To destroy the dignity of a human being is evil.
Peter Koestenbaum, author of Leadership: The Inner
Side of Greatness
I read M. Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie in the 1990s.
Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. When I evaluate a presidential candidate, I think first of their character. A person of character models goodness: caring, empathy, and compassion for all of humanity. A person of character has a strong inner core: deep values and a purpose greater than himself. A visionary, he has a positive, hopeful, sustainable and forward-looking dream for the evolution of America and the planet. A president of character shows us wisdom, bravery, fairness, knowledge, emotional maturity, and transcendence.
If a candidate fails the character test, I eliminate them regardless of party, experience, grievances, positions on the issues, or likes and dislikes. Nothing can take priority over a candidate’s integrity. In my evaluation of Trump’s character, he received zero points. Therefore, from my perspective, those who voted for Trump simply were not thinking straight.
With help from Russia, Trump squeaked into the presidency via the Electoral College. He lost the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes.
Since then: lies, chaos, blunders, craziness, scapegoating, criminal investigations, guilty pleas, and decline for America. The dysfunction of the Trump administration smothers us and threatens our existence on our heating planet. The Republican Congress sits by quietly.
I had always thought of evil, when I thought about it at all, as huge events like the Holocaust and people like Adolph Hitler or gruesome and macabre murderers like grave robber Ed Gein, who murdered women and exhumed bodies from graves around Plainfield, Wisconsin in the 1950s.
Peck defined evil as “…the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending or preserving the integrity of one’s sick self. Evil …is that force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
Not all hurtful acts are evil. Peck wrote that the consistency of their harmful actions defines evil people. The abusive husband who humiliates his wife day after day for 20 years; the cruel boss who sucks the life from employees year after year; the political demagogue who lies and scapegoats others in speech after speech, year after year, and the blabbermouth talk and television hosts who spread lie after lie to gain followers and sell books.
Peck—one of my favorite writers–wrote about evil in our normal lives and in everyday people: in families, churches, schools, politics, and in our organizations and institutions. His words alarmed me: I, and people I knew and cared about—ordinary people–could be evil, do evil, be part of evil systems and be unaware of evil in and around us.
Evil people diminish others. Evil people exhaust and devalue those around them. They blame others falsely and demonize people to justify the destruction of people’s spirits and make themselves look like upright people.
Scapegoating allows bad people to pretend to be good. Evil people look just like us so we have to pay attention to their acts and behaviors. Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D. wrote in Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty that evil people intentionally inflict harm on the good and innocent outsider for the pure pleasure of doing so.
When we experience scapegoating, we often feel confused. I call that crazy making. Have you listened to someone talk persuasively about something and felt confused: suddenly up was down, right was wrong, the earth is flat, and climate change is a hoax, and you felt the rug had been pulled out from under your experience of life?
A friend’s advice about crazy making was sound: “Don’t try to make sense of nonsense.” If you decide to confront an evil person, I would add, expect to spend much time doing so and beware: confronting evil will exhaust you and probably hurt and diminish you.
We often feel instant revulsion in the presence of obvious immorality. Tearing others down to elevate himself is our president’s special talent, dastardly as it is. Revulsion makes us want to get away from the person—to escape them. The damage evil people cause means nothing to them: evil people see themselves as the sufferer, justified in their actions.
Malicious folks do not suffer a lack of self-regard; self-absorbed, they have excessive self-esteem (actual accomplishments may be few). Often they do have empathy: they know exactly how to hurt people–usually the powerless. They consider themselves above reproach; they would be appalled to hear that someone considers them evil; they often think of themselves as the victim. Driven by the fear of exposure, they lash out at those who criticize them to avoid seeing themselves accurately. For the scoundrels, the opposition is all bad; their side all good. Hence the title of Peck’s book: they are the People of the Lie who deceive others as they deceive themselves.
Trump lies constantly. The Washington Post reported: “In the first nine months of his presidency, Trump made 1,318 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day. But in the seven weeks leading up the midterm elections, the president made 1,419 false or misleading claims — an average of 30 a day.” Who does he lie to the most? The people who attend his rallies.
The Trump persona is his biggest lie. He is not who he says he is.
My favorite quote from Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death comes to mind: “If everybody lives roughly the same lies about the same things, there is no one to call them liars. They jointly establish their own sanity and call themselves normal”
Trump and the Republican Party are tearing America apart with amazing speed in their lust for power and money. Our suffering is the correct response: “It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (Jiddu Kriishnamurti). Do not despair. Evil responds to power, in this case, political power. Accountability is on the way.
We must judge and stand against evil people. Many of us try not to judge others, but Peck wrote that the Bible did not require us to never judge but we should judge ourselves (and the groups we belong to) first before we judge others. We must make moral judgments that support life and aliveness. To refuse to make those judgments is to collude with the words and acts we abhor.
Frank Bruni “Michael Cohen Got Wise. Will America?” In the New York Times, December 14, 2018:
Michael Cohen put his chips on, and faith in, someone who didn’t deserve it. He was dazzled. He was entertained. He wanted a patron. He needed a guide. So he disregarded all the warning signs, ignored all the bad stuff. It was so much easier to believe.
At one point or another, haven’t many of us done that?
Didn’t Americans do that when they turned to Donald Trump in the presidential campaign of 2016?”
And what he [President Trump] required of America was what he required of Cohen. We had to bury values that should never be buried. In our case that meant condoning Trump’s racism; indulging his corrosive conspiracy theories and self-preserving lies; permitting his demonization of institutions and people and whole countries; interpreting cruelty as candor and provocation as strength. Too many of us assented.
Cohen told the judge that he had lost his moral compass. The many Republicans who continue to stand by Trump have lost their moral compasses, too. There should be parameters for tribalism and a limit to loyalty, as Cohen says he now understands. Trump is on the far side of that limit.
For every leader, there are at least 10 followers ready to trade the burden and bedlam of independent thought for a playbook that tells them exactly what to do. Some of them find it in religion, others in business, still others in politics.
And con men like Trump can spot them a mile away. Trump looked at Cohen and correctly saw someone who wasn’t going to be in the fast lane unless hitched to him, and he sensed that Cohen knew it. Trump looked at America and correctly saw an anxious, uncertain populace that was ripe for facile answers, scapegoats and a narrative of unjust victimization. So he pounced. And here we are, in an even more uncertain place, with a sentence yet to be handed down.
Values do matter.