How America Came to Accept the Unacceptable

“If you ever wondered how Germans went about their daily lives, you know now.”

I am of a family that had to choose whether to leave Germany as Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Though disenfranchised and intimidated by the street assaults and arsons, most of my relatives chose to wait out the savagery. Decent people in Germany surely would come to their senses soon and the fever would break.

All but two of those relatives disappeared in 1943, gassed and burned.

And I am of an American generation that believed It Can’t Happen Here. We have checks and balances. We have the vote. We’re one of the world’s oldest democracies. Fundamentally, we are a good and decent people.

Something seems to have gone wrong. We still have checks and balances and decent people all around us, yet some of them — Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, transgender, Baltimoreans (huh?) and Jews — find themselves the targets of shooters, slurs, media and conspiracy theorists’ threats and constant trolling. White supremacists and yahoos shoot up churches, malls, temples, mosques, schools and theaters. They run over protesters.

In our civilized, law-abiding country, there were 251 mass shootings in the first 216 days of 2019. The-all-too depressing Gun Violence Archive’s body count was 253 by August 4th. There were 7175 “hate crimes” In 2017 (the latest data available). The FBI says 4131 were motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry. Another 1,564 were religious hate crimes. Of those, 58.1% were anti-Jewish, 18.7% anti-Muslim, and 4.5% anti-Catholic. The remaining 18.7% of religious hate crimes were directed against the remainder of the ecumenical freedoms the nation used to pride itself on.

And we find ourselves under a regime that builds concentration camps, encourages violence against groups of its citizens, successfully demonizes black and brown people as “the other,” exempts itself from laws it dislikes, arms agents to round up certain classes of residents, frees favored industrial classes to pump poisons into the environmental commons, and orders wholesale bans people of certain faiths, political tastes, color, medical needs and sexual orientation. It kidnaps children. It does all these things, moreover, in defiance of established public will.

By what definition are such things not like my relatives’ Germany in the 1930s?

Life among the 55%. Ordinary citizens and columnists and contributors to this blog loudly decry all that. Polls suggest some 55% of America’s voters are worried, if not panicked. That leaves something like 45% of the adult population denying, tolerating, justifying and/or applauding horrendous things.

Most citizens quite reasonably look to the next election for relief. But that well might be poisoned. Russia already has tried to hack voting machines in all 50 states and may even be capable of altering individual ballots. Unelected, anonymous rich people control politicians’ messaging (and voting). Perhaps even worse, our own governors and secretaries of state have been barring voters most likely to want to do something about the outrages. Fourteen states had fresh voting restrictions in place, generally aimed at culling minorities from voting rolls, during the 2016 presidential election. They included the swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin. Since then, 10 more have either adopted new or strengthened previous restrictions, according to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. All are designed to tilt the outcome to the current regime.

Some of us, it’s true, march. Statistically, however, the tactic seems to be losing favor as well as its effectiveness. Perhaps it indicates some Fatigue of the Worried. The 87 anti-Trump demonstrations Wikipedia lists in 2017 dwindled to nine in 2018. It lists two so far in 2019, the most recent being in June in London. While that’s certainly an under-count of anti-Administration protests and marches, these shows of force clearly haven’t slowed any regime’s momentum.

And all of the 55%, I’m sure, hope other decent people next door or in the government or unaffiliated with a party will come to their senses.

As Steve Silberman, a reporter and author of books about autism and (soon) cystic fibrosis, recently tweeted: “If you ever wondered how Germans went about their daily lives, now you know.”

Can white supremacists win? No reasonable observer gives them a chance.

They have, however, won before. Given the chaos cited above, there’s an argument they already have.

In Germany, the bad guys ultimately won enough people to their side on a wave of rising expectations. Like today’s United States, the economy was the starter gun to get decent people to accept the unacceptable. The Nazi regime’s popularity rose with it. In January 1933, when Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor, Germany was destitute and dismembered, financially ravaged by the first world war, inflation and then global economic depression. German culture itself had turned lurid. Official corruption was more or less an expectation. Food and housing were scarce. The crime rate was high.

The struggles of daily life loomed far larger than anything as abstract as liberty. Enough people — not a majority — agreed the most important step toward restoring order was ending disorder.

