Donald Trump’s Supporters and the Banality of Evil

A few days ago, I watched a video that I found, perhaps surprisingly, very disturbing.  There was no bloodshed–no violence of any kind–nor was anyone verbally abused.  No animals, even, were harmed in the making of it.  In fact, the video was meant to be humorous.  It was a Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog special, produced by Funny or Die, in which a group of Donald Trump supporters is pranked.  If you aren’t one of the two and a half million people who’ve already seen it, it’s worth taking fifteen minutes of your time to watch.

The premise of the prank, designed by Triumph’s creator and voice Robert Smigel, was to attempt to trick members of a Trump focus group with fake campaign ads.  As Smigel told Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on Sirius XM, “All we were really hoping for is that they would believe that the ads were real. That was the goal, to fool them, and give the piece some added life by seeing people just react honestly to it.”

The group’s reactions are certainly honest.  They earnestly discuss–and voice their almost unqualified approval for–every idea, from installing gun dispensers in women’s bathrooms to forcing “150 million Mexicans” into shock collars to building “four-star abortion resorts” in economically depressed areas.  Though there are a few bemused expressions as the participants view the phony commercials, and at one point a woman does appear to object to late-term abortions (though she fails to elucidate exactly where the line should be drawn), they neither reject the proposals nor express doubt as to their authenticity.  One man, remarking on a plan to lock Mexican immigrants in Porta Potties and transport them across the border on trucks, compares Donald Trump to the illustrious inventors of the lightbulb and iPhone.

I knew the video was supposed to be funny, but I didn’t feel at all like laughing as I watched it.  I felt more like cringing, or crying, or throwing up.  When it was over, I sat in stunned silence for a minute or two before calling my husband into the room.  “You’ve got to see this,” I said.


During my time as a high school English teacher, my tenth-grade classes studied the novel Night by Elie Wiesel.  As a supplement to historical information about the Holocaust, we also read about Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments.  Milgram, a professor at Yale, set up a series of experiments in the early 1960s that sought to determine to what degree and under what conditions participants could be induced to inflict physical harm on total strangers for no significant reason.  The methodology was as follows: an administrator, a volunteer, and a “learner” would meet in a vacant room on the Yale campus.  The administrator would ask the volunteer–the “teacher”–to administer electric shocks when the learner failed to correctly identify word pairs.  What the volunteers didn’t know was that the learners were actually collaborators and no shocks were being delivered.  The purpose of the experiment was to see what percentage of volunteers would go on to administer the full 450 volts–a potentially fatal electric shock–even as learners screamed in pain from behind a partition.

Before beginning the experiments, Milgram polled his students and colleagues at Yale and dozens of psychiatrists, all of whom predicted that a very small number of participants (one percent or fewer) would continue to administer the shocks in increasing increments until reaching the full 450 volts.  In fact, 65 percent–two-thirds–of participants delivered the final voltage.

Milgram redesigned the experiment with several variations–all-women test groups, non-university locations, administrators in regular clothes rather than lab coats, etc.–but under every set of circumstances the number of participants willing to administer the highest voltage was much higher than predicted.  Under every set of circumstances, that is, except one: when two other teachers (actually collaborators) refused to obey the administrator and continue the experiment, the volunteer almost always refused as well.

At the same time Stanley Milgram was conducting his experiments in New Haven, the German Nazi Adolf Eichmann was standing trial for war crimes in Jerusalem.  Hannah Arendt later wrote about the trial in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she argued that Eichmann was neither a sociopath nor an ideologically-driven fanatic; he was just a regular guy.  Indeed, the team of psychologists who studied him found that not only did he exhibit no signs of mental illness, but the most striking thing about Eichmann was how completely normal he was.

In her account, Arendt describes Eichmann, who had little education and lower than average intelligence, with words like “stupid” and “clown.”  Having been unsuccessful both at school and in the workforce, he was far more motivated by personal advancement than by ideology.  Eichmann admitted during the trial that seeing the respectable citizens of Germany embrace Hitler’s Final Solution made it easier for him to participate in its implementation.

Such is the banality of evil, that ordinary people are just as likely as bloodthirsty monsters to let–even to make–it happen.


Which brings me back to the members of Trump’s focus group.  They too look like perfectly normal people.  There isn’t a neo-Nazi or a Klansman in the bunch.  It’s easy to imagine them cooking dinner or playing with their children or grandchildren; some, no doubt, are churchgoers.  And yet, even as they try to work out the logistics of making guns available for use against transgender people or debate whether or not late-term abortions for impoverished women should be incentivized with casino chips, they never seem to question the morality of such acts.  One participant only expresses reservations about locking human beings in Porta Potties and shipping them to another country when it occurs to her that “one of us” could mistakenly get locked inside.  It’s as if a group of reasonable-seeming people, after reading Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” arrived at the consensus, “What a visionary idea!  Their babies!  Of course!”

