In October 2016 my 15- year-old daughter was dying. That was also the month that Trump was campaigning hard in his bid to win against Clinton. My daughter wasn’t into in politics, but she watched the news and debates with us that month with a modicum of interest. At the time, we thought America was on the cusp of having its first female president.
At one point we were watching news coverage of a Trump rally in Nevada and my breath caught in my throat when Trump urged terminally ill people to vote for him.
Trump said, “ I don’t care how sick you are. I don’t care if you just came back from the doctor and he gave you the worst possible prognosis, meaning it’s over. Doesn’t matter. Hang out till November 8. Get out and vote.”
I don’t care how sick you are. The words made my heart hurt. Did he know that real dying people — even children — might hear those words? Was it some kind of joke to him?
My daughter, to her credit, rolled her eyes and asked us to stop watching shows about politics. But Trump’s thoughtless words stuck with me. He was so callous, so crass, and so devoid of self awareness. His lack of compassion and ability to cause pain without any sense of responsibility, struck me as deeply evil. Of course, this was only the beginning. We all know how the election story ends. My biggest fear is that we’re doomed to repeat it in November.
The concept of evil in fiction
I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of evil. As a writer of fantasy, creating evil characters with believably twisted motivations is something I’ve struggled to realistically portray.
It’s hard for me to relate to the most common evil villain tropes — the nihilistic “let’s burn the world down” villain, a.k.a., the Joker, or the ruthless “do anything to get what she wants” bad guy (e.g., Narnia’s White Queen) who removes any obstacle to get her way and remain in power or the pure play lunatic who murders people out of extreme sociopathy and delight (e.g., every villain in every slasher movie).
For me, the most “real” villains (from a fictional standpoint) are three dimensional. They have a backstory that almost always elicits sympathy — like Darth Vader, a man who lost everything and became an instrument of evil, but who nevertheless retained some inherent good which ultimately enables him to spare the life of his son. It’s harder for me to understand the motivations of The Emperor in Star Wars, the puppetmaster and driving force behind the Empire’s darkest deeds.
Trump is just plain bad
If nothing else, Trump and the politicians who support him are providing me with an abundance of material to study the motivations behind what makes people do evil things.
Trump moves through the world like a caricature of an actual person, the physical embodiment of the seven deadly sins. He is all about greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, envy, sloth, and pride. It is fascinating — and horrifying — to see these traits played out with such thoughtless banality on a near-daily basis. Trump displays one or more of them with almost every Tweet he lets fly.
In an astounding display of envy and narcissism, Trump criticized the Oscars in March 2018: “Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY. Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore — except your President (just kidding, of course)!”
On John McCain, Trump let his wrath fly: (Tweeted six months after McCain’s death) “So it was indeed (just proven in court papers) “last in his class” (Annapolis) John McCain that sent the Fake Dossier to the FBI and Media hoping to have it printed BEFORE the Election. He & the Dems, working together, failed (as usual). Even the Fake News refused this garbage!”
In a beautiful example of pride and wrath, Trump tweeted about Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo in 2018: “Mike Pompeo is doing a great job, I am very proud of him. His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell. Now it is a whole new ballgame, great spirit at State!”
Trump’s Tweets paint a picture of a deeply insecure, vindictive man with an almost complete lack of empathy for other human beings. It doesn’t matter if you’re a child (Greta Thunberg), if you’re dying from cancer (John McCain), if you’re a grieving mother (Ghazala Khan), or a marginalized person whose life has been threatened by bigots — if you’re not with Trump, you’re against him, which means you’re fair game for an attack.
Throughout his three-year stint in office, he’s demonstrated a level of evil that is surprisingly one dimensional. If he was a character in one of my novels, I’m sure he’d read as forced and phony — a total cliche. Maybe this is part of why I have so much trouble creating believable bad guys — I don’t understand how anyone can be so thoroughly devoid of morality without a single redeeming quality. Yet, Trump is that guy.
The evil enablers
Evil in the era of Trump isn’t just about one man. It’s embodied in the self-serving cowardice of a Republican party that refuses to stand up to Trump, even as he moves closer and closer to becoming a dictator.
Trump is a caricature of an evil villain — clueless, often enraged, easily swayed by compliments and praise, and brutal in the thoughtless way of a child pulling the wings off of a fly. But men like Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell offer up another brand of evil altogether. In many ways, they are far worse than Trump.
A September article in Rolling Stone outlines some of McConnell’s most recent political atrocities. For example, in his bid to get re-elected to the Senate, McConnell’s wife who is the current Transportation Secretary, has been funnelling grants to Kentucky to fund projects meant to lift McConnell’s profile (and chances of re-election).
McConnell’s motivation appears to be power — he likes it, wants to keep it, and enjoys using it. He is terrifying because of his intelligence, but also because of his resourcefulness. He doesn’t play fair and he has no problem switching sides whenever it serves him — or those he supports. He would make a magnificent bad guy in any epic fantasy.
Lindsay Graham is an entirely different version of evil. He’s the ultimate Trump enabler, the perfect example of a spineless sycophant. He leans heavily into partisan divisiveness to defend his support of Trump using the “whataboutisms” that are a popular way for politicians and right-leaning media outlets to shift blame and attention back to democrats and dissenters.
Once one of Trump’s most adamant detractors, , Graham made a monumental flip. Charles Sykes of Politico wrote, “Even by the cynical and shape-shifting standards of Washington, Graham’s metamorphosis has been a thing of wonder. The senator once known as John McCain’s best friend in the Senate, transformed himself into Trump’s shinebox, willing to ingratiate himself with rationalizations and praise even as Trump became increasingly erratic.”
Graham’s motivation appears to be driven by pride and possibly fear. It’s not about me, you, or the world. Graham wants to remain relevant. That is a deliciously evil reason to throw your entire country under the bus, don’t you think?
Trump’s evil will endure
At a 2017 rally, Trump famously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” We were still rolling our eyes and laughing at Trump back then — how innocent we were!
In October of 2019, one of Trump’s private attorneys said that Trump could not be investigated or prosecuted if he shot someone on 5th avenue. He told this to a federal appeals court panel presumably to illustrate the power of the Executive Branch. The lawyer clarified that Trump’s immunity would last only as long as he remained in office.
This is truly chilling and has some troubling implications about the lasting effects of the Trump presidency. Will he refuse to step down as president if he loses the election? Will he use force to maintain power or rile his base into a frenzy? Will he go at great lengths to cheat (with the help of his cronies, Fox News, and supporters) so that he can hold onto power? At this point, I believe anything’s possible.
Trump has already been exercising unprecedented power that will have long standing repercussions whether or not he remains in office. The recent execution of a top Iranian general on Iraqi soil without consulting congress is just one example. People are going to die because of this brash act.
His policies (or lack thereof) on immigration, healthcare, business and trade, and the environment will impact our lives for a very long time, possibly decades — and not in a good way (particularly if he’s re-elected).
The era of Trump has taught me a lot about the motivations behind evil — it’s the drive to stay relevant, the temptation of power, the driving need for revenge when one’s pride has been injured (regardless of who gets hurt), and the crippling narcissism of the ultra privileged. In the end, the world may burn, but men like Trump, McConnell and Graham will have achieved the final victory — to win, regardless of the cost.