As my post-election posts have rather clearly demonstrated, I have been shaken by the evidence that nearly half of Americans–after 4 years of Trump’s destructive circus and “in your face” bigotries– still support him.
My efforts to understand why have led me to characterize those voters–to treat them, as one commenter complained–as a bloc. It’s a valid observation/criticism, especially since I have a fairly long history of bemoaning a “we versus they” approach to statecraft–or really, to anything else.
Probably because I am Jewish, and old enough to remember the Second World War and the hideous revelations in its aftermath, I see dangers in both approaches. There is certainly danger in “writing off” Americans who voted for Trump, in failing to try, at least, to understand the how and why of their world-views. But those of us from families that perished in the Holocaust, or from tribes eradicated in other genocides, see a countervailing danger: failing to understand the depth, persistence and reality of racial and religious hatred.
In the wake of the election, I did what depressed academic types do. I researched the question why “nice Germans”–people who loved their children, helped their neighbors, maintained their properties, went to church–nevertheless actively supported the eradication of German Jews. One good resource was titled “Why Germans Supported Hitler,” and it is an enlightening read.
Even more on point was an article from Psychology Today. Some of its most pertinent observations:
The vast majority of active German participants and passive bystanders had quite normal and stable personalities before Hitler came to power. Their family lives were remarkably similar to those of average middle-class American families today. They had jobs to support their families, sent their children to school, donated to local charities and socialized with friends and family on weekends.
As the author notes, neither the active participants nor the passive bystanders showed signs of having psychopathic or sadistic dispositions prior to the Nazi era. Nor is there any evidence that many participated out of fear or coercion.
Even when explicitly given a chance to opt out, most recruits went on to participate in killing and torture. Out of the 500 ordinary men in Germany who were recruited to do roundups of the 1,800 Jews in the village of Józefów, only fifteen decided not to participate after being told by Major Wilhelm Trapp that they were to shoot the woman, children and the elderly but could step aside if they didn’t want to be part of the killing…
The Germans who voluntarily signed up to do roundups or work at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Dachau and other concentration camps where the inmates were killed in gas chambers or used as human guinea pigs in sadistic medical experiments came from all social classes and trades. Recruits for camps and battalions included soldiers, police officers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, train engineers, factory workers and academics…
While military-trained people were in command of the camps, ordinary Germans executed the actual atrocities. People who had previously lived side by side with Jews, willingly carried out, assisted with or facilitated sadistic human experimentation.
The article has many examples, and in searching for explanation, the author notes that simply the existence of dehumanizing stereotypes didn’t explain behaviors so vicious that the vast majority of Hitler’s executioners would not willingly have subjected their pet dogs to them.
The difference was a hatred with a much longer, deeper history. The majority of German citizens had been conditioned to hate Jews. They had been taught that the Jews had destroyed the economy, that Jews were secretly scheming to destroy non-Jewish Germans and enact a Communist coup.
They “had been mentally prepared for the ugly war long before it started.”
Since well before the Revolutionary War, a large number of Americans have been similarly socialized into racism. Today, they are constantly being told–by Fox News, by their friends on Facebook, their compatriots in QAnon, often even in their churches– that the demographic shifts we are experiencing are a threat not just to their continued dominance, but to the very survival of their way of life. The election of Obama electrified them–and not in a good way.
This is the parallel that causes my angst, my concern that well-meaning, good-hearted admonitions to “reach out” and “try to understand” may be self-destructively naive.
America’s original and persistent sin is racism. It’s our fertile soil, just as Europe’s long history of anti-Semitism nourished and fertilized the Final Solution.
Since the advent of ubiquitous cellphone cameras, we’ve had evidence that–as Sinclair Lewis warned us–it absolutely could happen here.