In 1981-2, dating a woman who lived in Holland, I made several visits and got to know a group of young Dutch people whom I found warm, modest, engaging. One of them said to me one day, "The Germans are just like us, but with a piece missing."
I thought about assimilated Jews who had lived and worked with German neighbors for a lifetime, assuming that someone who greeted your wife on the street and loaned you a hammer if you needed one would never join a group of soldiers tasked with mass executions, or steal your home or furniture when you were sent to a camp. Millions of Germans thus turned out to be completely, radically different than Jewish friends and neighbors had thought.
There is of course a large literature on this. Christopher Browning has contributed the classic study of citizens, just trying to get by and to live their lives, tasked with tremendous evil, in Ordinary Men, about the very normal, not particularly young, ideological,strong or courageous men drafted into Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was assigned to shoot multitudes of Jews and bury them in pits before the Nazi regime hit on gas chambers as a more efficient solution. “[T]he battalion was the 'dregs' of the manpower pool available at that stage of the war. It was employed to kill Jews because it was the only kind of unit available for such behind-the-lines duties”. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men (New York: HarperPerennial 1992) p. 165 Browning found three types of people in Battalion 101, the “increasingly enthusiastic killers” who volunteered for “Jew hunts”; the largest group, which “performed as shooters and ghetto clearers when assigned but who did not seek opportunities to kill” and a “small group”, less than a fifth of the total, of “refusers and evaders”. p. 168 Even the largest group, the reluctant obedient, “refrained from killing,contrary to standing orders, when no one was monitoring their actions”. p. 168
Browning notes that ambition and careerism played a role, in that men who did not aspire to remain in the police, and who had other careers or jobs waiting for them, were somewhat more likely to avoid killing. On the other hand, he says that abject fear did not play a role, because in all of the twelve years of the Thousand Year Reich there is apparently not a single example of anyone being murdered for refusing to murder. “In the past forty-five years, no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case”. p. 170 Browning suggests that “authority” being thus somewhat attenuated, people participated in killing more from “conformity”. “Socialization through family, school and military service, as well as a whole array of rewards and punishments within society generally, reinforces and internalizes a tendency toward obedience”. pp. 172-173
Browning said that the Nazi regime included many “desk murderers whose role in the mass extermination was greatly facilitated by the bureaucratic nature of their participation... Segmented, routinized and depersonalized, the job of the bureaucrat or specialist—-whether it involved confiscating property, scheduling trains, drafting legislation, sending telegrams, or compiling lists—could be performed without confronting the reality of mass murder”. p. 162 The towering classic work of this genre is Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she said, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were ,and still are, terrible and terrifyingly normal....[T]his new kind of criminal commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong”. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York Penguin Books 1994) p. 276 Eichmann “acted fully within the framework of the kind of judgment required of him”. p. 293 “What we have demanded at these trials...is that human beings be capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgment, which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them”. pp. 294-295
Questioned in advance of his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann told the story of the time he was summoned to Auschwitz by Colonel Rudolf Hoess, because a Jewish acquaintance of his, Storfer of Vienna, was asking for him. “I said to myself: OK, this man has always behaved well, that is worth my while”. p.p. 50-51 “[W]e had a normal, human encounter. He told me all his grief and sorrow: I said: 'Well, my dear old friend, we certainly got it! What rotten luck!'” p. 51 He explained to Storfer that,under the rules, nobody could get out, “I can't get you out”. p. 51 Eichmann returned to Hoess and arranged for a choice assignment for his Jewish “friend”, that Storfer “keep the gravel paths in order with a broom...and that he has the right to sit down with his broom on one of the benches”. p. 51 Storfer “was very pleased, and we shook hands, and then he was given the broom and sat down on his bench”. p. 51 The punch-line according to Arendt: “Six weeks after this normal human encounter, Storfer was dead—-not gassed, apparently, but shot”. p. 51 Compare this to the dozens of Kennedy administration employees, who exchanged pleasantries with President Diem, or even gave him vague friendly warnings, knowing perfectly well he would be killed in a coup in weeks or hours. David Halberstam describes a conversation between Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and President Diem hours before the latter's death in an American-sponsored coup. Halberstam apparently did not know what came out later, that Lodge had actually been the architect of Diem's downfall. Diem: “Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know what is the attitude of the U.S.?” Lodge: “I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you”. Diem: “But you must have some general ideas.” Lodge: “You certainly have done your duty. As I told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country”. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York:Ballantine Books 1992), p. 290
“[T]he young police officer in charge of his mental and psychological well-being handed him Lolita for relaxation. After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant: 'Quite an unwholesome book,' he told his guard”. Arendt p. 49
Americans obediently executed civilians at No Gun Ri and My Lai, posed smiling atop heaps of Iraqi prisoners at Bagram, assisted in water-boarding at CIA “black” facilities around the world. Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, which greatly helped create the cult of the American soldier in the Good War as an independent,outspoken, good-hearted iconoclast, contains a rather shocking brief section in which three of the soldiers are ordered to assassinate a Nazi officer hiding on a French farm, and do so without a second thought—-neither the men themselves, nor Ambrose in recounting the episode, display any awareness that the cold-blooded execution of an unarmed man departs in any way from the norms of war. American journalists in Vietnam also said later that My Lai was business as usual, and that they mainly hadn't reported the killing of civilians or the bombing of hospitals because they lost, or never had, any particular awareness these were war crimes.