The most appalling moment for me came when, discussing options for how best to give electric shocks to border crossers, one woman suggests a vaccine rather than a shock collar.  When the moderator asks how such a thing might be accomplished, the woman answers, laughing, “They wouldn’t know.  They’d think they were getting vaccinated for something.”  (Incidentally, the same participant later endorses a plan to lower Chinese I.Q.s by “injecting their water with various painting solvents.”)

One thing was clear: the members of the focus group were prepared to accept whatever idea they believed Donald Trump had put forward, and based on how few Republican public figures have disavowed Trump (to their credit, some have, though I think it’s noteworthy that none did until months after he made his infamous claim about Mexican drug dealers and rapists), I don’t think we could reasonably expect a significant number of them to stand up to him after the election either.

His supporters obviously believe that Donald Trump, having subverted everything we thought was true about our political system in the course of a few short months, can accomplish the seemingly impossible–and, as a matter of fact, I don’t disagree with them.  If a man with no political experience whatsoever, who’s patently unfit for public office, even, to invoke the old saw, that of dogcatcher, now finds himself with a 50/50 shot at the presidency of the United States, what can’t he do?  Perhaps the ideas in the series of fake commercials won’t be on the table, but some very like them may.  The deportation of millions of people seems improbable, for example, but Donald Trump hasn’t given any indication (other than not mentioning it in the presence of actual Mexicans) that he wouldn’t pursue such a plan if elected president.  A complete ban on Muslims attempting to enter the United States sounds extreme, but it’s exactly what Trump has promised–and it begs the question, what about the Muslims already within our borders?  Might they not be rounded up and placed in internment camps, like those used to house Japanese-Americans during World War II?  At the very least, couldn’t the government impose a ban on hijabs, burkas, burkinis, and the like?  It’s been attempted elsewhere in the First World.  The federal government had to take Donald Trump and his father to court in the 1970s after the Justice Department investigated their practice of turning away potential Black tenants, and a recent New York Times investigation revealed “a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond.”  Can we really believe that he’d fight for equal treatment for African-Americans if he were to become president?

If November comes and goes without seeing Donald Trump elected president, I think many of us will give a collective sigh of relief at having averted a potential disaster.  But our relief will be tinged with a lingering uneasiness.  Our eyes have been opened by this campaign to how very fragile our democracy is, and how much in need of vigilant protection.  The racism awakened by Trump’s campaign won’t disappear just because he loses the election; indeed, it might intensify, as it has during President Obama’s administration.  So, though a battle will have been won, the larger war will remain to be fought.

I wonder how the focus group dynamic might have been different if a single person had stood up and said, “I think this has to be a joke,” or “This is against everything we stand for as Americans”?  If some of the focus group members, or the moderator, had been African-American, or Asian-American, or Hispanic?  And what about the participants–and there were several–who didn’t speak at all?  Were they really in agreement with the absurd ideas they were being pitched, or just unwilling to call attention to themselves by disagreeing?

As Edmund Burke famously stated, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  That is all that’s necessary, but sometimes, given the right conditions, the good people are also the ones throwing the switches.  If Stanley Milgram’s experiment and Adolf Eichmann’s trial teach us anything, it’s that we can never afford to “go along” with evil.  We must be the respectable citizens whose dissent makes the Eichmanns among us think twice, the “teachers” whose refusal to hurt innocent people prompts others to take their own stands.  We must find the courage to oppose evil, in all its banality, or we may regret too late that we didn’t.

A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  She currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia.  April’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Elephant Journal, The Missing Slate, Windhover, Manifest-Station, The New Plains Review, and The Fieldstone Review.

Hey Coach, Immigrants Made America Great

Last Tuesday at the RNC, the Daily Beast reported that former University of Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz went on an anti-immigrant tirade. In his speech, Holtz lamented the “invasion” of immigrants into the United States, harped on the differences between the immigrant “you” and the American “me”, and demanded immigrants attempt to better assimilate. He also noted that he would not be cheering for their soccer teams, implying that in this country, there is only one type of “football” that matters.

Like anyone else in this country, Lou Holtz has a right to speak his mind, and as a proud alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, I listened with respect.

Nonetheless, I do wonder what would have happened to our shared loves—Notre Dame, football, and this country—if anyone listened to the rhetoric he presented on Tuesday 100 years ago.

