“Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with the good.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the end of World War II, there were 8 million Nazis in Germany, about 10 percent of the population. Millions more, whether from fear, ignorance, or true belief, had also given their consent to the evils of the Third Reich. Of those who had chosen noncooperation, most were either dead or gone, and the occupying Allied authorities believed that a program of “denazification” was necessary to awaken Germany from Hitler’s bad dream.
One of the Allied strategies was to make people attend documentary films before they could receive their food ration cards. The hope was to reshape indoctrinated minds with the facts. Years later, a German writer recalled the experience of sitting through death camp footage in a Frankfurt cinema:
“In the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film and stayed that way until the film was over. Today I think that that turned-away face was indeed the attitude of many millions; … The unfortunate people to which I belonged was … not interested in being shaken by events, in any ‘know thyself.’” [i]
That postwar Frankfurt screening could be a sad parable for my own country, where tens of millions continue to turn their faces away from reality. Forty percent of Americans still approve of Donald Trump. Sixty percent of Republicans believe his “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. And 345 Republican candidates for federal or statewide office continue to push the big lie despite zero evidence. At least 58% of them are expected to win.[ii]
In his absolutely indispensable handbook, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder notes that many of the democracies founded in the wake of two world wars collapsed when authoritarians (mis)used the electoral system to seize power and eliminate opposition. The relatively long history of American democracy suggests stability, but the future of our democracy suddenly seems terribly uncertain. As Snyder observes:
“Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningful free election for some time, but most did not.… No doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.” [iii]
Democracy is on the ballot next week, they say. But since it is hard for most Americans to conceive an absence before it happens, or grasp the immensity of the threat, I would state the emergency in more urgent terms: Tyranny is on the ballot! The barbarians are at our gates! Democracy is burning! The end is near.
If we act as if this were a normal election, where we choose between ordinary political parties based on habit, tribal preference, or the issue of the moment, then I tremble for my country. The GOP is no longer a mainstream party. It has become the vehicle of choice for racists, white supremacists, liars, thugs and criminals. It is trying to dismantle democracy by any means necessary.
Many traditional Republicans who have not yet left the party are surely uncomfortable with where the far-right has taken them, but the voices of conscience and truth remain disappointingly silent. Adam Kinzinger, one of the few Congressional Republicans to speak out, says it’s simply his duty to put country over party:
“By the way,” he said recently, “Liz [Cheney] and I are not courageous. There’s no strength in this. We’re just surrounded by cowards.”
I know we must be careful about throwing the word “Nazi” around. Although American neo-Nazis have a love affair with Trump, and some 50 current Republican candidates have been advertising on a website frequented by Nazi sympathizers, it would be inaccurate, unhistorical, and inflammatory to apply the term directly to Republicans.[iv] However, I do find some chilling affinities, which in a sane world would disqualify the GOP, in its current state, from any voter’s serious consideration. Let me offer a florilegium of various sources to make my point.
For those who wonder why people surrender their wills to charismatic leaders, Stephen Jaeger describes the “mindset of the followers that enables them to dream the master’s dreams, to create or acknowledge a higher world in which he lives, to be deaf to criticism, resist with aggression any attempt to undermine the idol, and long to live in that world themselves. It is a condition in which the mind is under a spell and in the grip of an uncritical awe that extends to selfless devotion and beyond, to self-sacrifice.”
We may be puzzled by the ardent devotion that attaches itself to demagogues and tyrants—even the repulsive ones—but Jaeger says the rewards seem worth it to their uncritical followers:
“Through him the troubles of the world will end; he will redeem from its dreariness a world threatened by disenchantment. He embodies renewal. He awakens extravagant hopes in the devotee, visions of happiness, heroism, divinity, the restoration of the spirit, and the realization of fantasies. The charismatic and the followers create and share a world in which the boundaries of reality become unclear. Dreams and impossible or unlikely enterprises appear realizable, the deepest hopes and desires appear attainable.” [v]
The Big Lie
Trump and his enablers have shown the effectiveness of the shameless lie told over and over. Say it enough times, and people will come to believe it. Hitler provided the cynical playbook for all his successors:
“All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be.… The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on those in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.” (Mein Kampf, 1925) [vi]
“Above all one must get rid of the idea that ideological concepts can satisfy the crowd. For the masses, knowledge is an unstable basis. What is stable is feeling, hatred.… What the masses need to feel is triumph in their own vigor.” (1926 speech) [vii]
Imagine what Hitler could have done with Twitter.
