What if Donald Trump is the Lesser Evil?

Lesser evilism is always a trope in an election campaign. In part because it reflects a very real reality: there are candidates who are worse against whom we must mobilize, even to the point of casting a ballot in favor of an only slightly less odious candidate. But here’s the problem with that argument: human nature being what it is, that argument can also be used on behalf of the truly odious. As our friend Victor Klemperer discovered in Nazi Germany. Writing in his diary in April 1935:

Frau Wilbrandt told us: in Munich people complain out loud when Hitler or Goebbels appear on film. But even she—economist! close to the Social Democrats!—says: “Will there not be something even worse, if Hitler is overthrown, an even worse Bolshevism?” (That keeps him where he is again and again.)

Even his Jewish friends, Klemperer noted in December 1934, were saying, “Rather Hitler than someone worse!”

15 Comments

  1. yastreblyansky December 10, 2015 at 12:26 pm | #

    I’ll bet Feldmarschall von Hindenburg would have happily (privately) called Hitler a short-fingered vulgarian, too.

  2. zenner41 December 10, 2015 at 12:33 pm | #

    It’s certainly the case that fear is often (mostly?) the most powerful motivating force in politics. The present situation in the U.S. is a vivid illustration of that. But the most powerful fears are fears of what is not presently real but *might* be, because there is no limit to human imagination. We can imagine all sorts of monsters and work up powerful terrors because of that. There hasn’t been an incident anywhere near as destructive as 9/11 yet, but people fearing “Islam” as an imaginary threat can always conjure one up. “What if ‘they’ did such-and-such; that’s why we have to keep ‘them’ out!”

    So much politics revolves around imagining the country as a territory which can be surrounded with an impregnable wall (cue Trump) that keeps all the “good” people in and the “bad” people out. Then all we have to do is identify the “bad” people still inside the territory and eject them.

    The trouble is, of course, that “bad influences” can very easily jump over any wall, thanks to world-wide electronic communications, including the Internet. The next step in xenophobia will be louder and louder calls for somehow censoring the Internet to eliminate “terrorist” influences.

  3. The Raven December 10, 2015 at 12:45 pm | #

    Ted Cruz. But as as a nameless friend of economist Rob Reich observes, a Cruz/Trump ticket is not impossible.

  4. jbdelong December 10, 2015 at 1:52 pm | #

    The right way to use that lesser evil argument is: It is better to ally with Stalin than Hitler.

    To reject the “lesser evil” argument because it leads one to support people who are truly odious… leads Churchill and Roosevelt not to extend Lend Lease to Russia in 1942 or to launch the expensive atrocity of the bomber offensive to pull some of the Nazi Reich’s artillery barrels back from Russia pointing east to Germany pointing skywards–and might well have created a much-worse world than we live in today.

    Should Donald Trump indeed be the lesser evil, then vote for Donald Trump. Frau Wilbrandt’s error lay not in embracing the lesser evil but in thinking that not Hitler but Thaelmann was the greater evil…

    Brad DeLong

    • nihil obstet December 12, 2015 at 10:35 am | #

      To reject the “lesser evil” argument because it leads one to support people who are truly odious…

      I think this glosses over the crucial question of supporting people doing what? My experience with those arguing “lesser evil” is that they appear to rank people on some sort of personal existential evil scale that I have trouble seeing, or even understanding. Lend lease to Stalin, or rather to the Soviet war effort, was used to fight the wartime enemy. Even though Stalin was an evil man, I don’t see enabling defeat of Germany in WWII as largely supporting Stalin.

      A genuine lesser evil argument would look at supporting actions that are actually evil. For example, if the Nazis occupy your town and announce that they will take and kill hostages until the townspeople round up and surrender all the Jews, do you support the roundup since it will happen anyway and it will save townspeople’s lives? That’s evil, but it’s lesser evil. Do you do it?

      The evil people rather than evil action argument gets us into supporting Pinochet and Noriega (less evil than leftists!), Saddam Hussein (against those evil Iranians), and so on.

      There are more than two choices, even if the other choices probably appear ineffectual in the immediate future.

      • LFC December 13, 2015 at 1:25 am | #

        @nihil obstet
        But the O(riginal) P(ost) is written in terms of people not actions. So B. DeLong’s comment in reply is focused on people.

        Personally I have trouble seeing Corey’s point as presented in the post. The argument seems to be that because certain ‘enlightened’ (or liberal or whatever) people in Germany thought Hitler was a lesser evil than the Bolsheviks, lesser-evilism is a dangerous trope. That makes little sense: the problem in the example is the bad judgment exhibited by those people who thought Hitler was the lesser evil in 1934-35. That’s not an indictment of the idea of lesser-evilism, rather it’s an indictment of how that idea was being applied in this particular case.

        There might well be an argument to be made against the idea of lesser-evilism, but I don’t think the OP is it.

        • nihil obstet December 13, 2015 at 11:49 am | #

          But the O(riginal) P(ost) is written in terms of people not actions. So B. DeLong’s comment in reply is focused on people.

          We may be classifying situations according to such different criteria that discussion is difficult. I don’t see Lend Lease and the bomber offensive as being focused on people.

          Unless we have some evidence and decision rules on which to base our judgment of the lesser evil, it’s a concept that enables us to quell some potentially important moral qualms. “Yes, he may be evil, but just look at the other guy!” What I’m seeing in American politics of the last 30 years or so is an embrace of evil on the grounds that the other tribe is more evil.