In many ways, the University of Notre Dame can be seen as a microcosm of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Founded in 1842, immigrants, predominately of Irish, German and Italian origin, but also by a good number of settled American citizens, built the university. They hauled mud from the nearby lakes to create the iconic yellow brick buildings that speckle Notre Dame’s campus in the same way that the immigrants in the rest of the country built our roads and buildings.

In exchange for their work at Notre Dame, these immigrant laborers could send their sons to Notre Dame to receive an education. In this way, Notre Dame became more than an old boys’ club; it came to embody the promise of American opportunity. These dirty, oftentimes illiterate immigrants are the true founders of this university, and, indeed, of this country.

By the 1920s, Notre Dame’s football team began to gain national attention. Traditionally a gentleman’s game, athletic conferences across the country hesitated to let Notre Dame join them because of the school’s Catholic and immigrant identity.  As a result, Notre Dame traveled nationally, happily picking up misfit fans along the way.

Around this same time, Notre Dame took on a Norwegian immigrant coach named Knute Rockne, who assembled a bunch of “Fighting Irish”. Rockne embraced the name and refused to assimilate to the traditional game of football—he instead transformed the entire sport with the forward pass.

Rockne loved the idea of a fight (in fact he boxed on the side from time to time). After the death of a young promising star player, it was Rockne who demanded his team come back from a large deficit to “win one for the Gipper.” On that day, Rockne the immigrant taught all Americans how to fight.

In many ways, immigrants around the country were doing the same thing: inventing, innovating, contributing, building, fighting for their place and for a place for their children. They were making America the country it is today—making America great.

Therefore, I admit I shuddered when I heard a coach of the Fighting Irish critique the modern versions of the men and women who have done so much for the University of Notre Dame and this country.

Had these men and women assimilated by only playing by the pre-established rules, had they been prevented from “invading” our country, we might still be playing football without the forward pass and be missing out on countless other innovations that impact our lives far beyond the football field.

I’ll close with this: A poor Jew from Nazareth once reminded us to love the stranger, for we were once him. Today His statue sits squarely in the center of the University of Notre Dame’s campus with arms open. And another statue sits in welcome off the coast of New York City.

We must never forget our identity, as strangers, as Americans, as fighting Irish. “They” are not them—we are “they,” those who made this university and country great and who will make them greater still.

Madelyn Lugli is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

It is Time for Europe’s “Pope Francis Moment”

Yesterday, Pope Francis was presented with the Charlemagne Prize by the City of Aachen, or Aix-La-Chapelle, an honor given annually to individuals for their extraordinary commitment to European unity and solidarity.

In honoring a Pope who has been very vocal and outspoken in his criticism of the European Union, the award committee reminds us that European unity and solidarity are values that cannot be defined and rewritten by bureaucrats in Brussels.

When Pope Francis asks, “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?”, he is challenging all of us, regardless of which European nation we call home, to resist the Westphalian temptation of misplaced nationalism and to practice at home what we preach so well overseas.

Reminding us of the vision that bore the European project after the apocalypse of World War II, creating “an edifice made up of states united not by force but by free commitment to the common good,” the Pope offered a scathing indictment of European politics in the 21st century. It is a clear and unequivocal message in a year where EU member states have started closing and securing their borders to the south, European leaders have called for strict caps to the admission of refugees and asylum seekers, and far-right politicians have been able to garner popular support by asserting that we “cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed by children’s eyes.

It is not the first time that Pope Francis has called out European leaders on their lack of solidarity, not only in regards to refugee and migration policy. In 2014, the Pontiff traveled to Strasbourg, France, to address 700 members of the European Parliament. Strongly criticizing the Union’s internal and external social policies, he decried the erosion of “transcendent human dignity” in societies that place the pursuit of opulence over the pursuit of happiness. The centrality of the human person, an essential component of the European idea, has been replaced with numerical identifiers and mainstream indifference, he offered, stating:

In addressing you today, I would like, as a pastor, to offer a message of hope and encouragement to all the citizens of Europe.

It is a message of encouragement to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.

Two years after this famous address to the European Parliament, it is time for our “Pope Francis moment”, for a “memory transfusion”, as he called it, referencing Elie Wiesel. It is time for us to put the brakes on Europe’s humanist disintegration and reclaim “a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties toward all.”

Matthias Witt works in international development and humanitarian emergencies. A German native, he is currently based at the World Bank in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter @msbcw.

The Easter Rising at 100: What Role Did the Church Play?

