In describing the bureaucratic workings of Fascism, political theorist Hannah Arendt famously referred to “the banality of evil.” She was making reference to the workaday style of Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine, an apparatus of many ordinary parts employing ordinary people to carry out extraordinary horror. Such was exemplified by Adolph Eichmann, a man responsible for facilitating the killing of millions in extermination camps as if each death were simply that of a chicken in a slaughterhouse supply line. “I was just doing my job,” he blandly declared at his trial.
America has committed its own genocide in a less organized, but nonetheless effective, fashion; the weeks of protest unleashed by the seemingly nonchalant, hands-in-his-pockets murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin are in response to hundreds of years of systemic racism and cruelty. Hitler greatly admired our racism and speaking of lynching praised Americans as “the world’s foremost rope and lamppost artists.” His medically supervised Nazi eugenics program was modeled after our own, it’s worth noting.
At the moment, however, America’s special brand of evil is venality: the use of bribery. Emboldened by a President who makes no secret of his love of money, the entire mechanism of government has been transformed by corruption. From granting no-bid government contracts, propping up Wall Street with tax-payer money, deploying a self-serving pandemic response, and perverting election law, America is a greed machine into which corrupt influence and bribery are now completely enmeshed.
To be fair, the venality of evil did not begin with Donald Trump, though he’s raised it to a high art. Venality has always been an element of American culture, inherited from our slaving British forebearers, the world’s specialists in greed who have colonized, occupied or been at war with 172 of the world’s nations. America has assumed its own place of prominence in the world of bribery, however, particularly when it comes to the sale of military weapons and defense spending. Through its Citizen’s United decision, the Supreme Court has enshrined bribery as the centerpiece of campaign financing.
Corruption pervades our entire economy; ordinary folks have been stripped of their savings and the middle class is a shadow of its former self. One financial “crisis” after another – the savings and loan scandals of the 90s, the sub-prime mortgage rip-off of 2008, and now the Covid-19 economic recession – has steady reduced the wealth of 90% of Americans while vastly increasing the wealth of the upper 1%. Grabbing America’s Social Security funding is up next.
Our economic system has been jiggered; investments other than stock market bets are all but worthless. Those on fixed incomes earn virtually no interest on savings and government bonds yield next to nothing in income. The stock market no longer reflects either the health of individual companies or the American economy as a whole; it’s a slot machine programmed by Wall Street to fleece the individual investor.
When Trump asks China’s leader, as John Bolton reveals in his new book, to buy more farm products so that Trump can be reelected; tells Turkey’s autocrat Erdogan that the U.S. will drop corruption investigations into Turkish banks; asks a “favor” of Ukrainian President Zelensky in exchange for military equipment; these are all corrupt acts of venality. Now Trump’s Attorney General Barr is gutting the Justice Department.
Welcome to “The Art of the Venal.”