  5. gstally December 10, 2015 at 9:22 pm | #

    Well this is another reason why I’m glad I’m not a republican. I don’t see your point on this, Trump isn’t Hitler and it’s not him or “something” else more evil. I don’t see him as evil, or at least I haven’t seen anything that would land him in such a category, not even close. Also, Trumps political tactics regarding muslims are going to be mild compared with what one will likely see over the next few decades, which obviously isnt offered as an excuse not does that mean I in any way support it. Something I for some reason feel compelled to say, with no little distaste to this climate. I don’t know if he’s serious or not. I haven’t even bothered with the debates, I don’t see any real reason to follow any of this closely until about four months in. I don’t think there’s any “lesser evil” at this point, I honestly do not think there exist any serious difference between Trump or Hillary or Obama or Kerry or Dole or Bush on critical issues. I will say that you have everyone on the right, and much of the left, flipping their shit over Trump and I don’t know what it is that’s russled their jimmies so but I’m exceedingly curious as to find out why. It’s not his anti-muslim rhetoric or the Hitler comparisons, that’s for damn sure.

    As to your earlier posts on this the answer is the same thing the left, the actual left, has always done with whoever is in power in America and that’s to do everything you can to curb the political excesses and extremes by making such options completely off the table. Chompsky isn’t going to be president anytime soon (he’s too busy minding his grandkid’s trust funds) nor will someone like Sontag. I take it as a rhetorical question? As always for the left its keep muddling through.

    Oh, and the terrorists that are at the top of my list are a select set of bankers and the only professors I want to see hanged three feet above the rest are, as always, economists. Fucking duh people.

  6. gstally December 10, 2015 at 9:51 pm | #

    While I’m reiterating things I’ve already said, the biggest threat to the continued peaceful coexistence of the muslim community is elements within the muslim community. People are not perfect, that should be one the obvious starting points in any political project. We cannot brainwash the masses into Compskeyites (God forbid) and large portions will react the way that they have in the past. How things continue to go down in Europe in the near future will obviously give a greater understanding of what to expect. This is the unavoidable starting point for the American Muslim’s community’s strategy in engaging America as a whole. I’m not saying that it’s on them, not at all, but I seriously believe that’s the truth of the matter. I also sincerely believe they are doing just that and have been for some time. I am unsure if it will be enough. I’m not an expert on the fine particular details, I could be very wrong and I hope I am. Hopefully things will unfold positively. KMT.

    • Will G-R December 11, 2015 at 10:31 am | #

      “the biggest threat to the continued peaceful coexistence of the muslim community is elements within the muslim community”

      Am I missing something here? Without trying to deny anybody’s political agency, it would be utterly pig-ignorant of basic geopolitical history to interpret the recent prominence of Islamic fundamentalism without bowing to the critical role of Western imperial aggression in the Middle East. In particular, the West and its proxies have done an utterly fantastic job of smashing any independent secular political forces that could possibly serve as a meaningful counterweight to political Islam as a symbolic champion of Arab interests against those of the West, and even then, many of the most prominent anti-Western Islamic terrorist groups (e.g. al Qaeda, Daesh) are often rooted in former proxies gone rogue. In an ideal conversation, interpreting this as “elements within the Muslim community” would place one’s views on the “Trump” side of the “serious or Trump?” barrier.

      Aside from which, why the particular focus on Noam Chompsky <a href="http://i.imgur.com/A0e2sFW.jpg"%5Bsic%5D? It’s not just you, the entire subset of reactionary “clash of civilizations” pseudo-liberals seems to have recently elevated Chomsky into some sort of Emmanuel Goldstein figure. Is he just the only remotely leftist critic of Western imperialism they happen to have ever heard of or something?

      • Will G-R December 11, 2015 at 10:32 am | #

        Apparently I no can HTML today

  7. gstally December 10, 2015 at 9:56 pm | #

    Oh and Trump is the most interesting presidential candidate I’ve ever seen and I know of since Jennings.

  8. Raven Onthill December 11, 2015 at 1:28 am | #

    Seems to me the question is “Is Trump a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton?”

  9. Roqeuntin December 11, 2015 at 7:46 pm | #

    This is definitely, particularly in modern times, one of the most common defenses of National Socialism I hear. National Socialism was a necessary bulwark against Communist revolution and the threat of Soviet power. I’d also argue this is similar to how you are seeing so many far right political figures in Europe being rehabilitated now. I had this conversation with really good childhood friend of mine and the subject turned to Russia (as it often does when I’m involved), he brought up the Polish officers, 30,000 or so, that Stalin had killed out in the woods. He mentioned knowing someone who had some kind of personal, familial connection to it. I

    I told him to Google Oskar Dirlewanger and his actions during the Warsaw uprising. Why don’t you see anyone complaining about him anymore?

    It isn’t just that. I worked with a Polish girl, a very nice, first generation immigrant. As typical of those who were expats from Eastern Bloc countries she had a faith in neoliberal capitalism which you can’t even find among the right in the US. In passing once she mentioned that her grandfather had a pretty positive opinion of the Nazis during the occupation, that they were refined and cultured, that they were treated well and respectfully. Maybe Christopher Waltz in Inglorious Basterds was a pretty accurate caricature… Sometimes you just realize how much of history is ideology, how malleable the whole story is, how much it changes depending on who is telling it.

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