A PATIENT of mine recently pointed out that there was going to be a super moon that evening. He added that the last super moon had occurred in 1947, just as the world was recovering from the Second World War. “Lunacy returns,” I noted, wryly.

Like the lunar cycle, are we in fact entering into a new phase of world politics that in some ways resembles the events leading up to the Second World War but in other ways differs? The atrocities of the Second World War – including Germany’s concentration camps, Japan’s prisoner of war camps and Hiroshima – have made us acutely aware of the destructiveness, cruelty and evil that humankind is capable of towards our fellows. Despite the admonition following the Holocaust of “never again”, we have witnessed from afar subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Indonesia and elsewhere. Evil is not eradicated so easily.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, in her ground-breaking report on the 1963 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase the “banality of evil.” She was trying to understand the roots of evil and to explain the conundrum of a seemingly “ordinary” family man, Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews, gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and criminals under the Third Reich.

It is hard for most of us to imagine how anyone “ordinary”, with loving close relationships, could possibly be involved in such unthinkable cruelty towards other human beings. We tend to imagine that they must be “mad” or “bad”, just as we often explain the characters of dictators and tyrants who order or condone heinous crimes in the name of the state. But by relegating evil to the “mad” or the “bad” we are reducing it to an extraordinary aberration of nature caused by a few damaged individuals. This does not explain how whole cultures can go along with this or how groups become swept away in particular instances to commit atrocities. Surely if everyone who was involved in giving or carrying out orders was either “mad” or “bad”, we would be living in a world full of nutters and baddies. The troubling thing about evil deeds that are committed by large groups is that it is much harder to distance ourselves and we are faced with the possibility that this could be “us”.

Eichmann is such an interesting case because, like other perpetrators, he seems to have one foot in our “normal” world and the other in the world of evil, ie the concentration camps, in which everyday norms are turned upside down. This is what is so mysterious and elusive about trying to understand evil; how can people commit atrocities and still live what seem to be a normal lives? If we look closely at the evil deeds committed by large groups they often arise out of seemingly ordinary circumstances or a juxtaposition of events that suddenly tips over into something horrific.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was able to organise mass deportations of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps because he lacked empathy with others, he was unable to put himself in others’ shoes and ultimately through a failure of thought. For Arendt, thinking means the imaginative capacity to observe one’s actions and their impact on others. In her terms, in order to think, one must first recognise the other as a person. Arendt’s criticism of Eichmann was that he was not able to think of his victims as people. And this is the hallmark of evil, when another person becomes a thing, or, in Kant’s terms, a means towards an end, rather than a person and an end in himself.

Eichmann, along with many other perpetrators, such as Comrade Duch, who headed the notorious Khmer Rouge secret service prison S-21, renowned for the torture and killing of up to 20,000 alleged enemies of the state, claimed they were following orders. This was not simply an empty excuse but a chilling confession. Being dutiful for these men, within their cultures, was one of the most revered and important attributes a man could have. It conferred honour, integrity, loyalty to a higher authority, and was highly rewarded. Similarly, at least in the case of Eichmann, he was also a dutiful husband and father. What was of paramount importance was doing one’s duty no matter what, even when it meant overriding one’s conscience. The individual is secondary to the credo, the belief system, and this is what gives life meaning. So, for these men, as we can see in extreme fundamentalist sects like Isis today, loving one’s own family while ruthlessly killing other families does not pose a conflict if it is in the service of a higher belief.

What is all too human in Eichmann’s behaviour is his fundamental need to be loved, admired, to belong to a powerful group and not to be isolated or alienated from the group. This is a basic need we are all born with and motivates us to behave according to group norms and ideals. It is as true for someone growing up in a churchgoing family as for someone growing up in a Mafia family – only the norms and ideals take on different meanings. The group and its ideals not only shape individual identity but are also fluid and can change over time or under different circumstances. This means that when we try to understand how someone can commit an atrocity, it is not only important to consider their individual psychology but to understand the historical and social contexts within which they are living and the prevailing political ideology.

Like individuals, groups also need to feel respected and potent. When groups become disempowered and humiliated, this can have very damaging consequences. After the First World War and Germany’s fall from power, many Germans felt humiliated and denigrated. Only another war held out the prospect of regaining power and respect. Echoes of the 1930s abound in the recent seismic wave of disaffected groups erupting with Brexit and with Trump’s election, mirrored by the rise of populism throughout Europe as well as South America, the Philippines, and Asia. The common complaint voiced by these various groups, regardless of place, is that they feel globalisation has left them behind, cheating them of the futures they had hoped for.