Attending New York City public schools in the 1960's, I felt very alienated in an environment in which mindless conformity was taught and mercilessly enforced, in which we read one or more of Animal Farm, 1984, and The Man Without a Country every year and then endured monologs about patriotism and Soviet evil. “Cupcake Land”, says Thomas Frank, “encourages no culture but that which increases property values; supports no learning but that which burnishes the brand; hears no opinions but those that will further fatten the cupcake elite; tolerates no rebellion but that expressed in haircuts and piercings and alternative rock”. Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books 2004) p. 49
Just as the "ordinary men" and the "band of brothers" were not very different than one another, neither were Heinrich Himmler and General Westmoreland. I am almost obsessed by the dark knowledge of humanity vouchsafed by Himmler's 1942 "Secret Speech" to member of the SS: " “Most of you must know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred, or a thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time remained decent fellows, that is what has made us so hard”. Westmoreland: "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. ... We value life and human dignity. They don't care about life and human dignity." Hearts and Minds (1974), directed by Peter Davis. Soldiers Michael Herr met in Vietnam called “dead Vietnamese 'believers'”. Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Avon Books 1977) p. 43 “Drone operators refer to children as 'fun-size terrorists' and liken killing them to 'cutting the grass before it grows too long,'”. Murtaza Hussain, “Former Drone Operators Say They Were 'Horrified' By Cruelty of Assassination Program”, The Intercept Nov. 19 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/11/19/former-drone-operators-say-they-were-horrified-by-cruelty-of-assassination-program/ “Stick monkeys” in trailers in the Nevada desert put “warheads on foreheads”. Hugh Gusterson, Drone (Cambridge: The MIT Press 2016) p. 30 This has inevitably resulted in a genre of “war porn”, such as “a clip of people's bodies being blown up into the air by a Predator strike set to Sugar Ray's song, 'I Just Want to Fly'”. pp. 63-64
This is not an article about Donald Trump, but about the people who voted for him, but he is their boy. To quote a single one of a myriad of examples, speaking of the suspect in the twin pressure cooker bombings on Chambers Street and in New Jersey, Trump said the suspect "“will probably [receive] amazing hospitalization. He will be taken care of by some of the best doctors in the world. He will be given a fully modern and updated hospital room. And he'll probably even have room service, the way our country is. And on top of all of that, he will be represented by an outstanding lawyer”. Pamela Engel, “TRUMP: 'Evil thug' suspected of bombing NYC will probably 'have room service' while in custody”, Business Insider http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-bombing-suspect-custody-2016-9 Trump's rants unpack in a fashion at once sinister and silly: he seems to be saying that the arrested man should have been shot like a dog rather than accepted into the American justice system, and anyway, forced to walk, bullet wounds and all, from his hospital room to the cafeteria for his dinner.
