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The “Banality of Evil” and the Evanescence of Democratic Governance

On May 28, Republican U.S. Senators chose to prevent the creation of an independent commission to investigate the insurrection that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.[1] They did so after Democratic Party leaders had acceded to their many demands concerning the composition and remit of the body and despite the fact that many who voted to oppose the commission, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had previously embraced the need for just such a group and investigation. More, they quite openly justified their vote by contending that the findings of such a body might prove difficult for the GOP politically as it seeks to win control of the Congress in 2022.

        It seems likely that an authoritative bi-partisan inquiry into the January 6 assault on America’s institutions and rule of law would indeed have been problematic for former president Donald Trump and for some Republican lawmakers who lived through those harrowing events, but who have since chosen to suggest that too much has been made of the loss of life, injuries and property damage inflicted by the mob that day. Nonetheless, the American public still knows relatively little about how the event was organized or about Trump’s exact role, or that of his aides, in its instigation, planning and perpetration. The proposed commission could have learned much and done so methodically, professionally and transparently. It was these attributes that, by all accounts, constituted the chief reason the GOP feared its establishment. This Republican vote, as clearly as any other action in recent years, demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of the party and its leaders. It symbolized and captured GOP leaders’ willingness to place pursuit of partisan power over all other goals, including preservation of the Constitution and our nation’s democratic institutions and ethos.

        In a commentary entitled the “Banality of Democratic Collapse,” published before the Republican Party took this historically significant anti-democratic step, the likelihood of which was then all but certain in any case, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman contended:          

America’s democratic experiment may well be nearing its end. That’s not hyperbole; it’s obvious to anyone following the political scene. … But how did we get here? We read every day about the rage of the Republican base, which overwhelmingly believes, based on nothing, that the 2020 election was stolen, and extremists in Congress, who insist that being required to wear a face mask is the equivalent of the Holocaust. … What’s different this time is the acquiescence of Republican elites. The Big Lie about the election didn’t well up from the grass roots—it was promoted from above, initially by Trump himself, but what’s crucial is that almost no prominent Republican politicians have been willing to contradict his claims and many have rushed to back them up.[2]

        The GOP Senate vote to prevent creation of the commission is surely an example of the phenomenon to which Krugman pointed. He went on to argue that this action and the weakness and cowardice of far too many “craven careerist” Republican officeholders is “… why American democracy is hanging by a thread. Cowardice, not craziness, is the reason government by the people may soon perish from the earth.”[3]

        Krugman did not refer to the term banality in the body of his essay, but his use of the word in his title struck me and prompted me to reflect on the political thinker Hannah Arendt’s use of that same descriptor in the subtitle of her book concerning the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the principal SS logistician responsible for ensuring that innocents were efficiently delivered to the Nazi death camps to be murdered. Krugman pointed to political pusillanimity as the source of GOP officials’ actions in the filibuster of the commission and suggested that their choice of power over democracy and the commonweal arose from their unwillingness to act in a way they otherwise knew was right. Arendt painted a subtly distinct portrait of Eichmann, a down-on-his-luck salesperson when he joined the Nazi movement, and others like him who, while dutifully ensuring the deaths of millions, did not themselves personally kill anyone.  

        Krugman suggested that GOP leaders, while certainly careerists in their orientation to their posts and power, as Eichmann himself proved to be, acted out of willful cowardice. Arendt concluded her book on the Nazi leader somewhat differently, suggesting that,

Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was ‘elated’ and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in his last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.[4]

        In the 2006 edition of Arendt’s original 1963 volume, renowned Israeli essayist and cultural and political analyst Amos Elon argued in his introduction that, as she watched weeks of testimony and pored over thousands of pages of interrogation of the SS official, Arendt came to see Eichmann as morally and intellectually shallow. As he put it:

She concluded that Eichmann’s inability to speak coherently in court was connected to his incapacity to think, or to think from another person’s point of view (my emphasis). His shallowness was by no means identical to stupidity. He personified neither hatred or madness nor an insatiable thirst for blood, but something far worse, the faceless nature of Nazi evil itself, within a closed system … aimed at dismantling the human personality of its victims. The Nazis had succeeded in turning the legal order on its head, making the wrong and the malevolent the foundation of a new ‘righteousness.’… In matters of elementary morality, Arendt warned, what had been thought of as decent instincts, were no longer to be taken for granted.[5]