The most common way of strengthening group identity is to find another group to demonise, who become the repository of all that is bad and corrupt. Psychologically, this process is called externalisation or splitting; what is experienced as good is split from the bad and the bad is then projected onto the other group. This is a defence mechanism that allows the group to preserve an internal state of goodness and to strengthen its identity, especially in the face of extreme frustration or threat. The “other” is then perceived as bad, internal ambiguity is obliterated and a black-and-white world established.

The political divisions that have become evident in both Brexit and in Trump’s election are symptomatic of national identity crises and seem to be reverberating with the rise of populist parties across Europe. The fantasy of expelling all that is “foreign” or “other” in order to maintain internal purity and unification is powerful and worrying.

In the case of Brexit, the finger has been pointed at the EU. Blame for local ills has shifted from the UK Government to the EU parliamentary system. The real demon, according to Brexit, is not the UK plutocracy, it is the restrictions inherent in being a member of an international club – having faceless “others” deciding our future. The problematic “other” is no longer within our borders but is threatening to control us from outside – just as the flood of immigrants has been perceived as overwhelming us and starving us of our own resources. The underlying unconscious narrative is that, by externalising our own conflict, we can restore unity within the UK and return to the long-lost glory of our past. This is a regressive fantasy to recreate the narcissism of our early childhood.

In his presidential campaign, Trump dramatically externalised the conflicts within the US onto foreigners; Mexicans and Muslims were singled out as especially pernicious and criminal. Trump’s solution to build a wall across the Mexican border is a concrete manifestation of a paranoid solution to keep out what is contaminating and bad. In criticising the law and state institutions for being corrupt and failing to protect Americans, Trump has also cleverly positioned himself as being, by contrast, trustworthy and above the law. The parallels with Hitler’s rise to power and his attack on the independent authority of state institutions come to mind.

Trump’s deep appeal has been his invincibility, as he boasted in his campaign: “I could shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” What a seductive statement for his disempowered followers, especially when they see a leader who promises to “Make America Great Again!”, and by proxy, restore their own sense of supremacy. Here again, is the narcissistic illusion that the group can return to being the centre of the world, if not the universe. But we are not in reality toddlers and we have seen too many examples of charismatic demagogues leading their countries into fascism and genocide.

The Brexit slogan also wants to “Make Britain Great Again!”, harking back to a post-Second World War Britain that had won the war; victory brought potency and hope, despite the horrific costs of war and the daunting task of recovery. But in order to “Make Britain Great Again!”, is there an implicit suggestion that this requires yet another war? Theresa May’s Conservative Party Conference speech was full of wartime memes and the impetus to band together and to remove foreigners only strengthened her bellicose tenor. At the same time, May’s newly appointed Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, promised to “flush out” British firms employing foreigners in order to ensure employment for the Brits. Not only pouring oil on the fires of xenophobia, May has also aggressively challenged Parliamentary right to authorise the implementation of article 50 and the recent High Court decision backing Parliament. She too appears defiant of state institutions when they inconveniently get in her way.

It is no coincidence that since Brexit and Trump’s victory, the incidence of racist and xenophobic hate attacks has soared in both countries while alt-right groups are gathering momentum. This is an example of the kind of banal thoughtlessness that can insidiously take root and become extreme; it is not simply hatred of others who are different, it is the creation of a sub-human category that opens the way to treating others as non-human. In the time leading up to the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu leaders labelled their enemies, the Tutsis, as “cockroaches”, of a different species, carrying dirt and disease. Classifying enemies as sub-human and contaminating, means that they can then be harmed and killed with impunity. This dehumanising process was powerfully evident in the language of the Weimar Republic describing Jews as “vermin” and accusing them of wanting to take over the world and to eradicate all other races – a mirror image of what in fact the Final Solution was meant to achieve. The racist and xenophobic attacks that we hear and see today are the first and most crucial step towards opening the door to evil.

But we no longer live in the 1930s and our world has changed in many important respects since then. While human nature and group behaviour have not changed, nor are they likely to, we have much more of a global memory and are far more conscious about the evils we have committed and are capable of than ever before in history. This is undoubtedly due in large part to the vastly increased amount of information and knowledge of world events that is accessible through the media. We also have much more knowledge about how atrocities, such as genocide, come about. We have clear warning signs to look out for and a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of evil. These are: 1) the process of externalisation and the demonisation of others, leading to the classification of other groups as sub-human; 2) the rise of nationalism fed by nostalgia for a glorified past; and 3) demagogic leaders who show contempt for state institutions and due process.

When these warning signs coincide, the red lights start flashing. Evil may have its roots in the banal and the thoughtless, but with a sleight of hand, it can transform our ordinary world into a living hell.

Dr Coline Covington is a psychoanalyst and author. Her new book, Everyday Evils: A Psychoanalytic View Of Evil And Morality is published by Routledge this month, £31.99