Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Taking Goldhagen Seriously

A great deal of my FB feed of late is taken up with a steady stream of articles, memes, and statements around one argument: that Donald Trump is politically akin to Adolf Hitler, so much so that we should be worried about the United States slipping from democracy to fascism or some other form of nationalist authoritarianism.

Like all historical analogies (and especially like all instances of Godwin's Law), this one tends towards confirmation bias - people see the similarities and discount the differences. It seems material, for example, that Adolf Hitler had by the early 1930's a thoroughly developed political ideology, which he had written out in book form, whereas Donald Trump appears to have no coherent ideology and has never written a book on his own in his life. The former was an ascetic vegetarian, the latter a sybarite with enormous appetites.

While this exercise is intellectually interesting, it doesn't get at the important question: how likely is the United States to change from a functioning democracy to an authoritarian regime of some sort? Focusing on the election of a particular leader is one piece of the puzzle, but it misses other important variables.

If we are insistent on using Hitler's Nazi Germany as the yardstick, then we need to look seriously at that case and not merely at simplified versions of it. In particular, I think we need to take seriously the argument put forward some twenty years ago by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen's work should be required reading for anybody who wants to use Nazi Germany as an analogy, not because he is necessarily right (he may be) but because he tells a very different story about how the Nazi regime worked. Our simplified American story is that Hitler and a small group of fanatically committed followers were able to take over the German political system and turn it the Nazi regime we know today by a combination of repression, intimidation, and keeping people in the dark. The "cause" of Nazi Germany is reduced to Hitler and his immediate inner circle, which absolves the rest of the population of responsibility. This story also raises the specter of the same thing happening here against our (the people's) will.

Goldhagen's book turns this story on its head. He argues that the Nazi regime succeeded because, and only because, a large majority of the German population actually agreed with its aims (in particular, the racial purification of the country) - hence the title, "Willing Executioners". In his work, Goldhagen casts serious doubt on parts of our standard story, in particular that Germans were kept in the dark about the Holocaust and didn't know what was going on.

Goldhagen's work raises a serious question: to what extent is the acquiescence if not enthusiastic participation of the population a necessary condition to a nationalist authoritarian regime? Leaving aside the details of Goldhagen's argument, this is the fundamental issue - are the feelings of the population a relevant variable in enabling a fascist government?

I think that the answer to this question must be "yes". Authoritarian governments have maintained their status through power and intimidation, against the will of the population - East Germany and North Korea come to mind - but these cases tend to be governments established in time of war, when force of arms was sufficient to shape a new political order. The Nazi example is so compelling to us precisely because Hitler didn't conquer Germany, he got elected (albeit by 1/3 of the population, at least initially).

There is no reasonable scenario under which the US government will be overthrown by force and our new political order established by military might. For all of its lumps, our current structure of government is our starting point. And if Goldhagen's hypothesis holds any water, it will be very difficult - perhaps even impossible - to turn that structure into an authoritarian one, whatever an elected leader may say.

It is clear that at this point that there is no ideology that commands the loyalty of the majority of Americans, largely because we are mostly tribal and post-ideological in our politics. Donald Trump has, as of this moment, a 40% approval rating - lower by 1/3 than George W. Bush's at the same point relative to his inauguration in 2001, and that was after the most contentious election in modern US history.

Because the internet has provided a megaphone to anyone who wants one, we can easily confuse volume and shrillness for strength. Our enemies (on whichever side we think they may be) seem large and terrifying. But if you're looking for a constituency ready to support a Trump authoritarianism, I suspect that (despite their loudness and shrillness) you're not looking at very many people.

I've argued before that Presidents aren't Gods. We ascribe far too much importance, and far greater power, to the office than it actually has, even in modern times as successive Presidents have used a dysfunctional Congress to expand the Executive reach. Donald Trump cannot turn the United States into a fascist country. Only we can do that. And I don't see any indications that Americans are willing to do so.

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