Contempt for Democracy
Once the Nazis were in power, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels explained how easy it was to use “the stupidity of democracy” for undemocratic ends. “It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes,” he said, “that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.” [viii]
Republicans hope to seize total control of the voting process across the United States, through gerrymandering, limited eligibility and access for voters, partisan supervision of vote counts, and the empowering of state legislatures to override unfavorable results. The Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin said it out loud last week: “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” [ix]
Authoritarian movements need to amputate dissenters from the body. This can be done through rhetorical dehumanization of opponents, physical intimidation of critics, imprisonment, or even murder. Right-wing violence in America is nowhere near its heyday under the Nazis, but it is real and it is growing. Threats against political office-holders and anyone “not like us” has increased alarmingly since Trump took control of the Republican party. Timothy Snyder says that this is a matter of cause and effect:
“What was novel in 2016 was a candidate who ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies and encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions. A protestor would first be greeted with boos, then with frenetic cries of ‘USA,’ and then be forced to leave the rally. At one campaign rally the candidate said, ‘There’s a remnant left over. Maybe get the remnant out. Get the remnant out.’ The crowd, taking its cue, then tried to root out other people who might be dissenters, all the while crying ‘USA.’ The candidate interjected, ‘Isn’t this more fun than a regular boring rally? To me, it’s fun.’ This kind of mob violence was meant to transform the political atmosphere, and it did.” [x]
In January, 1933, a German girl named Melita Maschmann was taken by her parents to watch a Nazi torchlight parade. Suddenly one of the marchers attacked a bystander, who apparently had shouted a criticism of the Nazis. The man fell to the ground, where his bloody face turned the snow red. Maschmann later recalled her excited reaction:
“The horror it inspired in me was almost imperceptibly spiced with an intoxicating joy. ‘We want to die for the flag,’ the torch-bearers had sung.… I was overcome with a burning desire to belong to these people for whom it was a matter of death and life.… I wanted to escape from my childish, narrow life and I wanted to attach myself to something that was great and fundamental.” [xi]
In 1933, the Nazi leaders were still making some effort to appear respectable, stoking political violence with their rhetoric while distancing themselves from the consequences. They needed to consolidate their power before showing their darkest colors. We have seen that in America as well, most recently in the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Nancy Pelosi, the third person in line for the Presidency. After years of dehumanizing and sometimes violent rhetoric against Speaker Pelosi, most Republicans have indignantly denied any responsibility for the consequences of their words. A deplorable few found the violence to be humorous.
Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, joked about the attack in a campaign appearance while 82-year-old Paul Pelosi was lying in the hospital with a skull fractured by his assailant’s hammer. Lake’s audience burst into laughter, and she did nothing to stop them in the name of human decency. When criticized for her tasteless insensitivity (I’m being kind here), she doubled down, claiming that her remark was taken out of context by “creative editing” which ignored her other remarks about security blah blah blah. “I never made light of the attack,” she insisted.
Well, you can judge for yourself. The following clip isolates her remark and the laughter it provoked. Whatever was said before and after cannot disguise the callousness of what she said, or the inhuman, howling amusement of her crowd. And yes, I did some “creative editing,” repeating, and finally slowing, the clip, giving us sufficient time, as the political mask slips for an instant, to contemplate the true face of democracy’s destroyers.
[i] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 57.
[iii] Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Crown, 2017), 28-29. This little book is a must-read for our times!
[v] Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West, C. Stephen Jaeger (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 23-24.
[vi] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 168.
[vii] Eric Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 23. Emphasis mine.
[viii] Evans, 451.
[x] Snyder, 45.
[xi] Evans, 313.