by Lance Morrow
Progressives now see no difference between history’s monsters and people they don’t like on TV.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, when I was preparing to write a book on the subject of evil, I asked a variety of people whether they had ever known someone whom they considered to be evil. The over- whelming majority stared into space for a moment and then said, “No— no one I would call truly evil. There was Hitler, of course. But I didn’t know him.”
An exception to the pattern was William F. Buckley Jr., who, without hesitation, replied, “Gore Vidal.” I laughed, but Mr. Buckley didn’t. I think he was serious. He stared at me with hard, enameled eyes.
In those days the word evil still carried the weight of its old significance. Evil remained a great mystery—like (at the opposite end of human experience) love. Evil inspired respect and humility, fear and awe. There is, after all, no appeal from evil. It is uncompromising, unforgivable.
Hitler—the real thing—was proof that evil existed. Auschwitz set the 20th century standard. Charles Manson, a nasty curio of the 1960s, became the tabloid version. He and other high-concept nightmares of the time carried the idea of evil across the straits separating religion and popular culture. The 1960s young (via, for example, the Rolling Stones) tended to glamorize evil, even to propose it as a precondition to freedom: noisy Byronism. Joan Didion’s essays unforgettably conjured the atmosphere; her writing in those years seemed to open doors, one after another, in the corridors of Bluebeard’s castle.
But, like youth, the novelty passed. The country settled into a routine of mass shootings: evil, of course, but soon enough demystified as a string of psychotic episodes. By the time I asked people if they had known someone who was evil, Manson was wasting away in a California prison, still dreaming about an apocalyptic race war, I suppose, with the razored swastika fading on his forehead.
Here we are. The word evil has suffered from severe grade inflation in the 21st century. Just as every college student must now get an A, so, in the hysteria of social media, the most ordinary pipsqueak may now be flattered with the grand honorific. Evil, once an august item in the range of human possibilities, has been reduced to a cliché of political abuse.
Recently I revived my question. I started by asking progressives whether they ever knew someone who was evil. Their number one answer—surprise—was Donald Trump. Do they really mean it? Are they being metaphorical? Hyperbolical? (If Mr. Trump is evil, what would be the word for Pol Pot?) When they are through with Mr. Trump, progressives mention such lesser devils as Derek Chauvin and Dylann Roof. Then their eyes dart back and forth and less likely names fetch up, people they know from the screens: Josh Hawley, Tucker Carlson. In the end, there is no distinction in their minds between the mass murderer in the church in Charleston and someone with whose opinions they disagree.
Mr. Trump himself tosses around the word evil in a mindless way. He uses it almost as often as he does the word “incredible.” It is one of his six adjectives. Progressives and Trumpists accuse one another, batting the word “evil” back and forth like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck disputing whether it is “duck season” or “wabbit season.”
The other day, Tony Norman, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist, got warmed up by referring to Mr. Trump as “the twice-impeached abomination of desolation.” In his next reference, the former U.S. president was “Satan” (a bit of a letdown) and, after that, “the Antichrist.” He left out “Prince of Darkness.” Gasping down the home stretch, he described Mr. Trump’s base as a “death cult,” subscribers to his “End Times fever dream.”
Never-Trump conservatives are shy. They tend to be circumspect, in the old style. They avoid the word evil entirely. By contrast, I know one hard-core conservative who shouts from the rooftops that “all Democrats are evil” and “the Democratic Party has long been a criminal enterprise.”
Politics (essentially a media performance in the 21st century) has taken over the work of organizing our moral lives—distorting them, trivializing them and making them hysterical. The reckless use of absolute language freighted with old religious toxins causes political disagreements between fellow citizens to become invested with ultimate meanings. Idiots start talking about “the end of days.”
If you are serious about evil, talk about consequences. You can’t call a person evil unless—as with Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot—the evidence is there: the body count. Evil once belonged to the realm of reality. But the 21st century has lost its appetite for objective proof. Feelings are enough. If you feel that some- thing or someone is evil, why then it is so. What you feel (the mirage of your emotions) acquires the status of reality. You must, after all, “speak your truth.”
The Salem witch trials proceeded on the same premise.
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”