How 'Evil' Became a Conservative Buzzword

The left and right rely on different moral languages in the wake of tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting.

Mourners holding candles at a vigil following the Las Vegas shooting
Mourners attend a vigil in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

In the days following the Las Vegas shooting—as its horror has faded from news coverage behind revelations of wildfires and sexual assault and humanitarian disasters—two ideological scripts have emerged. Many conservatives have argued that the shooting is a sign of inherent evil in the world: President Trump, for example, described it as “an act of pure evil.” And a number of Republican politicians pushed back on the immediate calls for gun control, arguing that “you can’t regulate evil.”

Progressives, on the other hand, have blamed the violence on the government’s failure to regulate weapons. These different approaches seem to be more than a rhetorical sleight of hand or a way of escaping a tough policy conversation, and they extend beyond Las Vegas. Both groups have a specific framework for thinking about the role of chaos in politics, and the ability—or limits—of government to prevent bad things from happening. On both sides, there has been intense anger. And on both sides, there has been a grasping for moral language, for tools to fully explain and solve shocking violence.

In 2011, the Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote Political Evil, a book about the right way to morally conceptualize horrific acts. He wrote about conflicts in the Middle East, mass murder in Darfur, and debates over the term “genocide.” The way we think about evil, he argues, fundamentally shapes how we think about action. Wolfe is a self-described liberal, so he brings a specific point of view to the project. Still, I found our conversation about the language of evil in politics, which has been edited and condensed below, to be helpful in understanding the rhetoric used after tragedy.

Emma Green: You may have seen the comments a number of Republican legislators made in response to Las Vegas, arguing that “you can’t regulate evil.” What do you make of this?

Alan Wolfe: The Las Vegas killing, compared to the other things we’re seeing like hurricanes and forest fires, gets back to the most fundamental philosophical question about evil: whether there’s a natural or a human cause.

The others, clearly, are natural. You can’t really regulate them. You can’t stop the natural events that cause them. But with the Las Vegas killing, some kind of public policy could conceivably have had an effect there, because this was a human being picking up a weapon and shooting. So they’re different. I do sense that the defenders of gun ownership conflate them. They talk about the evil in Las Vegas as if it’s just another natural evil, that a crazy man just happened to buy a gun and happened to shoot these people.

Green: Are certain crimes so egregious that they pass a threshold of inexplicable, unimaginable, unpreventable evil?

Wolfe: Guns give people a feeling of power. I’m not here to psychoanalyze this guy, but that certainly seems to be the case in a lot of mass shootings. People say that these shooters are abnormal or sick or something, but I would hazard a generalization that their overwhelming feeling is powerlessness.

Now, by shooting people, they’ve taken command of that and called attention to themselves on the world stage. They die, but they die knowing that they’ll be in the newspaper the next day.

“My perception is that in the last 20 to 25 years, we’ve undergone a radical change in how we talk about evil.”

Green: To what extent is it the government’s job to “regulate evil”?

Wolfe: [Republican legislators who argue against regulating evil] don’t want a role for government in general, and so it fits naturally into their anti-government ideology not to try to regulate guns.

But the interesting question, for me, is if they’re so afraid of regulation, it conveys a hidden message that regulation actually works. Why would they fear it? They must, at some level, understand that regulation must work.

I don’t sense that right-wing politicians are afraid of regulation in all areas of life. Someone like Vice President Mike Pence is actually quite a regulator when it comes to things he considers sinful, like pornography. There’s a kind of selective regulation going on here.

Green: Do you think people with different ideological convictions might conceptualize evil differently? If so, how?

Wolfe: My perception is that in the last 20 to 25 years, we’ve undergone a radical change in how we talk about evil. I remember when former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power wrote her book about genocide and ethnic cleansing. One of the arguments in her book is that we are reluctant to use the word “evil.” She went through examples of politicians that would avoid the term as much as possible and find all kinds of synonyms for it.

Now, I would say we overuse the term “evil” in our public life. Trump, in particular, has used the term “evil” so much that he’s inflated all the meaning out of it. Once, we were reluctant to name it. Now, we’re naming it all the time. Either way, it is problematic. From where I sit, it’s much worse to overuse the term “evil” in places where it doesn’t belong. If you do that, you get into believing that anyone who disagrees with you might be evil, or that other countries are somehow bent on committing evil.

“It cheapens ‘evil’ to use it frivolously.”

Green: Do you think there’s a religious influence on the popularization of this term in public discourse?

Wolfe: It is a very religious term, but it’s not, in fact, a Christian term, which is one of the oddities of so many people who are self-professed Christians using the term.

St. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, fought battles with other religious figures in his time, like the Manicheans, who stressed evil so much that nothing was left to the proposition that God is good. The idea that God is good is a fundamental proposition of Christian theology.

There’s apparently a reluctance on the part of Christians to use the word “sin” in the public square—they’re much more likely to use the word “evil.” Using the word “sin” might remind Christians that this is something that can be overcome with God’s help, and there’s grace even for the biggest sinners if they find Jesus in their hearts. You can’t be irredeemably evil from a Christian theological perspective, because then there would be no salvation, and no role for Jesus. “Evil” is much more of a secular word than a religious word. “Sin” would be the religious word.

Green: So how do you think the word “evil” has entered the president’s vocabulary so prominently?

Wolfe: When I hear President Trump, I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian and Hitler opponent who was killed by the Nazis. One of the terms he’s famous for—a wonderful term—is “cheap grace.” Grace is something that has to be won through hard work and serious commitment to Christian ideals, but in the modern world, it’s given much too freely.

I would think of President Trump’s language as “cheap evil,” in the same way. It cheapens “evil” to use it frivolously.

Green: Why do people on the left have a hard time speaking about evil?

Wolfe: The left grew suspicious of moral language and moral talk as the right wing used moral language to condemn them on rights over abortion, gay marriage, and so on. The cultural left said, “We’ll lose any fight that’s about these deeper moral questions. We will talk instead about a woman’s right to choose.” It lacks the kind of larger moral language that the right was comfortable using. In my little corner, I would do whatever I could to help the left and liberals think more seriously about overcoming this allergy to moral language.