Holocaust Memorial Day: We must focus on the evil in Xinjiang, not the banality of Trump

Holocaust Memorial Day: We must focus on the evil in Xinjiang, not the banality of Trump

Catherine Neilan

19:34 27th January 2021

Back in 1963, Hannah Arendt sparked controversy when her verdict of senior Nazi Adolf Eichmann concluded that he was effectively an unthinking functionary, a buffoon, and that far from being the monster she had imagined, he embodied "the banality of evil".

The phrase still has the power to shock in the context of the six million people killed during the Holocaust. How can such an act ever be considered banal?

Of course the German emigre philosopher was not suggesting the act itself was banal. She knew only too well, having narrowly escaped being transported on one of Eichmann's trains to a concentration camp, the realities of the murderous regime he had helped prop up.

But what she was shocked by when she went to cover his trial in Jerusalem, some years out from the end of the war, was how he could have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people without understanding any of the responsibility of his act. He was simply fulfilling the orders of his higher ups, to the best of his ability. Whether it was people or tins of fruit being transported across Europe hardly seemed to matter.

Arendt did not perhaps expect Eichmann to show contrition, but she did expect him to show intent, as this would have given us a sense of his inner thoughts. But her report suggests the man was too one dimensional for such reflection. He was not an evil mastermind. Where she had expected to encounter the opposite of goodness, she simply found a void.

Donald Trump has been repeatedly labelled evil, particularly since he told supporters to "walk down to the Capitol" to "cheer" - or not ' congress as they verified the election result "because you'll never take back our country with weakness".

His repeated refusal to denounce white supremacists throughout his presidency is taken by many to be proof of his neo-Nazi leanings. In fact, I suspect he may share some of Eichmann's emptiness.

Trump rose to power through his birther claims about Barack Obama. But before that he had been a supporter of Bill Clinton. He may have stood by KKK friends and refused to denounce anti-semites. But his son in law is Jewish, his daughter has converted, as are much of his base. His recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and decision to relocate the US embassy there, suggests he allies himself more with Zionists than anti-semites. But he will court them when it suits.

Trump's evil stems not from the intent to harm people, but from his hunger for power and insatiable greed. He is not an ideologue: his chop and change foreign policy had no underlying principle, beyond that of enriching the US, and even that was only a proxy to enrich himself. Even his populist rhetoric was not heartfelt. He had no personal vested interest in building the wall or draining the swamp. They were just devices that he used to win power, in the same way he had gone back to the birther conspiracy repeatedly to build his fame.

The banality of evil that Arendt saw in Eichmann was what made the Nazi so insignificant: a grey man, instantly forgettable, a nothing.

Trump clearly is not forgettable. He is charismatic and that charisma inspired hundreds of people to storm the Capital. But he stands for nothing, and in that respect he represents a similar void. The intent is simply not there. But unlike Eichmann, Trump is not engaged in an act that will still have philosophers pondering 70 years later.

Trump is utterly banal. But he is the buffoon without the bureaucracy, and therefore his lack of direction makes him less of an immediate threat.

However, this Holocaust Memorial Day, there is an evil unfolding which the international community must address. The abuses against the Uighur people in Xinjiang are continuing with little more than verbal responses. A debate last week in the House of Commons saw MPs of all political persuasion call on the UK Government to denounce it as genocide, but ministers including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stressed it was out of their hands. Genocide is a legal, not political, determination that relies on an incredibly high bar, meaning it is often only applied retrospectively.

But while the international courts attempt to amass evidence, thousands of people are being transported across land, tortured, made to work in slave camps, and women are undergoing forced sterilization.

What is currently happening in North East China shares much with Nazi Germany's systematic and bureaucratic aim of eradicating the Jews. And our refusal to look too deeply at it - to consider where the things we buy are made, or how and whom they are produced by - means we share some of the burden of guilt. We cannot profess to believe that the Holocaust should "never again" happen while doing nothing to stop it.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the mob will always seek a strong man leader, and Trump certainly used this to his advantage.

But for all his pantomime show, democracy has prevailed and he is out of power for now. In the immediate future, our focus must be on the evil in Xinjiang, not the banality of Trump.

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Tags: Donald Trump Genocide Anti-Semitism Uighurs