Tag Archives: Hitler

I Guess It Can Happen Here–In Fact, It’s Beginning

The reports from Portland have been more than frightening.

Armed men in unmarked camouflage uniforms have been jumping out of unmarked vans and arresting–kidnapping might be a more accurate word–peaceful protesters.  Thus far, they have subsequently been letting them go, but only after a demonstration evidently intended to terrify and disorient.

Trump insists that he is sending “troops” to Portland to “help” local officials quell violence. Presumably, he is signaling to his cultish base that he’s a “strong leader”able to take on (nonexistent) violence in America’s cities, perpetrated by “those people”–and not so incidentally, distracting from the mounting death toll caused by his mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There has been considerable blowback.

Local officials insist that they can handle any incidents arising from the protests–and note that the activities were subsiding until the appearance of these storm troopers. Portland’s mayor has demanded that he withdraw these forces, evidently part of Homeland Security. The Governor of Oregon has demanded that he withdraw them. The Oregon Attorney General and the ACLU have sued. 

The House Judiciary Committee issued a statement questioning the legal basis for this use of force.

Frankly, it is not at all clear that the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary are authorized to deploy federal law enforcement officers in this manner. The Attorney General of the United States does not have unfettered authority to direct thousands of federal law enforcement personnel to arrest and detain American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. The Acting Secretary appears to be relying on an ill-conceived executive order meant to protect historic statues and monuments as justification for arresting American citizens in the dead of night. The Administration’s insistence on deploying these forces over the objections of state and local authorities suggest that these tactics have little to do with public safety, but more to do with political gamesmanship.

The blowback has even included self-identified moms, wearing yellow shirts, helmets and masks. Reportedly, several hundred women, calling themselves the Wall of Moms, formed chains between the officers and the protesters. 

This resistance–and the very negative press coverage–has evidently not deterred the administration. According to Huffington Post, 

The Trump administration is preparing to roll out a plan this week to send military-style federal assault squads already in Portland, Oregon, into other cities, warned White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who only named locations with Democratic mayors.

Attorney General William Barr is “weighing in on that” with acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, Meadows said Sunday on Fox News.

“You’ll see something rolled out this week, as we start to go in and make sure that the communities — whether it’s Chicago or Portland or Milwaukee or someplace across the heartland — we need to make sure their communities are safe,” he added.

All three cities named are run by Democrats.

President Donald Trump also indicated that federal squads would likely target cities run by the party that opposes him. He said on “Fox News Sunday” that “violence” was on the increase in “Democrat-run cities.”

Yesterday, there were reports of similar activities in Columbus, Ohio.

This is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s SA.

The SA — Sturmabteilung, meaning ‘assault division’ — also known as the Brownshirts or Storm Troopers, was a violent paramilitary group attached to the Nazi Party in pre-World War Two Germany.the SA functioned as a ‘security’ force at Nazi rallies and meetings, using threats and outright violence to secure votes and overcome Hitler’s political enemies.

The Germans who objected were obviously unable to mount an effective resistance to the use of extra-legal thugs to subdue Hitler’s political enemies. 

 Americans have long believed “it can’t happen here.” We’re now testing that belief.

Demagoguery

The Washington Spectator arrives via my snail-mail (many thanks to Gerald Stinson!), so I can’t link to the article, but the most recent version contained a fascinating essay by one Patricia Roberts-Miller, who is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.

She begins by acknowledging a recurring question posed by most sane Americans: why in the world hasn’t Trump’s obvious incompetence, constant lying and childish language and behavior undercut his standing with his base?

One answer to that question–an answer that research continues to confirm–is that the base shares his racism/White nationalism, and for his base, that animus outweighs everything else. But Roberts-Miller provides a different–albeit not inconsistent–analysis, involving the language of demagoguery.

She cites to a rhetoric scholar who analyzed Hitler’s use of language and characterized it as a “relentless repetition” of the “bastardization of religious thought.” The “religious ways of thinking” that lent themselves to bastardization included identification of a common enemy, allied with scapegoating and projection.

Demagoguery, she points out, “displaces policy argumentation with praise of “us” and condemnation of “them.”

Roberts-Miller also says we should not be surprised by Evangelical Christian support for Trump, since conservative Christian Germans overwhelmingly supported Hitler and conservative Christian Americans previously supported slavery, segregation and lynching.

Although she takes care to say that Trump isn’t Hitler, she admits the parallels are troubling. Hitler railed against a socialist Parliament, internationalism (what we would call globalism), the presence of aliens, rampant immigration, liberalism and the liberal media (which he claimed was “stabbing him in the back”).

And of course, he promised to “make Germany great again.”

Roberts-Miller says that Trump’s use of demagogic rhetoric is less important than the fact that his “rise to power was fueled by a demagoguery that reflected the racist, xenophobic, misogynist and authoritarian values” of today’s iteration of the GOP. As she notes, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles; he just came right out and said shocking things–“and the GOP media machine didn’t condemn him for it. They justified it, promoted it, and repeated it.”