In a 1950 study, The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno and colleagues noted that authoritarian ideologies to have a “mass basis...must secure not only the frightened submission but the active cooperation of the vast majority of the people. Since by its very nature it favors the few at the expense of the many, it cannot possibly demonstrate that it will so improve the situation of most people that their real interests will be served. It must therefore make its major appeal, not to rational self-interest, but to emotional needs—-often to the most primitive and irational wishes and fears”. The people, collaborate in their own treatment as Kantian means, (the word “masses” radiates “meansian”) due to “long-established patterns of hopes and aspirations, fears and anxieties that dispose them to certain beliefs and make them resistant to others”. T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Random House 1950) p. 10 Adorno noted that “programs for democratic action....should not be limited to devices for manipulating people in such a way that they will behave more democratically, but ….should be devoted to increasing the kind of self-awareness and self-determination that makes any kind of manipulation impossible”. p. 10
An actual Kleagle of the Klan in the 1920's described his associates as “successful business and professional men, nearly all of them devout church members, married men with families, and just the sort of men to make up a prosperous community”. Kenneth Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee 1992) p. 240 Kenneth Jackson describes the Klan constituency as remarkably similar to Donald Trump's base: “Having fought his way above the lowest rungs of the financial ladder, the potential Klansman remained something less than a success. Life seemed to offer him little dignity or personal significance”, while he feared urban minorities might take his job and eat his lunch. p. 245
I already knew from experience that you never know who anyone really is in normal times, that most of the people you thought were friends will not stand up for you, or even go slightly out of their way, if you are in trouble. But its still a great and scary distance from that to the possibility that some of your "friends" and neighbors are willing and able to beat or kill you. We are seeing just the earliest harbingers of this in the West and in our own country: the murder of British MP Jo Cox during the Brexit campaign, the roughing up of protesters at Trump events. Days before the National Guard killed students at Kent State University in Ohio, on May 4, 1970, vice president Spiro Agnew said, “Next time a mob of students waving their non-negotiable demands starts pitching rocks and bricks at the student union, just imagine they're wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly.” We know that Agnew was on the phone with Rhodes just before the killings, but can only guess the substance of the conversation. Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution (New York: Random House 2016) p. 352 A few days later, on May 8, 1970, construction workers came down off of Wall Street buildings and badly beat anti-war protesters; we now know that Nixon aide Charles Colson had called the head of the trades union to request the violence. During World War I, mobs of soldiers and sailors, in uniform, beat Socialists and Suffragettes in New York City and Washington DC.
On a personal level, and it has been a long lifetime arc to realize this, the only quality I care about in another human is heart. Someone can have it and lack all other qualities and be my friend. In my lifetime, by contrast, I have been easily decoyed into thinking that because someone has a great haircut or listens to Mozart, that they must have heart. This is a non sequitur.
I grew up knowing that there was a huge subset of Americans who lacked heart; I was nine when four little girls were murdered in the bombing of an Alabama church, ten when the three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, sixteen when the Ohio National Guard shot, and the Manhattan construction workers beat and crippled people just like me. I always had the, as I now know, illusory idea that that element in America was contained, that it was possible to build a firewall around them. But now they have won the electoral vote and elected a President.
For twenty years I have been researching, and for five years writing, a huge, shapeless book on the history of the idea of free speech, and one necessary way station in my work has been the question who is fit to participate in free speech, and by extension, democracy. The brief answer is that the citizens of a republic need to be educated, courageous, humble, tolerant, compassionate, and optimistic. Our republic has not been making new people like that, not in fifty or seventy years. Montesquieu said, “In republican governments, all the power of education is required...Everything depends, in a republic, upon the citizens loving it; it is up to the educational system to see to that. For the children to have that love, there is only one sure way: that the fathers to feel it too”. Montesquieu, De L'Esprit des Lois vol. I (Paris: Garnier Flammarion 1979) p. 160 He did not mean blind jingoistic adoration, but love based on knowledge, respect, shared values. “Not much probity is required for a monarchy or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself. The force of law in the first, the upraised arm of the in the other, governs or contains everyone. But, in a democracy, an additional basis is necessary, which is virtue.” p. 144 James Russell Lowell said in 1890, "[E]ven democracies are a great while in finding out that everything may be left to the instincts of a free people except those instincts themselves".
All of which ends in my asking how to solve that problem, fill that vacuum. It isn't really a problem of better messaging for the Democratic Party, reaching out to the Rust Belt. It is instead: what do you do when a sufficiently large number of the citizens of a republic are no longer fit for a republic, and vote to end it.