“Manichaeans” was a favorite derogatory way to describe GOP President George. W. Bush and his Iraq war supporters in the mid-2000s. The term referred to the followers of Mani, a third-century Persian prophet who founded a highly successful religious movement that rivaled Christianity. Mani was a dualist who believed that the world was divided between the forces of light and good, and the forces of darkness and evil, both locked in a never-ending conflict. Christians, who believe that despite the existence of evil, God and his creation are good, deemed Manichaeism heresy.
On Jan. 30, 2002, not long after 9/11, Bush gave a speech in which he described the war on terror and the looming Iraq war as “a conflict between good and evil. There is no middle ground — like none. The people we fight are evil people.” The day before, in his State of the Union address, Bush had designated Iraq, together with Iran and North Korea, the “Axis of Evil.”
With the speed of a wildfire, the word “Manichaean” spread through the liberal punditry to characterize Bush’s supposedly simplistic and intellectually challenged analysis. Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer promptly ground out a 2004 book about Bush, “The President of Good and Evil.” On a book-tour stop at UCLA, Singer accused the president of engaging in a “childish reading of moral rules.” Singer traced that notion to Bush’s evangelical Christian beliefs, arguing that evangelicals had never managed to eradicate the Manichaean heresy from their primitive mind-sets.
Vox founder Ezra Klein, then a Washington Post columnist, published an online essay in the American Prospect titled “The Manichean War.” President Carter’s former national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, used the phrase “Manichaean paranoia” in 2007 with reference to Bush when he was interviewed by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” Veteran journalist Glenn Greenwald capped it all off with a 2008 book, “A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.” The book was all about Bush’s “simplistic … Manichaean” world view.
The idea was that truly sophisticated thinkers — which is the way liberal pundits like to view themselves — have a far more nuanced view, seeing the world not in terms of darkness and light but in terms of infinite shades of gray. The words “complexity” and “ambiguity” were said to be more intelligent than “good” and “evil” to describe moral questions and assess moral character — more “Game of Thrones” rather than “Lord of the Rings.” Never mind that, for all the fact that the Iraq war turned out to be a huge mistake, there might actually be some forces out there that could be accurately described as genuine forces of evil — such as, say, Islamic State.
Then 2016 arrived, and with it, Donald Trump’s winning run for the White House. Suddenly the words “complexity” and “ambiguity” — not to mention “nuanced” — disappeared from the vocabularies of the so-called sophisticates, washed away in the swirling high tide of the return of that simplistic word: “evil.”
Here is Brian Beutler, writing for the New Republic on Nov. 10, two days after the election: “The depth of potential horrors in Donald Trump’s presidency is nearly bottomless.” The headline on Beutler’s essay reads: “Donald Trump and the Evil of Banality.”
A couple of weeks earlier, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin had written: “It matters not at all whether there is some diagnosable problem with Trump or whether he is simply evil.” There’s that e-word again.
At Politico, Joe Keohane wrote in April 2016 about “the sad mind and evil media genius behind @realDonaldTrump.” Steve King sputtered this in an article titled “Donald Trump’s Undeniable Evil” for Death and Taxes magazine: “He is a cancerous tumor devoid of any redeemable quality, slowly infecting and corrupting everyone and everything around him.” Billionaire entertainment mogul Barry Diller told CNBC that Trump’s candidacy was an “evil miracle.” No nuance there.
Since the inauguration, the “sinister president” theme is only metastasizing: “Narcissist or evil genius?” asked the National Catholic Reporter. “Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin: The plutocratic evil twins” opined the headline on a Paul Rosenberg piece in Salon.
Strange, isn’t it, that when the tables are turned, the liberal pushers of moral ambiguity are as absolutist as any fundamentalist preacher associated with George W. Bush? There’s a lesson or two to be learned here. With all due respect to Brzezinski, the right doesn’t have a lock on paranoia. And dualism — our side good, your side evil — is actually baked into human nature and doesn’t really have much to do with how smart you are or how many shades of moral gray you think you can discern. Whenever you let loose your moral indignation at high decibel, someone somewhere will be laughing.
So who are the Manichaeans now?
Washington-based Charlotte Allen writes about social and cultural issues.