Trump and the Banality of Evil

I’ve been seeing pieces around the internet in which people try to understand what Donald Trump, and his popularity, are all about. People come to his rallies and hoot and holler, cheer on his wild-eyed pronouncements, thrill to his irrationalities. Hillary Clinton made a speech the other day connecting Trump to the so called “alt-right” – in part to try and make Trump appear to be a racist, and in part to signal to the establishment wing of the GOP that she’ll forgive them for Trump when she gets into the Oval Office. In general, the mainstream wants desperately to disassociate itself with Trump, despite his being the Presidential candidate of one of two major political parties. But I don’t think Trump’s supporters are necessarily crazy, nor especially racist, for that matter. I think the key to understanding Trump and his supporters is Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil.

Trump is basically a salesman. There are lots of fun particulars about him, but I want to start with that generality. He sells stuff. He said in his 1987 autobiography that his strategy is always to tell people what they want to hear – a standard way of going about selling stuff. The catch phrase from his television show, The Apprentice, is “You’re Fired!” – why? Because that’s how you tell people that you’re in an authority. You have the power over other people through the ability to grant or deny work. The fantasy promoted by The Apprentice is that of being the boss. And when you’re the boss, you get to fire people. Now, actually being a boss, and really firing people, isn’t all that pleasant. The middle management guys and gals who I would geuss do most of the hiring and firing in this country could probably tell you all about being overworked, stressed out, and frequently expasperated by their charges. But the fantasy of being in charge, of being the big boss of a big company, appeals to the frustrations of rank and file working folks. Practically nobody imagines that they really deserve to get fired – especially, it would seem, the folks who really do. The guys who talk a mile a minute, who are all enthusiasm and big ideas – a lot of them are the same who take a dozen smoke breaks before noon, show up late, go home early, and neglect half their duties. And often enough those are the guys who think they’re on the fast track to management. Who tell you all about how they’re all set to open their own business, and will explain at length how they’re going to make a fortune just as soon as they get going. You might ask yourself “What are they thinking?” But the key here is to realize they aren’t thinking.

The way I understand the concept of the banality of evil is that it’s all about not thinking. How did Adolph Eichmann hang with his despicable deeds? Simple: he didn’t. He didn’t think about them. He told himself “I’m just doing my job.” If he had stopped to consider the thousands of people he was sending into death camps, I don’t think he could have done it. A middle manager, when they’re firing someone, can’t stop to think about how doing so may mean the loss of stability for a child, or the loss of care for a dependent – because if they did, they wouldn’t be able to go through with it. Even if the person being fired can recognize intellectually the necessity of their being fired, it will still feel crappy, and very likely unfair. The person doing the firing, therefore, is invested with a kind of perverse power – and in a capitalist society, where survival depends upon income, and income is derived, for the vast majority of people, from one’s job, the person who gets to decide who does and doesn’t have a job, who’s responsible for what, and how much they get paid (i.e. the person who tells you who you are with respect to society) – that person is the authority. Not the President or the Governor or the Mayor or even the police officer – although all of those people may, at some point, have an impact on one’s individual role in society, the real authority is “the boss.” And Trump is very good at performing in the role of “the boss” – of selling himself as the authority. And how do we know he’s the authority? “You’re fired!”

Part of the problem with all of what I’m saying here is that it flies in the face of what lots of people tell themselves – and I’m talking about what you’ll see and hear in a million Lifetime movies and daytime talk shows. “It’s not about what’s in your wallet, it’s about what’s in your heart,” and so on. As a general rule, at least in my experience, people know very well that it is their job, their work, their income and their decisions as consumers that determine virtually every material aspect of their existance – and in most cases, it is imperative they make the case to themselves that none of that really matters, because if it did, it would make them crazy. Nevertheless, when it is time to work, they set all that aside, and do their job, whatever it happens to be.

Getting back to Trump, his appeal is that he is purely reactionary. He is able to simultaneously denounce and uphold the liberal welfare state created by the FDR administration and established by the Second World War. He stands for the status quo, not as it is, but as people imagine it. The racist element demonstrates this very well: I would say that most Trump supporters would say that they are not racist, and what they mean is that they don’t have anything against people of color, as long as they don’t disturb the established order of things. And what that ultimately means isn’t a strict segregation – what it means is that people must be able to go about their lives without thinking too much about them. If a black family moves to a white suburb, the problem isn’t so much their being out of place, the problem is that their presence provokes the few actually racist members of the community. What disturbs the community is the thought that one of them is a genuine racist. Rather than confront that, it’s much easier to exclude people of color. In this way, the peace of community is preserved. The reality is that the community itself is racist – but what’s important is the fantasy that they aren’t.

The concept of white privilege, so popular among progressives these days, addresses the fantasy of the liberal, politically correct suburban community. “If you can’t see it, you’ve got it,” as they say. Begin with the idea of the American dream – if one works hard and plays by the rules, one will succeed. What this essentially means is that home ownership, a good line of credit, and a pension are available to anybody, regardless of their race, gender, or personal background. And of course, women and people of color know very well that this is not the case. But straight white men are usually able to functionally operate within the parameters of the American dream, as the system is bent towards seeing to it that they do.

The point I’m trying to make here is that there isn’t a rational or logical basis to Trump’s supporters – what they want can’t be described in terms of policy or whatever. What they want is to not think about politics. They don’t want anyone to call them out on casual racism. They don’t want to be confused by the habits of outsiders who may speak or dress differently – and that applies as much to Norteños in Cleveland as it does to Connecticut Yankees in San Antonio. The fact that what they want is every day more and more difficult is what makes them so crazy. It makes them angry that they can’t just go about their lives in the way they expect – and the fact that they can’t feels like a betrayal.


Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

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