        Elon observed that Arendt insisted,

Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.[6]

        By analogy, today’s GOP has become a closed system of self-reinforcing bombast based on a horrific lie led by individuals with no agenda except to maintain or acquire power. While they have not embraced genocidal evil, many Republican elected officials at all levels of governance have adopted a simplistic, unthinking discrimination of many groups. They have also turned otherwise ordinary events into perverse rationales for grievance and attacks on the right to vote, the rule of law and the right to peaceable assembly on the view that doing so will result in their capacity to win elections and secure power. As a part of this penchant, GOP leaders routinely present a pageant of feigned fury concerning nonissues and lies, such as the Party’s recent mythical mantras that the U.S. “is becoming (or has become) socialist,” Dr. Seuss is being “cancelled” or Democratic partisanship causing them to scuttle the proposed January 6 commission. In GOP officials’ complete lack of awareness of anything beyond a self-absorbed desire to feed their supporters reasons to disavow and impugn those unlike themselves to accrue power, they have transformed the party into a shallow shell. Republican party leaders have, in Arendt’s terms, proven willing to establish an alternate imaginary of utterly baseless “self-righteous fury” predicated on an obvious evil: Trump’s egregious Big Lie.

        In addition, those officials have used that evil and its sway over their supporters to justify their continued descent into indecency, in Arendt’s terms. The irony, circularity and hollowness of these leaders’ justification for their willingness to proselytize for the anti-democratic and immoral is profound. I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, but today’s Republican leaders lack Eliot’s protagonists’ humility and self-reflective capacity to realize their brokenness and the implications of that fact for themselves and, especially, for those who believe, countenance or act on their lies.[7]  In an image that Krugman’s argument echoed, Eliot concluded his poem by observing,

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.[8]

        The Trump/Republican mantra of the Big Lie cannot withstand reflection because it is predicated on nothing; literally, nothing. Therefore, those who embrace the evil of implying it can stand up to scrutiny, cannot do so on the basis of either morality or reason. By definition, their Lie can withstand the rigors of neither. Nor can other GOP claims survive such scrutiny, including those invidiously contending that “certain” Americans are undeserving of rights or standing, especially the right to vote.

        In this way, Arendt’s arguments take one into a deeper explanation than Krugman’s claim into why Republican officials are so viciously attacking the very institutions and fabric of freedom they were elected to defend. McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have embraced purely obstructive and banally evil claims. Their party, like them, has come to adopt whatever Trump may support, and what he has continuously offered can be neatly captured by Arendt’s description of a form of faceless and infinitely shallow banal evil.

        This scenario is deeply dangerous for freedom and self-governance, and so to note is not simply a question of partisan predilection. Whatever nominal tribalist or ideological justifications GOP supporters may adopt for their stance does not make the evil they have adopted the responsibility of the Democratic Party or of anyone else. That choice and that evil belong wholly to Republican leaders who have willfully clasped it as their own and are responsible for it in every way. Likewise, and by analogy, Eichmann was responsible for his embrace of evil, and his refusal to contemplate the sheer moral vacuousness of his actions has consigned him to the status of one of the most reviled figures in human history. In short, today’s governance situation is not signally a debate about policy or deficits or virtually anything that might appropriately arise in the province of politics, but instead is a considered and wholesale attack on the foundations of freedom and self-governance rightly understood. To suggest it is simply a partisan “he said, she said” set of contentions deeply trivializes what is occurring. Krugman was right that our nation’s very frame of governance is now at stake and under ongoing attack. And Arendt was right concerning the subtle sources of the banality of evil now afoot and whose architects are now working to undermine our regime’s foundations and democratic way of life.

Notes

[1] Fandos, Nicholas. “Republicans Block Independent Inquiry Into January 6 Capitol Riot,” The New York Times, May 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/us/politics/capitol-riot-commission.html, Accessed May 28, 2021. 

[2] Krugman, Paul. “The Banality of Democratic Collapse,” The New York Times, May 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/24/opinion/republicans-donald-trump-loyalty.html, Accessed May 24, 2021.

[3] Krugman. “The Banality of Democratic Collapse.”

[4] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, London: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 252.

[5] Elon, Amos. “Introduction,” in Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. xiii.

[6] Elon, “Introduction,” p. xiv.

[7] Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men,” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., pp. 56-59.

[8] Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” p. 59.

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