Donald Trump is evil. It’s a bold claim, but one I will stick to. Before you dismiss this claim as wild hyperbole or partisan over-exuberance, I implore that you hear me out. Because it’s obvious that there is a mismatch between Donald Trump and the concept of evil as so frequently understood today. However, I’m not going to suggest that this mismatch can be solved in favour of my claim by looking at Trump in a different way, but that it can be solved by looking at evil in a different way. And to do that, we need to have some sense of what evil really is. And for that, I’m afraid we must turn to the Western Church’s greatest theologian on evil, sin and all things bad- St Augustine of Hippo.
St Augustine was a man who knew sin well. His youth is perhaps best summed up by his famous prayer, “Grant me Chastity <…> but not yet” and his great auto-biographical work Confessions is as titillating a work as any modern memoir (although it would perhaps have been a little off-putting if Tony Blair’s memoirs had ended with an exposition of the Book of Genesis). It has been suggested that this acquaintance with what Augustine thought of as ‘moral evil’, coupled with later tragedies in his life turned Augustine’s mind to the wider problem of evil itself. To simplify terribly, Augustine concluded that evil was itself insubstantial. That is to say that evil wasn’t really a thing, it wasn’t really there except as an absence of good. The parallel drawn was that of light and darkness- there is no substance to darkness, it is merely an absence of light (Augustine was not able to express his idea in scientific terms, but I suppose you could say there is no such thing as a photon of darkness). How this manifests in the world is that evil is actually rather fake and deceptively unimpressive. To use Giles’ Fraser’s wonderful explanation, evil is more Kylo Ren than Darth Vader.
If you’re wary about taking ethical advice from a 4th century African theologian (what nonsense!) then know that Augustine is not alone in this idea. In her work on the trial of SS-Colonel Adolf Eichmann, the political theorist Hannah Arendt came to realise that the supposedly evil man she saw in the dock was in fact remarkably normal. Indeed, she found it hard to ‘not suspect that he was a clown’. From this, she drew out the concept of ‘The Banality of Evil’. Such a concept has often been misunderstood as denying the evil of the Nazi actions in the Holocaust or attempting to shift the blame away from the perpetrators of those horrible crimes. Instead, the concept simply argues that there was nothing exceptional in Eichmann (and by extension, large numbers of those involved in the atrocities). Indeed, Arendt seemed to think that the defining characteristic of Eichmann was that he was boring.
Now then, how do these two similar-yet-distinct approaches to evil apply to Trump? I think that many of us, when hearing about his latest gaffe, offensive statement or downright nonsensical policy-proposal, find it hard to ‘not suspect that he was[sic] a clown’. In this, he has at least the potential to embody Arendt’s evil. He has silly hair, largely incoherent policy and speaks with egotistical exaggeration that one cannot help but find rather charming. How could such a man ever be evil?
And if we take Augustine’s approach, I think the matter is even clearer. There is very little substance behind Donald Trump. His campaign has been one of catchphrases and bluster. Even his more concrete policies are rather insubstantial- he’s not clarified who will be exempt from his ban on Muslims entering the country; he’s not specified how he’ll get Mexico to pay for his wall and he has yet to provide more information on how his proposed budget would even come close to breaking even. It’s clear that Trump is not the evil archetype from fantasy- he is not a real-world Sauron enacting some sort of evil plan. But that is precisely the kind of evil Augustine tells us doesn’t exist.
Instead, Donald Trump seems to be the perfect blend of Arendt’s ‘clownishness’ and Augustine’s ‘insubstantiality’. An evil all the more worrying for our refusal to name it as such.