Righting America

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Is Donald Trump the Embodiment of Evil?: A Response To My Critics | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

A sepia-toned profile picture of President Donald Trump with mouth gaping in a yell. Behind his picture is a mishmash of symbols that metaphor the profanities spewing from his mouth.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by David Becker/Getty Images. Via Slate.com.

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, is the focus of this interview. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon. 

Some readers of my book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, are claiming that I have committed rhetorical malfeasance by claiming Donald Trump is evil. Interestingly, these critics agree on most or all of the following: 

  • Trump is a danger to democracy 
  • Trump is a serial liar 
  • Trump is a conman
  • Trump is a cruel, insulting, mocking bully
  • Trump is a philanderer 
  • Trump has, in the last six years, broken nearly all of the Ten Commandments 

And yet, these critics still insist that I have overstated my case by claiming Trump is evil.

I have to say that I am uneasy with the fact that the focus on this claim has led critics to give short shrift to the biblical, philosophical, and rhetorical arguments I make. That said, I wish to respond to the notion that I have been wrong-minded to call Donald Trump “the incarnation of evil.” 

At the outset, it’s important to note that I have not depicted Trump as some sort of mythical supernatural manifestation of Satan – a cosmic figure. The ability to overrate and embellish Trump resides with those evangelical preachers who early in 2016 insisted that Trump was “God’s anointed.” I am using “evil” in a more human, incarnational, garden-variety way. 

I should note that at no point in my writing have I been unaware of the serious opposition to the use of the word “evil” that rises from theological scholars, psychiatrists, and rhetorical scholars. Terry Eagleton argues the use of the word “evil” serves “to shut down thought.”  The word “evil” suggests a blanket condemnation that precludes the necessity of investigating what lies behind the atrocious rhetoric and actions of Trump. 

Admitting the truth value of that statement, I believe that I was not content to simply label Trump as evil. I was looking for what was behind his atrocious words and actions. 

More than this, and at every word that I plastered on the pages of my book, I was aware of the reticence that rhetorical scholars have always felt at indicting a speaker personally. Yes, my own discipline of rhetoric has historically advised analytical restraint in subjecting a speaker’s person to rhetorical investigation. This is known as the Wizard of Oz Rule. Joshua Gunn suggests that the critical distance afforded by the analyses of personae, genres, and styles enables a critic to make depersonalized, ethical observations.

There’s the possibility that I should have confined my critique to Trump’s “perspective,” instead of Trump’s person. I blew through this stop sign as if I was drag racing in a 1968 Camaro, because I felt that it was an ethical necessity to name Trump as something no other American president had ever been called: evil. I stand by that assessment in the face of my critics. 

And the fact is that rhetorical scholars have already served as the canaries in the coal mine when it came to Trump. Like prophets of the Old Testament, these diligent scholars have repeatedly warned of the dangers of Trump’s rhetorical strategies: 

There’s not a single good reason for disputing any of these rhetorical markers of Donald Trump. This is the primary reason I gathered all these critiques into one tropological rotten barrel of apples and extended these assertions to a basic claim: Donald Trump is a secular revivalist, an evangelical preacher who traffics in evil, flaunts evil, and makes evil appear good. As Isaiah lamented, “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5.20) I argue that an embodied evil lies at the heart of Trump’s personhood. 

I go beyond the critiques of rhetorical scholars to claim that there has never been a president that acted and spoke in terms that can be described as so completely saturated by evil. Trump’s persona and person are the same. As Gunn has asserted, “Trump on the stump is all there is—that there is nothing more to Trump than his spectacle. As co-creators of popular perception, this spectacle includes us, too.” In short, I think that judgments of Trump’s character (ethos) are unavoidable. This makes my case a study in the Aristotelian mode of proof known as ethos. 

At no point do I feel free from the truthful conclusion of rhetorical scholar Roderick Hart that Trump is us and we are Trump. We are all preachers with unclean lips and we live in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Our only possible redemption is to accept God’s invitation: “Come let us argue it out together.” 

Is Trump a mere bully? Is he a common conman, and if so, is he P. T. Barnum or Bernie Madoff? Trump is a serial liar. Is that indictment alone capable of making the indictment that he is evil stick? I concluded yes. After reading careful and helpful reviews of my book, I still conclude that Trump talks evil, spreads evil, and is, therefore, evil.  (Here’s our interview with Rod Kennedy about the writing of Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy. And for a review of his book by one of the critics, see here.)