Tracking Trump on Evil

It didn’t take long for President Trump to invoke evil. But unlike previous executives, Trump’s authoritarian and apocalyptic rhetoric – language that presents a single authority or person as the only answer to social chaos and fear – puts evil into a different, more fearful realm. Trump’s use of the term “evil” will most likely continue this type of rhetoric, making it important to understand the purpose of this word for the president.

In a visit to the CIA on Jan. 21, a day after his inauguration, the president invoked evil for the first time as president. Arguing that ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism had to be “eradicated” “off the face of the Earth,” he repeated: “This is evil. This is evil.” He then added: “This is a level of evil that we haven’t seen.”

A few days later Trump described ISIS in an interview with Fox News, stating “We have evil that lurks around the corner without the uniforms.” In his Jan. 29 statement concerning the first service member casualty of his administration, the president again invoked “the evil of radical Islamic terrorism.” And on Feb. 3, he tweeted from the official @POTUS account and his personal account (@realDonadlTrump): “We must keep ‘evil’ out of our country!” These few examples define evil as hard to distinguish from good, an invasion from outside, and most importantly, erasable from the world by the authoritarian.

Trump’s use of “evil” is unique because it constructs distinct levels of evil. In this frame, new (or increasing) levels of evil legitimize new levels of loyalty, action, laws, power, etc. In other words, we may do things we never thought we would and we will do them because we are facing a threat we never thought we would. As Trump stated in his address to the CIA: “This is a level of evil we haven’t seen before.”

This is not to say that other presidents have not used evil to justify extreme policies. A similar rhetorical shift occurred in the days after September 11, when Bush invoked evil as the reason for increased surveillance and torture. However, Bush didn’t use Trump’s notion of “levels” of evil to justify his actions. In his September 11, 2001 evening speech to the nation and further statements on the attack, not once did Bush use evil with an adjective or adverb in the manner that Trump has with “level.” Bush’s evil was simply that: evil. [Early on in his presidency during the Day of Remembrance (the day designated by Congress to be the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust), Bush described the Nazi camps as “evil on so grand a scale…” But evil spread out is not the same as a new level.]

In other words, Bush’s evil was not new. It was akin to the forces unleashed in other eras. Bush assumed an evil fought before, a kind of timeless saga. By contrast, Trump rhetorically constructs an evil that is both more sinister and more diabolical: something we have never faced before. This in turn requires a more aggressive response and broader exercise of power. This apocalyptic rhetoric makes it necessary for the speaker to up the stakes. [For a primer on this type of rhetoric, read my previous post for Citizen Critics.] It requires that the “end of days” be seen as imminent. As its final and terrifying evil approaches, we are forced to see it not only more assuredly but also more fearfully. And apocalyptic rhetoric is not a hysterical mindset; instead it argues clearly what is necessary for victory – a deliverer.

This bring us to Trump’s authoritarian use of evil. Trump’s evil reflects a nationalistic Christianity with a strong Messiah – a multifaceted combination of the spiritual and secular – uniquely qualified to defeat these new levels of evil. And so then evil is not merely something identified as a group, ideology, or action to be wiped from the face of the earth as Bush did. Evil instead becomes that which only a select few – or one – can defeat. It is not the more common “we” against “them” that Bush invoked. For Trump “we” are protected or saved from “them” only by the one with power: in this case, Trump himself.

Trump’s use of evil provides us with a moment to attend to how Trump is different. He is different in that he shows little regard for any previous mold. This is in part due to his apocalyptic vision. But he is also different because he offers himself as the authority on evil.

With this frame, we can better understand Trump’s Feb. 3 tweet. Many of those who responded to it questioned the quotes around evil. Those usually imply sarcasm. Clearly Trump was not trying to be sarcastic. Another less plausible explanation is Trump was trying to emphasize the word akin to italicizing it but used an unaccepted method.

The tweet refers to his executive order banning travelers from the seven countries, people he has called in a subsequent tweet on Feb. 4 “many very bad and dangerous people.” But with no further explanation, the February 3 tweet is a broad net without context, a president casting in fear by way of the most powerful word in a president’s moral rhetoric.

This is intentional. One major difference in using evil between Trump and Bush is that the latter responded to an event and a particular group (the government of three countries), while Trump has invoked evil as a more abstract, less precise enemy from the beginning (perhaps isolated in seven countries). Authoritarians don’t want other contexts than the one they present; the one they present is inherently apocalyptic. A context – particular a historical one – is what Bush named when he used evil. Trump’s use of evil does not reside in that history.

Such rhetoric also divides differently than former uses of evil. Bush invoked a divide when he told the world in his address to Congress after September 11 that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But he isolated the evil as irreligious by noting that the teachings of Islam “are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.” Trump has not made this type of distinction, never distinguishing between “radical Islamic terrorism” and Islam.

In the end Trump uses the word to divide not only the civilized world from the terrorists as his predecessors did, but the world between those who follow him and those who should think twice before questioning him, lest they take away from America’s ability to fight evil. It is important to track the president as he identifies as evil. Evil from the “outside” influences foreign policies such as immigration. Evil as only mastered by one person – Trump – influences national issues such as crime. Most importantly voters should listen for how often the president uses evil and to what “level” he raises it. The most telling point will be: do subjects other than ISIS merit a new level of evil? If that is the case, then the authoritarianism has also been taken to a new level.

For more on presidential use of “evil” see The American Presidency Project.