anything else. Another crucial lesson from German history: The Nazis would have been stopped if the left-wing parties -- who together won the majority of votes in the 1933 elections -- had been united. Instead, they fought each other. Americans with moral values need to unite around those values, and not let ourselves be divided by differences of race or gender or minor political differences. What we are facing now is not a political problem but a moral one.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Donald Trump Eichmann In Jerusalem Evil Evil In Modern Thought Hannah Arendt Philosophy Susan Neiman