A recent article published in Crux laments what the author considers a lack of adequate attention given to the Catholic Church in centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland. In spite of the presence of the Head Chaplain for the Irish Defense Forces during the centenary celebrations, a planned centenary Requiem Mass hosted by the Minister for Defense in Ireland, a publically sponsored discussion of the role of the Church in the Rising, and media coverage regarding the Church’s role in the Rising in RTÉ and The Irish Times, the coverage could appear relatively sparse for those who still envision Ireland as a distinctly and singularly Catholic nation.

No doubt, the Church’s somewhat diminished role in celebrations in part derives from Ireland’s complex relationship with the Church. After revelations of widespread clerical abuse and increasing discomfort with the power structure which gave the Church great influence over 20th century Irish politics and polices, average Irish citizens may be less inclined to include the Church in state celebrations as openly as perhaps they would have in past decades. The swinging pendulum of the status of the Church in Ireland has greatly influenced how the nation choses to remember, or indeed, not remember, the significance of the Church’s contributions to the Rising. However, if one examines first-hand accounts of the Rising alongside contemporary historical sources, one finds that the role of the Church in the Rising was neither paramount nor negligible; rather it’s significance lies somewhere in the middle. Read More

On “The Name of God is Mercy”


The Name of God is Mercy is an extended interview with Pope Francis, turned into a book, exploring his reflections on and experiences of God’s heavenly mercy. In it, he elaborates on the reasons he called for this Jubilee Year of Mercy that we are now celebrating. The book came out earlier this year, and I’ve just finished reading it. I encourage everyone else to read it as well. At only 100 short pages in length, it is accessible, encouraging, and challenging all at the same time.

Throughout the questions and responses contained in this book, Pope Francis turns again and again to themes we have heard him emphasize since the beginning of his pontificate. He talks about how important it is for us to recognize and be conscious of our own sinfulness, because doing so helps draw us closer to God. He talks about the merciful nature of God, who seeks to heal and forgive over and over again. He explores the ways in which we can open ourselves to receive God’s forgiveness and the Lord’s insistent openness to be forgiving, to the point that he seeks out any tiny crack where he can enter in and reach us. Francis emphasizes that this message of mercy is at the core of the Gospel and the heart of the Church, and he speaks to the ways the Church can (and does) reach actively outward with mercy. He speaks extensively about the Sacrament of Confession. He brings up the experience of the family. And he offers guidance on living the Holy Year of Mercy.

A Few Quotes from The Name of God Is Mercy

Answering the question, “What is mercy for you?”

Etymologically, “mercy derives from misericordis, which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive. (pp. 8-9)

On Confession:

We are social beings, and forgiveness has a social implication; my sin wounds mankind, my brothers and sisters, and society as a whole. Confessing to a priest is a way of putting my life into the hands and heart of someone else, someone who in that moment acts in the name of Jesus. (pp. 21-22)

On recognizing our need:

The Church Fathers teach us that a shattered heart is the most pleasing gift to God. It is the sign that we are conscious of our sins, of the evil we have done, of our wretchedness, and of our need for forgiveness and mercy. (p. 32)

On God’s desire to encounter us:

God waits; he waits for us to concede him only the smaller glimmer of space so that he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us. Only he who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of his mercy really knows the Lord. For this reason I have often said that the place where my encounter with the mercy of Jesus takes place is my sin. (p. 34)

At one point, Francis offers a beautiful testimony from Blessed Pope Paul VI:

“For me it has always been a great mystery of God to be in wretchedness and to be in the presence of the mercy of God. I am nothing. I am wretched. God the Father loves me, he wants to save me, he wants to remove me from the wretchedness in which I find myself, but I am incapable of doing it myself. And so he sends his Son, a Son who brings the mercy of God translated into an act of love toward me…. But you need a special grace for this, the grace of a conversion. Once I recognize this, God works in me through his Son.” (Bl. Paul VI, quoted pp. 39-40)

On the Church during the Jubilee Year of Mercy:

I hope that the Jubilee will serve to reveal the Church’s deeply maternal and merciful side, a Church that goes forth toward those who are “wounded,” who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness, and love. (p. 53)

On the possibility of starting over:

The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way. The important thing is to get back up, not to stay on the ground licking your wounds. The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over. He loves me for what I am, he wants to raise me up, and he extends his hand to me. This is one of the tasks of the Church: to help people perceive that there are no situations that they cannot get out of. For as long as we are alive it is always possible to start over, all we have to do is let Jesus embrace us and forgive us. (p. 60)

On being a disciple:

Jesus sends forth his disciples not as holders of power or as masters of a law. He sends them forth into the world asking them to live in the logic of love and selflessness. (p. 93)

On the most important things a believer should do during the Holy Year of Mercy:

He should open up to the Mercy of God, open up his heart and himself, and allow Jesus to come toward him by approaching the confessional with faith. And he should try and be merciful with others. (p. 97)

On giving what we have received:

We have received freely, we give freely. We are called to serve Christ the Crucified through every marginalized person. We touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast, hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search of refuge. That is where we find our God, that is where we touch the Lord. (p. 98)

Index of Themes

I compiled this index while reading through the book. The page numbers point back to quotes or passages exploring each theme.