To Adolph Hitler, that meant cleansing the nation of domestic — he called them “racial” — enemies and minorities. Top among Hitler’s enemies was the Jewish “bacillus,” although Roma, gay, mentally ill, communist, liberal, clerical and other German “bacilli” needed to be included. Rid Germany of those “infections” and “infestations,” and Germany would be great again.

It no doubt sounded crazy to most, and Germans certainly did not view the street violence required by this wholesale “cleansing” with any glee. Many were intimidated by it and uncertain what to do about it. It remained absurd that upstanding leaders would let political disagreements with rival political parties (in those days, Social Democrats, the Centre Party and the Communists) devolve into street violence. Hitler, in fact, condemned some of it. But as The Coming of the Third Reich put it, dog whistles “couched in rhetoric… helped persuade a growing number of middle- and even some upper-class Germans that Hitler… was not really responsible for the blood shed by the brownshirts in the streets.”

Meanwhile, Hitler dismantled the republic itself with astounding speed. He came to power in January 1933. By April, he had co-opted the industrial class with big state contracts, opened his first concentration camp, purged the police and the judiciary, taken over the press, imposed the first anti-Semitic laws and driven opponents from the Reichstag, Germany’s federal legislature.

On the other hand, prosperity was returning. Hitler applied stimulus after stimulus to boost the economy. He ordered massive federal social and infrastructure spending not unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

His deficit spending was not just on the military, but on the Autobahn, railroads, canals and housing. He dramatically increased employment by expanding government agencies. Like Roosevelt’s, Hitler’s spending subsidized theater and the arts. He built sports fields and schools and, to encourage young couples to spend and goose the economy, distributed a “marriage bonus.”

By 1938, Germany was at full employment. Gross weekly earnings (at least for gentile, quiet, convincingly heterosexual citizens) were up 21 percent from 1933. Decades later the British historian Niall Ferguson would write that German workers “were better off in real as well as nominal terms” than other European workers during the latter years of the 1930s.

(Roosevelt’s efforts at public spending, by contrast, generally failed. By 1938 the system’s checks and balances — Congress and the judiciary — had undone much of his Administration’s version of economic stimulus, and the United States’ unemployment rate had ballooned again, this time to 19 percent. FDR also lacked Hitler’s growing pool of slave labor to allay recovery’s costs. “The recession of 1937–38 is sometimes called ‘the recession within the Depression,’” economist Douglas Irwin wrote. “It was a disastrous setback to the recovery.”)

By then prosperity had blinded even once-appalled Germans to the state’s accelerating cruelties. It was transporting people it considered mentally ill to “hospitals,” and killed them in the name of racial purity and eugenics. Dachau, the first concentration camp, was morphing into a holding pen largely for Jews. Germany was murdering political opponents in its new colonies in Austria and Czechoslovakia. There, too, it took the enslaved and the dead’s wealth as its own.

To purify the home front, the regime banished offending words and science from textbooks. It disenfranchised “bacilli” and organized a nationwide arson and vandalism attack on Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes. The bankrupting, evictions and erasure of the citizenship of its remaining Jewish citizens accelerated. In 1938 one of my relatives — the father of a family of four — was taken from his home in Bremen and sent to a work camp.

Prosperity and security did not, in short, compromise support for unimaginable cruelty. They solidified it.

In the days after a good jobs report in July, President Trump’s approval rating popularity hit 45%, his highest ever. As of this writing, the U.S. itself is in the 11th year of economic growth. Many of us, after all, are getting by. Some are even getting more prosperous.

That leaves about 55 percent of the voting public to retain some faith that the concentration camps, the treatment of “inferior” and “infectious” Muslim and Latino “bacilli,” the mass deportations, the regime’s legal immunities, the suppression of opponents’ voting, the censorship of science, and the caging of impoverished humans will end soon.

There’s hope, too, that the 146 overtly branded conservative federal judges the regime has quickly put in place will veer away from decisions that robotically favor the regime. And it could be that the political convenience and wild hypocrisies in the federal legislatures will stop this horrifying descent into life beyond the consent of the governed ... Or not.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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