So here’s where we are in today’s America. In a country and an era where the structures of democracy no longer work, we are governed–thanks to vote suppression, gerrymandering, and the current operation of the Electoral College–by a minority of our fellow citizens who subscribe to a set of pernicious beliefs and act out of a set of visceral resentments that are inimical both to America’s founding values and to human rights. Rather than finding Trump’s inarticulate use of language bizarre and repulsive, his language actually speaks to them. It reinforces their sense of grievance and their belief in their own victimization.

We’re getting a master class in demagoguery.

It Can Happen Here

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein recently reviewed two books on Nazi Germany for the New York Review of Books.   (It was a timely review; even Godwin of “Godwin’s law” fame is on record saying that comparisons of contemporary events to the rise of Hitler may be appropriate.)

As Sunstein notes, the accounts of the Nazi period with which we are familiar seem barely imaginable. They portray a nation so depraved–so indifferent to evil–that we think it can’t happen here. The books he reviews–including Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished–suggest otherwise.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Mayer’s book focused on the lives and experiences of ordinary Germans–people who, like ordinary Americans today, found themselves living through events they had little individual power to affect. That focus was, Sunstein writes, a “jarring contrast” to Sebastian Haffner’s “devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler.” Haffner

objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.”

Trump’s grudging (and incomplete) retreat in the face of the public outrage against separating children from their parents underscores the validity of Haffner’s point. In a different way, so does Mayer’s book.

Mayer interviewed ten people who had been members of the Nazi party; those interviews took place over a considerable time-period, and were friendly rather than confrontational. Mayer concluded that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

Mayer’s interviewees spoke of Hitler much as the GOP “base” speaks of Trump; the rhetorical similarities are chilling.

And what of “the final solution”?

Mayer did not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism with any of his subjects, but after a few meetings, each of them did so on his own, and they returned to it constantly. When the local synagogue was burned in 1938, most of the community was under only one obligation: “not to interfere.” Eventually Mayer showed his subjects the local newspaper from November 11, 1938, which contained a report: “In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” None of them remembered seeing it, or indeed anything like it.

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

Fake news. Alternative facts. “Those people.” The incremental nature of the Nazi takeover. The daily distractions that allowed ordinary people to become habituated to the unthinkable. It’s all terrifyingly familiar.

Read the whole essay.

 

Troubling Parallels

When Tuesday’s primary results led to speculation about a brokered GOP convention, Donald Trump predicted (threatened?) that an effort to deny him the nomination would be met with riots.

It is harder and harder to avoid the parallels between the improbable emergence of Donald Trump and the social and political conditions that enabled Hitler’s rise.

I’ve always appreciated Godwin’s Law. Facile or offhand comparisons of contemporary bad behavior to the holocaust–a period in human history that remains inexplicable to civilized beings–is profoundly insulting; the effect is to trivialize atrocities.

But as Godwin himself recently noted, admonitions to be careful with analogies to Hitler and the Nazis should not be taken to mean that those comparisons are never apt.

I have always wondered how Hitler gained power. Where were the good people? How did a civilized, cultured population breed a movement of vicious, violent racial “overlords”?

Like many other Jews, my antennae are especially sensitive to intolerance and bigotry–but I’m also aware that I am at risk of overreacting to thoughtless comments or to the existence of hate groups composed only of a few damaged individuals who don’t represent a broader threat.

Back in December, CNN ran a very thoughtful article asking the question: is Trump a fascist? The author, Peter Bergen, goes through the precursors to and characteristics of fascism: a sense that the nation faces a crisis beyond the reach of traditional political solutions; the asserted superiority of the leader’s gut instincts over abstract and universal reason; the belief of one group (here, working-class white men) that they are victims, and that their victimization justifies extreme actions; the need for authority to be exercised by “natural leaders” (always male), culminating in a national ruler who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.

Bergen finds the Trump phenomenon squarely meeting those criteria. But he points to one characteristic that Trump does not share– “the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will when they are devoted to the group’s success.”

There is no hint that Trump wishes to engage in or to foment violence against the enemies, such as immigrants, he has identified as undermining the American way of life.

That may have been true when it was written, but it is clearly not true now.No one who has watched Trump deliberately fomenting violence at his rallies can have any doubt.

When he urges supporters to punch protestors in the face, when he promises to pay the legal bills of those who rough up hecklers, when the violence becomes so threatening that at least one rally has to be called off, when he speaks longingly of the days when “political correctness” didn’t prevent silencing dissent by beating up the dissenters or worse–the parallels are too close, too obvious to ignore.

And those calls for violence have been escalating.

A few years ago, one of Trump’s ex-wives reportedly said that he kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand. At the time, I dismissed the accusation as the product of divorce bitterness, but I believe it now.

I keep reminding myself that the United States is not Germany, and the year 2016 is not 1933. The differences matter. But the question we all face is: what can people of good will do to prevent a contemporary replay of one of history’s most horrendous periods?