  • Consciousness of our sinfulness – x, 8, 32, 35, 39, 51, 58, 59, 67, 70, 81, 84
  • Opening to receive forgiveness/God’s openness to forgive – x, 10, 25, 31-35, 32, 33-34, 51, 70, 86
  • The merciful nature of God – xi, xv, 5, 8, 10, 25, 51, 52, 59, 65, 70
  • Church reaching outward – xi, 6, 17, 33, 52, 53, 67, 80
  • Healing wounds/woundedness – xi, 6, 15, 53, 59, 67
  • Guidance for disciples – 5, 67, 87, 93, 97, 98, 99
  • Mercy as core of Gospel, Church – 7, 51, 52, 59
  • The love of God is for sinners – 7, 8, 10, 17, 51, 59
  • Receiving mercy to give it – 13, 67, 98
  • Sacrament of Confession – 13, 17, 21-28, 22, 23, 33, 59
  • “Apostolate of the ear” (merciful listening) – 17, 99
  • Social implication of sin – 21, 80
  • Quote – Testimony from Bl. Paul VI – 39
  • Holy Year – 53, 97, 97-99
  • Mercy in the Family – 87

Michael Owens is the Coordinator of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Washington.

A Spotlight on Abuse: Healing the Wounds of the World through Truth, Justice, and Solidarity

Spotlight is not, at its heart, a movie about the Church. It is a movie about people doing their jobs for the sake of honesty and justice. The reporters at the Boston Globe, committed to truth and bringing that truth into the light, are doing the practical work of the Word without knowing it.

The parable of the light under the bushel gets brushed into a children’s song most of the time, but in the gospels, Jesus is clear: the work of God is meant to illuminate the world. When the Church is engaged in secrecy, cover-ups, and darkness, She turns away from Her call to be the light of the world, the city set on a mountain.

Institutional corruption decays trust in the Church and harms the integrity of our shared mission. Pharisaical attitudes prioritizing hierarchy over justice diminish the Body of Christ for the sake of earthly systems. By failing to care for the vulnerable in our community, we fail to recognize the Eucharistic truth of unity and dignity. We need to remember that our work begins at home — in our own communities — with honesty, vulnerability, and transparency. Read More

Don’t Be an Observer: Our Generation’s Call to Defend Life

“Continue to overcome apathy, offering a Christian response to the social and political anxieties, which are arising in various parts of the world. I ask you to be builders of the world, to work for a better world. Dear young people, please, don’t be observers of life, but get involved. Jesus did not remain an observer, but he immersed himself. Don’t be observers, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did.” –Pope Francis July 27, 2013

Last week, despite the threat and arrival of Snowzilla, thousands of Americans took to the streets of Washington DC to take a stand against the lethal Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade and to raise their voices in support of women and unborn children. A majority of those who marched for life were millennials. I was among them and as I marched, Pope Francis’ words to young people came to mind. The Holy Father reminded us in a 2013 homily that Jesus was not an observer, but rather he immersed himself in the reality of life. We too are called to immerse ourselves, to be advocates, and to stand up and offer “a Christian response to the social and political anxieties” which we face in our civilization.

The greatest civil rights abuse of our time is abortion. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we must, as Pope Francis exhorts us, face this reality of life. We know the statistics—around a million children lose their lives to abortion each year. Each number included in this statistic is a child that has lost his or her life. And with each child that has lost his or her life to abortion, there is a mother and a father that is hurting. Grandparents, friends, and extended family suffer as well.

In addition to being a horrific reality at a human level, abortion is also one of the most controversial political issues of our day. It can be difficult to engage with others on such a heated topic. Trust me, as someone who works in the pro-life movement, it isn’t always easy to tell the person next to me on the plane what I do for a living. Yet God has chosen us to live in this time and so we must trust in Christ’s invitation to “be not afraid.” We, the JPII Generation, have been given incredible leaders to guide us as we strive to answer Pope Francis’ call “to be builders of the world, to work for a better world.” We look to saints, civil rights leaders, and Christ himself as models of those who engage and do not merely observe. Read More