The banality of evil in Georgia

Posted on August 23, 2023

The Georgia prosecution of a broad conspiracy against democracy, involving dozens of people on the national and state levels, serves many important purposes. One of them is to warn us all about the banality of evil.

Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “banality of evil” while describing the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the masterminds of the Holocaust. She observed that Eichmann did not seem sadistic or perverted. As an individual he was no monster, but he performed monstrous acts. Apparently, Eichmann hardly felt like he was doing anything wrong and never engaged in critical thinking to consider the morality or legality of his evil deeds. The banality of evil has come to mean a situation where evildoing is both thoughtless and commonplace, and evildoers are unremarkable people.

While MAGA cannot be compared to the Holocaust, MAGA has become a neo-fascist movement (see our prior discussion of fascism here). MAGA has no policy agenda to proactively assist anyone. Aside from mere fantasy, there are no MAGA plans to create jobs, increase wages, provide health care, improve the environment, or make Americans safer. Rather, MAGA policies are purely negative, seeking to bring misfortune and suffering to immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and “liberals” who support social and economic equity. The purpose of MAGA is not to do good for anyone—including its non-college-educated white followers—but to obtain or retain authoritarian power for MAGA leaders and funders. It is, by definition, evil.

And yet, MAGA has become so commonplace that something like 35 or 40 percent of American voters wouldn’t have a second thought about supporting that movement, despite its obvious disregard for democracy and the rule of law. The way that many Americans thoughtlessly follow MAGA brings to mind the way pre-WWII Germans, Italians and Spaniards followed their fascist leaders.

This is what’s so interesting about the conspiracy prosecution in Georgia: its breadth. Named defendants run the gamut from former President Trump down to some pretty low-level MAGA leaders. And the unindicted co-conspirators include even more grassroots MAGA activists. It seems clear that most of these people gave no thought to the possibility that they were committing crimes for which they might be prosecuted. They hardly felt like they were doing anything wrong and never engaged in critical thinking about it. Like so many evildoers, they were, essentially, “just following orders.”

What makes the Georgia prosecutions particularly important is that they will—hopefully—suggest to MAGA activists and leaders that they must at least think twice before engaging in future illegal conspiracies. This serves the same purpose as the more than one-thousand prosecutions of people who invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The point of that project by the Justice Department is not so much to punish individual criminals but to dissuade MAGA followers from engaging in future violence. Both the Georgia and January 6 prosecutions are largely about deterrence against banality.