Monument to the Men of the German Resistance Executed at the Bendlerstrasse Headquarters of the German Army on the Night of July 20th 1944
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I have been writing a lot of late about the ordinary men who helped carry out Hitler’s genocide as well as those who opposed the Hitler regime and very often paid with their lives. Having been to the sites where some were executed and others exterminated the reality of how this happens, how ordinary men and women can become become perpetrators of violence is all too real.
I was reminded of the importance of why I write after I read conservative columnist Michael Gerson’s article in the Washington Post yesterday.
“Fascism may not describe what Trump has done, as opposed to what he says. But what he says matters and can create its own dangerous dynamic. It is possible for a leader to be incompetent and still profoundly corrupt the people who follow him, undermining the virtues — tolerance, civility and compromise — that make democratic self-government work. It is possible for a foolish leader to leave the imprint of fascism on a portion of his followers. And the language used by Trump — particularly a certain racially tinged nostalgia and a tribal resentment for the other — strikes me as at a higher level of prominence and acceptance than at any time I can remember. So maybe, rather than fearing a fascist dictator, we should fear the legitimacy of fascist modes of thought in the Republican Party.
This is a more complex danger than most talk of fascism generally suggests. But it is a danger nonetheless.”
Gustave Gilbert, who served as a psychologist to the major Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg noted that in his observation and discussions with them he had to deal with the nature of evil. He had to find the common thread among them that allowed them to take part in the most horrific crimes against humanity conducted by an allegedly civilians, western and Christian country. He noted that in his dealings with them they had one thing in common, they had no empathy for their victims. He said, “evil is the absence of empathy.” The common psychological term for a person who cannot empathize with other people is a sociopath. That is what are President is. It is a trait that he shares with the vilest criminals of the Twentieth Century. Many of his followers seem to share that attribute. You can see it in their words and in their actions.
At a campaign rally the President praised a Congressman from Montana who assaulted a reporter just before the 2016 elections and the crowd cheered its approval. As they cheered Trump said: “Any guy that can do a body slam … he’s my guy.” Then he acted out a motion of a person violently throwing someone to the ground, and the crowd continued to cheer. Though he has repeatedly attacked and mocked the press, it was the first time that he praised and openly condoned the attack on a reporter, and it came at a time when he has not condemned the brutal murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul Turkey last week.
Trump being who he is I expect that, but for the crowd to applaud it showed the deep moral rot in the Republican Party. It is troubling because it reflects something far more dangerous which could actually bring about a Fascist type takeover of the U.S. Government.
And one event in particular could quickly heighten that danger. Consider what American politics would look like if Republicans — against all odds and expectations — were to keep the Senate and House. There might be many explanations for such a result — exceptional economic conditions, bad Democratic strategy, the rallying effect of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh among Republicans — but we know how the president would interpret it. He would regard such a victory as the complete vindication — the stamp of national approval — on his entire approach to politics.
All the last remaining opposition in the GOP would melt, and many of his supporters would be calling for retribution against enemies and traitors. The whole leadership of the FBI and Justice Department — anyone who ever displeased him — would be at immediate risk of replacement. Trump would take his victory as permission for even more brutal treatment of migrants. More generally, a leader with no commitment to the separation of powers, with no respect for the traditional self-restraints of the presidency, with savage disdain for the free press, with an admiration for authoritarians, with a history of menacing individuals and companies by name, and with a talent for division and dehumanization would feel unbound.
The boor, the bluffer, the bully would be a political colossus. Then the language of fascism might become less theoretical. Then alarmism would be realism.
As I thought of these things last night I was reminded of the words of Hannah Arendt: “When evil is allowed to compete with good, evil has an emotional populist appeal that wins out unless good men and women stand as a vanguard against abuse.”
Now honestly I don’t think that the majority of Trump supporters are themselves evil or even bad people. But that being said I do believe that quite a few of the, perhaps a majority of them have surrendered to taking the path of least resistance and looking out for what they think are their interests first, even if the result of their decisions hurt people who are much like them.
As Arendt said, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
That is what we are watching happen before our very eyes. Some might claim ignorance, or claim that they are non-political and are in no position to judge the morality of this President and his administration, but that is the refuge of the coward. Karl Popper noted “Ignorance is not a simple lack of knowledge but an active aversion to knowledge, the refusal to know, issuing from cowardice, pride, or laziness of mind.”
The fact is that today, like in Germany between 1933 and 1945 no one can claim ignorance about the nature and character of our President, but if they don’t know it is simply cause they do not want to know, and for those in positions of authority who turn a blind eye, what Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and later armaments minister wrote “…being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences…”
It is lack of empathy, an active aversion to truth, shunning knowledge, and perhaps worse, a refusal to know when in a position to know which allow people to look the other way in the face of evil and injustice.